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Obama Administration Limits Access to Guantanamo, Raising Transparency Questions

In the run-up to the presumed closure of Guantanamo Bay, the Obama administration has tightened access to the detention camps and made it tougher for reporters to speak with the guards and prisoners at the site. 

The adjustments come as the administration struggles to follow through on its pledge to shutter the controversial Cuba-based facility by January, a deadline officials acknowledge might not be met. 

But some question the decision to rein in access -- since the administration ran on a platform of transparency. 

American Civil Liberties Union Director Anthony Romero said the access problems grate against the administration's pledges.

"It's frustrating," Romero told FOX News during an interview at the Navy base. 

He said his organization has never been allowed inside the detention camps -- not under the Bush or Obama administrations -- but suggested that he was expecting more access since Jan. 20. 

"Especially now in light of the Obama administration saying they wish to have greater transparency, it's more than a bit ironic that members of the press are now being denied access to the camps when they had it before under President Bush," he said. 

The beat reporters who routinely cover the military commissions at the base used to be invited on military-planned side trips to the detention camps when court was not in session. The trips allowed journalists to film, photograph and write about conditions inside. 

That is no longer the case. Several sources told FOX News the decision to discontinue the trips came from Washington and the Pentagon

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman offered a brief explanation when asked about the decision-making process. 

"Past experience has led me to believe it is best to keep these visits focused on the purpose of trip, which in this case is military commission motions," he said in an e-mail. 

Sources told FOX News that one possible trigger for the decision could be reporters' interaction with Chinese Muslims known as Uighurs during a May visit to Camp Iguana. 

At that time, the 17 detainees were cleared for release and were being housed in a separate, minimum-security camp. During the visit by FOX News reporters and other journalists, two of the detainees held up offensive messages -- including references to Hitler -- scrawled on their government-issued art pads and questioned on camera whether President Obama was "a Communist or a Democrat." 

They questioned whether Obama was oppressing them like the Chinese because they had not been released four months after the president promised to close the detention camps at Guantanamo. 

Sources said the incident was highly embarrassing for the Pentagon and the White House, which was feverishly trying to find a home for them. 

Since that media visit, no more trips to the camp have been offered to the beat reporters. While reporters were taken to all of the detention camps in May, press trips in July and early September did not include any tours of the detention camps. 

Some news organizations, including FOX News, were discouraged from making the latest trip to Guantanamo in September because military officials insisted nothing of note would happen at the commission hearings and no tours of the camps were planned. 

The Defense Department now recommends that beat reporters book separate trips as opposed to lumping in visits to the camps during coverage of the military commissions. But since the added expense and time commitment associated with separate trips can be prohibitive, coverage of Guantanamo has diminished. 

Romero said it's important to continue to press for access at Guantanamo. 

"I think especially the media," he said. "I can understand why they don't want a number of outsiders perhaps traipsing through the camps. But members of the media have an important role to play in informing the American public on whether or not the conditions of confinement are actually humane, and asking the questions, seeing with their very own eyes."

Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.