Guantanamo Reporting 101: Consent to Monitoring
The stickers on our media room phones are new. Or new since I was last here at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba 10 months ago.
They read: "Use of this telephone constitutes consent to monitoring."
Of course, when you come to a place like Gitmo, you have to presume nothing you say is private, and in light of recent disclosures on the widespread NSA monitoring, perhaps Pentagon snooping on journalists here elicits no more than a shrug.
But somehow seeing that red and white sticker still feels jarring and indicative of the larger challenges for covering Guantanamo. Journalists have come here since 2002, so why has taken 11 years to warn us our phone calls are not ours alone?
Last year we were here when Washington's appeals court overturned the first Guantanamo war crimes conviction against Yemeni Salim Hamdan, once a driver for Osama bin Laden. I had interviewed Hamdan in Sanaa in 2009 and wanted to hear his reaction to the ruling. But how to phone him from here? I was wary to call any Arabic translators who I sometimes work with, not wanting to risk their privacy on a Gitmo call.
In the end, I finally reached Hamdan on my Canadian cell phone, which picked up Cuban service just outside Guantanamo's airstrip on the Leeward side of the base. With Hamdan on speakerphone and a translator working here with one of the lawyers generously offering to help, we got the interview. Thus a Canadian number on Cubacel was calling Yemen from Guantanamo.
The cell remains off this trip, unable to pick up a signal, and with the potential of astronomical roaming charges.
This is my 26th Guantanamo trip.
Our media contingent for this week's hearings against the five detainees accused of orchestrating the 9/11 attacks is a combination of veterans and first timers, a good mix of fresh eyes and experienced ones.
Before any of us board the flight here from Andrews Air Force base, we must sign the Pentagon's ground rules. If you want to get on the plane, you sign the rules. Other restrictions are described once you arrive and they seem to vary trip to trip.
It's the rules on photography which are often the most frustrating. There's a reason why many of the photos you see are of barbed wire and sunrises. Here's a past blog about why, and my joy at being able to finally put faces to some of the detainees: http://thestar.blogs.com/worlddaily/2013/02/putting-a-face-to-a-guantanamo-photo.html.
We were told Sunday when we arrived that this time we could photograph the coastline and "golf balls" (presumably they are, or were, what's known as 'radomes' which collect signals intelligence). Those were no-no's before, despite the fact that Google Earth pretty much shows you the layout of this base.
On the ferry leading to the U.S. Naval base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba's windward side Aug. 18, 2013. The photo was Pentagon-reviewed and cleared for release. MICHELLE SHEPHARD / TORONTO STAR.
Not sure why this rule has changed.
When artist Janet Hamlin was here in June, suddenly the stadium glasses she used in court to view the accused were banned. She had used them for three years, and fought for a few years before to get that right. The reason given was that "ocular amplification" was not allowed in these war crimes courts.
A sign inside the courtroom gallery now states: "No binoculars or other visual enhancement devices." Underneath are the "Drawing, Sketching, Doodling Etc. Rules."
There were no restrictions on the pens or notebooks we could bring into court Monday, which there have been in the past. I have been here for hearings during the one-pen rule, the military-issue-only-pen rule and the-no-spiral-notebook-rule.
The rules are not the fault of the public affairs officers - our constant companions -
who come highly recommended this trip. They have their job to do too,
and are given the restrictions they must enforce, which change slightly with each rotation.
This is just the reality of reporting on pre-trial hearings for the 9/11 trial - dubbed by some lawyers as the "trial of the century." It's the reality of being here when some of the journalists, and the detainees, are the constants as others come and go.
But the fact is, sometimes you end up thinking here more about how to do the job, than doing it.
Michelle Shephard is the Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recipient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm