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December 13, 2004

How TNS Journo Looked Beyond Gitmo Smoke and Mirrors

As you might imagine, we here at TNS are plugged into the news 24/7. We even listen to it in our sleep. It’s important for us to know not only what’s going on, but how the other media, both in the corporate and alternative worlds, are reporting events. Every once in a while, we hear a story reported so badly that the reporting itself becomes a story. See for instance: "American Sikhs Shocked by ‘Inflammatory’ AP Article" by Kari Lydersen.

That’s what I thought would happen when we first started researching for the story published last week: Catriona Stuart’s "Rights Groups Say Gitmo’s ‘Legal Black Hole’ Creates Security Problems."

We began looking to this issue because of an AP story published in mid-October about how at least seven former detainees had "returned to terrorism" after their release from the US Military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. When I first read the story, a million questions came to mind. First, the AP reporters who wrote the story seemed to get most of their information from a Lt. Cmdr. Flex Plexico, Pentagon spokesperson. Second, while claiming at the beginning of the article that there were at least seven renewed terrorists released from Gitmo, the article only really gives details about two former US prisoners who had apparently engaged in violence since their release: one as a terrorist, the other as a Taliban soldier.

There are another two individuals named in the story: a fellow in Denmark who has said he wants to go join the fight in Chechnya and a man in Sweden, who authorities there say is being monitored and is not a threat. It’s unclear whether these two are supposed to be part of the seven mentioned in the AP’s lead. If they are, it’s pretty atrocious reporting because obviously neither of them has engaged in violence since his release. If the AP was just mentioning them as a side note, that’s also bad reporting because it’s not explained in the article why they are mentioned.

(It’s worth pointing out that saying you want to join a separatist struggle in Chechnya does not necessarily mean you want to engage in terrorism there. The same could be said for a Taliban fighter. Most Taliban fighters -- while somewhat allied, it seems, with Al-Qaeda -- are not engaging in terrorism, but are fighting a more conventional guerilla war. One can have equal contempt for both, but the distinction is important.)

Anyway, needless to say, this article left us very confused and suspicious. It seemed to us that Pentagon spokespeople, who were used as sources for most of the information in the article, might be feeding this unsubstantiated story to the press in order to justify keeping people locked up at Guantánamo, and the reporters were just running with it. It also seemed to us that there might be a serious policy flaw in the Guantánamo release process.

The only thing clear about the story was that it needed to be further investigated by someone a bit more aggressive. So we assigned the story to Catriona Stuart, one of our very competent NYC-based journalists.

Catriona started by calling the AP reporters who broke the story, trying to get as much information from them about their sources, how they corroborated facts, etc.

Then she went after "Flex" Plexico, who seemed to be the Pentagon spokesperson at the center of it all (and, we could not help noting, sounded like he might also be masterminding a plot to capture Spiderman -- though nothing panned out on that trail). We had some specific questions we wanted answered by Plexico. It was our belief that if the Pentagon wanted to float this story, they needed to substantiate it somehow and answer our numerous concerns. For instance, we wanted to know how Plexico knew the people in question had "returned" to violence, rather than engaged in it for the first time after being released from what are widely known to be horrifying and torturous conditions at Guantánamo.

Plexico, a savvy spokesperson, did not answer that question. You see, either way he had answered it, the US would not look good.

If he had answered that there was not evidence of their involvement in violence before their initial detention by the US, then it might mean the conditions at Guantánamo are driving some detainees to pick up arms upon their release.

Whereas, if he said they were sure the people had been engaged in violence before hand, then the next question would naturally have to be, ‘Why did the US release them?’

After getting very little from Plexico, Catriona started calling some of the human rights groups that have been critical of the US’s Guantánamo policies to see what they had to say in response to the whole thing.

Meanwhile, a Washington Post article came out on the topic. This article was much better written and better sourced than its AP counterpart. The Post, to its credit, was more careful about not throwing around the word "terrorism." Its journalist also did a lot more research and work to corroborate stories of former Guantánamo detainees who have been killed or captured with the Taliban or engaged in terrorism. Nevertheless, although the source attribution for that piece was much better than that of the AP’s story, most of the sources were still anonymous and the Post still relied heavily on unnamed government officials.

While clearing up some of our questions, the Post’s article and conversations with places like the Center for Constitutional Rights and Human Rights Watch helped get us to the real story: that by keeping the Guantánamo detainees in a legal black hole, the government had backed themselves in a legal black hole of its own.

The Bush administration has been forced to defend its detainment policies using questionable and untested legal opinions, instead of relying on international norms, which US courts and other countries’ governments were more likely to understand and respect.

Under international law, the US can legally detain and try people who are suspected to have been involved in war crimes, international terrorism or other violations. But instead of giving detainees trials and locking away anyone proven to be dangerous, the Bush administration decided to hold those captured in a sort of legal limbo, without trials, without rights, and without humane conditions.

By doing that, the US made itself vulnerable to justified pressure and outrage from human rights groups, US courts and international governments. And instead of deciding who to release based on fair trials where evidence and testimony is considered, the administration has created sham Combatant Status Review Tribunals, which are not recognized by US courts as legitimate.

If, as result, the US is making mistakes and letting dangerous international criminals out of its prison, that is a bed of its own making.

The other interesting tidbit that came up as a result of our conversations with international lawyers is a reminder that it is not illegal for people to fight in war. As long as a combatant adheres to the rules of war and fights other armed soldiers, they cannot be tried and punished. They can be detained until the war is over, but they must be released when the conflict ends.

This bears pointing out because the administration’s policies and the media’s reporting of them have created an atmosphere in the US where it seems perfectly justified to hold indefinitely as criminals Taliban troops who were captured while battling international forces during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. But if that were the case, it would be OK for foreign governments to detain indefinitely US soldiers who are legally engaged in defending their own country from foreign invasion or threat.

For those whose main concern in these conflicts is the well-being of American troops, take heed: in refusing to classify Taliban soldiers as "prisoners of war" and treat them accordingly, the US government is setting the stage for members of its own armed forces to become the victims of similar policies.

Now, it may be the case that none of the above is news to you. But I would be willing to venture that most Americans did not know any of this. Sometimes progressives blame American ignorance of current events on apathy or general disinterest, albeit fostered by the corporate mass media. But in this case, what we see is the utter failure of mainstream news outlets to follow a story to its logical conclusions. In the race to be first to publish a news story that pleases advertisers, investors and government sources, so much is missed, glossed over, saved for a rainy day or downright distorted. It often takes a special eye to discern the real story and a special type of media organization to tell it properly.

That critical combination of an authentically curious and motivated journalist with a media outlet cautious enough to be patient yet daring enough to buck up against the mainstream version of current events is exactly what we strive to achieve at The NewStandard. Some days we hit the nail on the head. Other days we hit dead ends. But more and more we believe we are demonstrating the differences between ourselves and our corporate counterparts.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.