Editors at the Los Angeles Times and two other newspapers protested the Pentagon decision to expel their reporters Wednesday from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the journalists were reporting on the weekend suicides of three prisoners.
Journalists from The Times, the Miami Herald and the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer had received permission from the prison's commander to be at the U.S. facility, where terrorism suspects are held and interrogated. The three reporters and an Observer photographer left the island Wednesday on orders from the Pentagon.
A civilian spokeswoman at the Pentagon said the reporters had to leave because at least five other news outlets wanted to cover the suicides but did not get permission from Guantanamo commanders.
"The Defense Department wants to be fair and impartial," said spokeswoman Cynthia Smith. "We got them on the next flight out of Guantanamo Bay to be fair to the rest of the media outlets that did not get a chance to go down there."
Smith said the reporters could not all be granted access to the prison because Guantanamo military personnel were preoccupied with investigating the suicides and enhancing security, and would not have had time to supervise more journalists. She said the other journalists worked for Reuters, the Associated Press, CNN and two British newspapers.
But the three newspapers that had reporters at Guantanamo to cover the suicides said the military should be doing everything possible to increase public knowledge about the prison.
"Expelling Carol Williams and her colleagues represents a Stone Age attitude that only feeds suspicions about what is going on at Guantanamo," said Los Angeles Times Managing Editor Doug Frantz. "If the military hierarchy has nothing to hide, it should have respected the invitation extended by the [prison] commander and the professionalism of the journalists."
The military's 4 1/2 -year detention of terrorism suspects at the U.S. military facility in Cuba has been criticized by American allies and human rights groups.
The military reported Saturday that three prisoners had hanged themselves in their cells. The deaths led the military to cancel a hearing scheduled to begin two days later for an Ethiopian detainee. At least seven journalists, including Times reporter Carol J. Williams and Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg, had planned to cover that Monday hearing; the Pentagon's Washington-based press operatives who grant access to such hearings revoked permission.
But The Times and Miami Herald reporters were already preparing to leave Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Saturday afternoon on a small commercial plane when the Pentagon Office of Military Commissions revoked their travel authorization.
So both reporters requested and received permission to cover the suicides from Navy Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., commander of the military's Joint Task Force Guantanamo, and were able to proceed.
Charlotte Observer reporter Michael Gordon and photographer Todd Sumlin were already at the base, working on a profile of a prison official from North Carolina.
On Sunday, the three reporters began conducting interviews, including one with Southern Command chief John Craddock, a four-star Army general, who came to the prison to review the deaths.
The other journalists, who had planned to fly Sunday to the prison, apparently did not make a separate request for access through commanders at the prison. They were not allowed to proceed.
Spokeswoman Smith said the Pentagon and Southern Command would review the situation to determine how to avoid issuing conflicting directives to the media.