WASHINGTON – Legal experts criticized the Bush administration Wednesday for barring the news media from military hearings for 14 terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay.
The detainees include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"It's a mistake to close the entirety of the hearing," said First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams. "Closing the courtroom to scrutiny sends a troubling signal to much of the world about the fairness of our process."
"The whole world is watching," said Scott Silliman, who was an Air Force lawyer for 25 years. "If Congress enacts what it claims to be a fair system for prosecuting these people, why is there a need to shield it from the press?"
On Tuesday, the Pentagon said reporters will be kept out of the hearings, which begin Friday.
Responding to the criticism, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said the 14 detainees "include some of the world's most vicious terrorist operatives, including those alleged to have planned the attack of 9/11."
"Due to the nature of these individuals and the level of classification of the intelligence they possess, we are taking prudent measures to ensure that we can protect the nation," Gordon said.
News coverage of previous combatant status review tribunals — there were more than 550 between July 2004 and March 2005 — was not prohibited, although there were restrictions on some information.
The hearings are meant to determine whether a prisoner is an "enemy combatant." If the prisoner is deemed to be an enemy combatant, then President Bush can designate him as eligible for a military trial, the first of which are expected to begin this summer.
The hearings for the 14 formerly held in CIA prisons will be closed to the news media in order to protect national security interests that could be compromised by statements made by the detainees, the Pentagon said.
However, what the Pentagon is really concerned about is that "these 14 will open their mouths and say what was done to them," said Scott Horton, chair of the international law committee of the New York City Bar Association. "They were tortured and mistreated, and that fact is classified secret, which just shows you the perversity in which this whole process is traveling."
At the hearings, the legal burden is on the detainee to demonstrate he is not an unlawful combatant, the detainee does not have an attorney present, and classified evidence the U.S. military uses against the detainees is not revealed to them.
"There are already so many questions about the integrity of the CSRT process, and excluding the press doesn't help very much," said national security law expert Steve Vladeck at the University of Miami.