We need to see the Gitmo proceedings

Friday, January 4, 2013

As things now stand, Americans will not be able to see TV coverage of upcoming 9/11-related trials from Guantanamo Bay.

The situation is regrettable — but easily remedied.

A military judge this week said he had no authority to override an earlier decision by the Department of Defense that denied requests by the defense attorneys for the accused and by and news-related groups to televise the trials. In late November, the Pentagon said it would provide ample transparency for the proceedings through news coverage, a remote viewing site at Fort Meade, Md., and a website that posts transcripts of the pre-trial proceedings within 24 hours of hearings.

A closed-circuit, live video feed will be sent to Fort Meade and a few other military installations in the U.S.

The trials of five accused 9/11 conspirators is expected to take place in about a year, before the commission sitting at the high-security U.S. base on the tip of Cuba. The base is used for the detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists.

Yes, presumably there are concerns about disclosures of the identities of confidential informants or law enforcement officers, or of arrest or surveillance tactics. But the same concerns are successfully dealt with daily at trials conducted in state courtrooms across the country.

And yes, there are the general concerns about a fair trial that have dogged “cameras in the courtroom” discussions since TV came around. Cameras will be intrusive, it’s said, attorneys and judges will “play to the audience” and jurors will be distracted if not intimidated as they wonder how they’ll be perceived by family and friends.

Well, there already will be cameras present, it seems, for that video feed. So where’s the added intrusion in wider access? Zip. And there’s scant evidence from years of state court experience that an audience beyond the courtroom will lead lawyers or a judge astray.

The secrecy surrounding Gitmo’s overall operation, persistent questions worldwide about interrogation tactics, lingering conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks, differences between this tribunal and regular courtrooms, and just plain government accountability — all are reasons to provide the nation with the most transparent of courtrooms. Taken all together, these factors should provide overwhelming impetus to the commission and the Department of Defense to find a way to bring television coverage to the nation’s citizens.

I have one more concern about televised trials, a personal one based on years as a journalist reporting on court proceedings. Because few viewers, if any, will watch all of the testimony and all pre-trial arguments and such, many will miss important witnesses or the accumulation of tiny bits of evidence that knit together to prove or disprove criminal charges. Hours of numbing, detailed testimony and examination about laboratory findings or data-mining is light-years away from  the slick, quick justice of “Law and Order” or “CSI” — but may well be the hinges upon which a jailhouse door swings shut.

We ought not to miss this spectacular chance to show Americans and the world that terrorists can be held accountable in a court of law, that due process works to the advantage of both defendant and prosecutor — and to have those messages come to doubting nations via a free press, unencumbered by a government’s potential self-interest in hiding possible flaws, missteps or unanswered questions.

As much as I appreciate the skill and accuracy of the journalists who will be reporting on the Guantanamo proceedings, this is one courtroom where “seeing is believing” is not an old saying, but both an opportunity and a necessity.

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