WASHINGTON — Faced with protests from a number of news organizations, the Pentagon is considering revising the rules it invoked in May to ban four reporters from covering the trials of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Defense Department said Thursday that reporters covering next week's scheduled military commission trial of Canadian Omar Khadr won't be barred from identifying one of his interrogators by name. Khadr is accused of throwing a hand grenade that killed a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan in July 2002.
More changes to the rules governing media coverage of trials at Guantanamo are under review, including the Defense Department's photography policies, which news organizations have complained are unduly restrictive.
"We're definitely committed to operational security concerns, as well as concerns for journalists to cover the hearings as best they can," said Tanya Bradsher, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense.
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Bradsher said the Pentagon moved swiftly to address the question of whether Army Sgt. Joshua Claus could be named because reporters are scheduled to travel to the base on Saturday for Khadr's trial, the first under the Obama administration's new military commission rules.
News organizations have protested as unconstitutional the Pentagon's May decision to bar four reporters from Guantanamo for naming Claus as Khadr's interrogator in stories written from Guantanamo.
Though he was described in court only as "Interrogator No. 1," Claus's name had been known for years after he gave a newspaper interview in Canada denying that he'd abused Khadr. An Army court martial also had convicted Claus of abusing detainees in Afghanistan and sentenced him to five months in prison.
The revision, which the Defense Department declined to put in writing and instead read to reporters, says that: "The following exception to policy only applies to the upcoming Military Commission trial of Omar Khadr and the identity of Interrogator No. 1.
"Due to his own actions, the Department of Defense no longer considers the publication of Interrogator No. 1's name, Joshua Claus, a violation of the Department of Defense media policy and ground rules for Guantanamo Bay," the department added.
"However, the Department of Defense cannot speak for the presiding authority or how he chooses to implement his protective orders for the trial."
News organizations including McClatchy, which owns The Miami Herald and 30 other newspapers, The Associated Press, Dow Jones, The New York Times, Thomson Reuters and The Washington Post had complained that the restriction was a "classic example" of "prior restraint" that "the Supreme Court repeatedly has refused to allow . . . even in the name of national security."
Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg, who was among the four banned journalists, said, "As a citizen, I do understand that governments do at times need to protect their secrets. But as I've said all along, our government cannot punish journalists for reporting information that is no longer secret."
Khadr claims that he was abused during his interrogation, and he's seeking to exclude the evidence gleaned from the questioning.
Reporters and editors for news organizations that cover Guantanamo met on Monday with Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson and other officials to discuss the ground rules and other restrictions on reporters covering Guantanamo. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Doug Wilson told the group that he was willing to consider changes in the rules.
"There is a working group as a result of the discussions," Bradsher said.
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