The Record Keeper

Carol Rosenberg owns the Guantánamo beat

2:55: First prisoner comes off. He is wearing a fluorescent orange jump suit, a shiny turquoise facemask, goggles, similar colored orange socks over white footwear, a brighter orange head cover that appeared to be a knit cap. His hands were manacled in front of him, and he limped. He was frisked and led by at least two Marines to the awaiting bus.

On January 11, 2002, the first twenty detainees landed at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. Their arrival was witnessed by a cluster of journalists who stood on a hill 400 yards from the runway. One of them was Carol Rosenberg, a military-affairs reporter for The Miami Herald. She helped write the pool report quoted above.

The Pentagon hadn’t wanted coverage of the prisoners’ arrival. The previous day, a small planeload of reporters had been
given a tour of the just-completed detention facility, with the understanding that they’d leave by sundown. But when the group realized that the first prisoners were already en route, Bob Franken of CNN refused to get on the outbound plane. The standoff ended with a compromise: half the journalists would be allowed to stay and write pool reports. No photography allowed.

As Rosenberg watched the detainees being led onto the tarmac, the import of the no-photography rule began to sink in. The Guantánamo prison site had been chosen in part because it was out of public view. Unlike almost every other story on the planet, this one would not be told primarily through images. She and her colleagues would have special responsibilities here. “It was a moment that every print reporter sort of yearns for,” Rosenberg says. “What we write is what the world will see.”

Eight and a half years later, in the summer of 2010, Rosenberg is sitting at a picnic table outside an aging hangar that has been converted into Guantánamo’s media operations center. In the early evening, reporters gather at this table to play cards and let off steam. It’s a lively, disputatious crew, but on questions of Guantánamo history, policy, and etiquette, Rosenberg receives a bit more deference than anyone else, because she has spent more hours on the base since 2002 than any other journalist.

She may, in fact, have outlasted every soldier, interrogator, and lawyer at Guantánamo. The base’s military personnel have turned over several times. Hundreds of prisoners have come and gone. But Rosenberg is still here. As much as any single person, she has been the keeper of the record of what has been one of the most controversial chapters in America’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11: the government’s experiment in detention-without-trial for the hundreds of men scooped up around the world for their alleged connections to al-Qaeda and other U.S. enemies.

“Carol’s daily accounts are what you need to read to understand Guantánamo 101,” says Karen Greenberg, executive director of New York University’s Center on Law and Security and the author of The Least Worst Place: Guantánamo’s First 100 Days. “She’s still the only person who can contextualize what’s going on. Carol has been the consistent presence.”

“Daily accounts” is the operative term here. Rosenberg’s corpus of writing on Guantánamo consists of hundreds of dispatches, few of them longer than 1,000 words. She rarely writes sweeping news analyses. She has not written a book about Guantánamo, and says she won’t even consider such a project until the detention center closes.

Instead, she has approached her work very much as a beat reporter. Sometimes that has meant covering breaking news about hunger strikes and suicides. Sometimes it has meant short features about the psychiatrists who help the camp guards with stress, or the minor celebrities who visit to perform for the troops. In recent years, it has often meant incremental stories about the proceedings of Guantánamo’s military commissions—the fledgling system under which certain detainees are being tried for violations of the laws of war.

But Guantánamo is not like most beats—not even most military beats. The basic task of reporting here is something that might have been scripted by Beckett. You spend most of your time thinking about prisoners (174 of them, as of this writing) who are nearby but at the same time out of reach. You rarely see them at close range, and you can never speak with them. The military’s guidelines for reporters are eternally in flux. Are trial documents made available to journalists covering the military commissions? Some weeks yes, some weeks no. If your photograph of the courthouse accidentally includes a smidgen of the structure next door, which isn’t permitted to be described, will the public-affairs officers force you to delete that image? Some weeks yes, some weeks no. Rosenberg’s time here has involved a long line of grinding, low-level conflicts about questions like those.

Twice in the last eighteen months, those conflicts boiled over into something bigger. In each case, it seemed possible that Rosenberg’s tenure at Guantánamo might come to an end. In the summer of 2009, a Pentagon public-affairs official publicly accused Rosenberg of sexual harassment and other unprofessional conduct. Then, in May of this year, Rosenberg and three Canadian reporters were banned from the base—temporarily, as it turned out—for allegedly violating a military commission’s protective order.

Those two episodes, as painful as they were, raised Rosenberg’s profile. She gave a blistering speech at the National Press Club this summer about media relations at Guantánamo. A few weeks later, the Society of Professional Journalists announced that she would receive its annual First Amendment Award.

“My editor at the Herald told me at the end of 2001 to come down here and stay until it’s over,” Rosenberg says. “It still isn’t.”

A Game of Inches

On August 7, Rosenberg and thirty-one other reporters assembled at Andrews Air Force Base for a flight to Guantánamo to cover the opening of the military-commission trial of Omar Khadr, a Canadian who was captured after a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002. Khadr has been charged with ambushing and killing a U.S. soldier in violation of the laws of war.

It was Rosenberg’s second trip to the base after her ban was lifted in July, and she was not in an acquiescent mood. Before boarding the flight at Andrews, each reporter was asked to sign the usual fourteen-page set of ground rules for covering military commissions. (Sample: “All direct or indirect contact, communication, interviews, photography, videography or other interaction with Cuban or Haitian migrant personnel on Naval Base Guantánamo Bay is expressly prohibited.”) But Rosenberg and two of her colleagues—Jess Bravin of The Wall Street Journal and Peter Finn of The Washington Post—added amendments beneath their signatures. Rosenberg’s read: “Without waiving my legal rights.”

After a series of phone calls, the verdict came down: those amendments would not be accepted. “We need a clean copy,” said Major Tanya Bradsher, the public-affairs official who coordinated the trip. The three reporters complied, but Rosenberg snapped a picture of her rejected version and posted it on her Twitter feed.

This kind of sparring between the press and their military minders defines the beat at Guantánamo. It is a frustrating game of inches.

Several hours after landing in Cuba—after being checked by bomb-sniffing dogs, waiting in line for badges, and riding a ferry across Guantánamo Bay—the reporters were herded into a briefing room. There a genial civilian, Efrain Malave, explained the base’s operational security rules: no photographs of the new courtroom complex. No photographs that reveal the layout of the tent city. No photographs of radar installations or guard towers. All photographs and video will be reviewed at the end of each day.

Then Brad Fagan, the commander of the public-affairs unit for the task force that operates the detention center, had something to add. “I want to clarify this point about doodling in the courtroom,” he said. “That is not forbidden, and it has never been forbidden. What you can’t do is sketch the courtroom.”

Later, several reporters returned to the media center to file curtain-raising stories in advance of Khadr’s trial. In many ways it’s a typical pressroom, except for this: the reporters are never alone. There is always at least one public-affairs officer in the room, and sometimes as many as five. And this: there is, effectively, nowhere else on the base where reporters can use the phone. “You can’t talk to a source without everyone else in the room hearing it,” Rosenberg says. She is quick to add that those aren’t the worst oppressions in the world, but she says they’re typical of the small things that make reporting from Guantánamo so draining.

Take the business of photo screening. Before the end of each day, reporters are expected to have all material on their cameras screened by public-affairs officers. The screening process takes place in an air-conditioned trailer parked in the middle of the hangar. There are typically two officers available to do the work, which can create serious lines at the end of the day when camera operators want to feed footage back to their newsrooms. If they see images that need to be deleted—say, because they show a detainee’s face or a secure facility—they’ll ask the reporter to sign a form that lists each file and the reason for deletion. The rule that Rosenberg and others find most vexing is that photos may not include images of the media badges that reporters are required to wear. (The fear, apparently, is that al-Qaeda would find a way to sneak onto the base by replicating those badges.) When attorneys or soldiers give press conferences, everyone hastily stuffs their media badges inside their shirts. Step away from that setting, however, and you’ll be in trouble for not displaying your badge.

Working the Fringes

Rosenberg is fifty-one, with shoulder-length hair that she tends to pull tightly back when she’s at Guantánamo. In conversation, she has a full toolkit. She can narrow her eyes, raise her chin, and be bulldog-skeptical. She can be warm. She can express open astonishment at some piece of bureaucratic mediocrity or deception, as if she were a fledgling reporter just discovering the ways of officialdom. Often she goes through multiple tones in the course of a single, long sentence: her voice will start off angry or enthusiastic then slowly drop into a husky, world-weary mode. And she can hit those notes without seeming phony or callow or theatrical. That kind of conversational range probably helps to explain some of her ability to cultivate sources.

At Guantánamo that ability is even more crucial than in most settings, because direct contact with sources is rare. Reporters’ movements on the base are heavily stage-managed, and during waking hours they’re almost never out of earshot of a public-affairs staff member. Rosenberg has done much of her work here by gaining the trust of attorneys, guards, medical workers, and other personnel—and then finding ways to communicate with them from Florida.

Rosenberg believes, for example, that she was the first reporter to learn that three detainees had committed suicide in June 2006. “Before dawn I got a phone call,” she says, “that said three prisoners had hanged themselves simultaneously. It wasn’t a person who would have had firsthand knowledge, but I made some calls and it was true. From that point forward I found this person’s tips unbelievably accurate.”

On the day she got the predawn phone call, Rosenberg had been scheduled to fly to Guantánamo to cover a military-commission hearing. The hearing was canceled, but Rosenberg and Carol Williams of the Los Angeles Times called and got permission to fly to Guantánamo anyway. Four days after they landed, however, the Office of the Secretary of Defense ordered them home. It wasn’t fair for Rosenberg and Williams to have exclusive access, the office said. Two-dozen other reporters had been scheduled to fly from Washington to cover the military commission, but found themselves stranded when that flight was canceled. Now they were clamoring to get to Guantánamo to cover the suicides’ aftermath.

“Of course what I said was, ‘Let them all in. Send them all down. I’ve got an empty bed in my room,’” Rosenberg says. “It was absurd to use that as a reason to force Carol and me to leave.”

The decision may have been driven partly by embarrassment. Rear Admiral Harold B. Harris Jr., the naval officer who had just taken command of the base, was being widely ridiculed for describing the suicides as “an act of asymmetric warfare against us.” (Rosenberg believes that talking point was developed by the Pentagon and that Harris shouldn’t be personally scorned for it.)

“It was a stupid decision to push them out,” says Charles Swift, a former military attorney who represented Salim Hamdan in a successful U.S. Supreme Court challenge to the Bush administration’s initial, ad hoc system of Guantánamo military tribunals. (After that case, Congress formalized the new system of military commissions.) “It was an absolute effort on the part of the administration to control the news.”

In contrast to Iraq and Afghanistan, where Swift believes the military is reasonably sophisticated about the news media, he says the dynamic at Guantánamo has always been crude. “The whole time, it’s been the standard press book,” he says. “We’re here to spin the story to our advantage. And when the story could be bad, what we want is no story. In this case, it’s resulted in all kinds of crazy rumors.” (In Harper’s this year, for instance, Scott Horton published a long essay suggesting that the three prisoners died during or following grueling interrogations.) “My client was three cells down,” says Swift, “and he believes these were suicides. I had a firsthand source tell me that. But when you don’t give reporters any access, I can understand why this raises suspicions with the press and the public.”*

‘We’re Going to Talk About That’

Rosenberg majored in journalism at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she graduated in 1981. In 1987, she moved to Jerusalem and worked as a stringer for UPI. Three years later, she landed a permanent job on the Herald’s staff. One of her first major assignments was to cover the Gulf War. At one point during that conflict, the 1st Marine Division barred Rosenberg and Newsday’s Susan Sachs from covering them in retaliation for asking “rude” questions. She remained in Kuwait, where she covered reconstruction and political reform in the aftermath of the war.

By the late 1990s, she was based in Miami and covering military affairs and Cuban-American relations. But she continued to travel to the Middle East. In December 2001, just weeks before the prison at Guantánamo opened, she covered the aftermath of a suicide-bomb attack in Jerusalem. “That’s one thing that drives me crazy about the hate mail I get,” she says. “People write to me and say, ‘Why don’t you have the Guantánamo detainees move into your house, if you’re so sympathetic to them.’ They think I’m a naïve American who has no real knowledge or experience of terrorism. But that’s not true at all.”

Rosenberg’s Herald beat included the Southern Command, the Miami-based nerve center of U.S. military operations in Central and South America. So there was never much question that she would cover Guantánamo. Shortly before Christmas 2001, “I started to hear that they were building space for two thousand prisoners,” she says. “So I called up SouthCom and a guy said to me very authoritatively, ‘It’ll only be a hundred, and they’ll be the high values, the worst of the worst.’”

“My expectation was that this was not going to be a long-term thing,” says Mark Seibel, who hired Rosenberg at the Herald and is now the managing editor of the Washington website of McClatchy, the Herald’s parent company. “But I sort of jokingly suggested that she should just stay down there. It only cost us ten dollars a day, so it was a great bureau.”

In the early months of the detention center, Rosenberg signed up as often as she could for the routine daily tour—the one given to members of Congress and journalists who were visiting briefly. Through those tours, Rosenberg says, she was able to establish rapport with a huge array of personnel: cooks, guards, nurses. Over time, cultivating those sources paid off.

When the Pentagon quietly established a new joint task force to conduct interrogations at Guantánamo, Rosenberg was the first reporter to deduce who its commander must be: Major General Michael E. Dunlavey. From sources on the base, “I had started to hear that there was something going on down at the brig,” Rosenberg says. “And we were hearing that there was a secret intelligence unit, JTF-170. I kept asking Bill Costello, the public-affairs officer, Who are they? Who runs it? And Costello kept saying they were not ready to talk about it. But one day I was down at the airfield and I saw a two-star”—that is, a major-general—“hanging around the lounge. I walked up to him and said, ‘I think you’re the secret commander of JTF-170.’ And Costello appeared with his hand on my elbow and led me away. And I said, ‘Bill, that was him, wasn’t it?’ And Costello said, ‘We’ll work something out.’”

Two years later, in February 2004, Rosenberg was the first reporter to identify and describe Salim Hamdan, who was one of the first detainees slated for trial before the Bush administration’s early military tribunals. She got that story by endlessly calling Swift, Hamdan’s attorney. Swift, who is now in private practice in Seattle, remembers those phone calls vividly. “Carol was not the first journalist to contact me, but she was the first to get an interview, because she pushed,” he says. “I think one of the things that drives Carol is, when you say, ‘I don’t want to tell you that, I don’t want to show you that’—with Carol Rosenberg, she comes right back with, ‘Okay, we’re going to talk about that, and you’re going to show me that.’”

‘She’s a Hard-ass’

During the August visit, Rosenberg’s interactions with Guantánamo’s public-affairs officers seemed mostly cordial, with only occasional flashes of conflict. Her clashes with those officials, she says, have typically been with upper-level representatives from the Secretary of Defense’s office. Her worst relationship by far, according to several accounts, was with Navy Commander Jeffrey (J. D.) Gordon, who preceded Major Bradsher as the Western Hemisphere spokesperson.

In July 2008, Gordon wrote to the Herald’s executive editor, Anders Gyllenhaal, to complain about Rosenberg’s conduct. A year later, he sent Gyllenhaal another note, and this one was leaked to the press. He accused Rosenberg of bullying her colleagues and making homophobic comments to him: “Have you ever had a red-hot poker shoved up your ass?” and, “I know you’re hot for your interns and bring them down as your ‘companions,’ but seriously, if I’m going to do their work anyway, what purpose do they serve?”

The Herald spoke with more than three-dozen people before releasing a brief statement that exonerated Rosenberg. “It was an unfortunate and sort of a mysterious series of questions that he raised,” says Gyllenhaal. “We spent a lot of time on it, talked to a lot of people, tried to sort through it, took it seriously. The end result was that his complaint didn’t hold together.”

Rosenberg declined to talk on the record about the incident other than to say, “This was a deliberately manufactured smear from inside the Pentagon, a bid to discredit me with my employer. I didn’t harass anyone.”

Jane Sutton, who covers Guantánamo for Reuters and who is a friend of Rosenberg, says that she found Gordon’s accounts implausible. His letter was “shockingly ridiculous,” Sutton says. “I have known Carol. I’ve been there. I’ve shared a tent with her. I’ve never heard her say anything remotely like that.”

But Gordon has a corroborating witness for at least one of the episodes he described. Captain Kim Kleiman, a member of the Wisconsin Army National Guard who served as a public-affairs officer at Guantánamo during part of 2008, says that she heard Rosenberg ask Gordon the “red-hot poker” question. The comment came, Kleiman says, during a conversation about why a detainee had been sitting on a pillow in court, which led to Rosenberg’s speculating about abuse by guards. “She asked Commander Gordon how it felt, or if he would like it—one of those two, I’m not sure exactly,” Kleiman says. “It seemed to me that if it was a man saying that to a woman, there would have been much more of an outcry. I think Commander Gordon just got tired of comments like that.”

Kleiman adds that she respects Rosenberg, whom she recalls as one of the hardest-working reporters at the base. “We had a lot of wonderful interactions,” Kleiman says. “But then, depending on her mood, she could get a little stressed.”

Gordon retired from the Pentagon in late 2009, and is now a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy. In an e-mail message, he said that several people gave similar testimony to the Herald during its investigation.

Gyllenhaal says that he cannot recall such comments, though he did not personally participate in every part of the investigation. But on the contrary, he says, “We started hearing from all sorts of people unsolicited”—including both reporters and military personnel—“about how wrong this was.”

Bob Franken, who is now a regular contributor to MSNBC, says that he saw Rosenberg get into plenty of arguments with public-affairs officers during the early years of Guantánamo, but he never saw her cross the line into unprofessionalism. “We’re not exactly choirboys,” Franken says. “She’s a hard-ass. She’s tough as nails, as you’re supposed to be. But she doesn’t cut corners. The military sometimes seemed like they only wanted us to offer light color commentary and root for the home team, and Carol never played that game.”

Ten months after Gordon’s letter came a more serious headache. At the beginning of May, Rosenberg was at Guantánamo to cover a pretrial hearing in the case of Omar Khadr, the Canadian accused of killing a U.S. soldier. Khadr was only fifteen years old at the time of the attack; he had been brought to the region by his family, which had extensive ties with several terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda.

At the May hearing, Khadr’s attorneys and the government were arguing about whether Khadr’s statements to interrogators would be admissible at trial. His lawyers claim that Khadr was mistreated so badly at Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Field, and later at Guantánamo, that his confessions, even those he gave to well-behaved interrogators, should be thrown out under the doctrine of “the fruit of the poisonous tree,” a legal metaphor used to describe evidence that has been obtained illegally.

In an article on May 5, 2010, Rosenberg mentioned Joshua Claus, a former U.S. military interrogator who is likely to appear at Khadr’s trial—assuming there is not a plea deal. Claus had questioned Khadr at the Bagram detention facility shortly after his capture, and Khadr’s lawyers say that Claus terrified their client by giving him some lurid cop-show patter to the effect that he would wind up gang-raped in prison if he didn’t cooperate. (In an unrelated case, Claus pleaded guilty in 2005 to mistreating two Bagram detainees who died in custody. He spent five months in prison for that crime.)

The identities of several of the interrogators in the Khadr case, including Claus, had been placed under a protective order by the military-commission judge. During the May hearing, Claus was referred to only as “Interrogator #1.” But after Khadr’s lawyer mentioned in court that Interrogator #1 had been convicted of abusing prisoners at Bagram, the reporters at the base started Googling and realized that it was likely Claus. That made sense, because in early 2008, Claus had contacted the Toronto Star’s Michelle Shepherd to give an on-the-record interview about his role in interrogating Khadr.

It was an obvious decision, Rosenberg thought, to use Claus’s name, given that he had effectively outed himself in that 2008 interview. Three of her colleagues—Shepherd, Steven Edwards of Canwest News Service, and Paul Koring of The Globe and Mail—also mentioned Claus by name in articles on May 5 and 6.

But the Pentagon was not amused. On the afternoon of May 6, Major Bradsher walked into the media hangar to inform the four reporters that they had been permanently banned from covering military-commission proceedings. The conversation happened in public, and there was no immediate chance to appeal. The four reporters left the island the next morning.

They did not go quietly. Their editors immediately filed letters of protest. But the broader fight erupted over the next several weeks, when David Schulz, a prominent First Amendment attorney, placed calls to the legal-affairs staffs at The Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Dow Jones. Schulz sent a letter to the Pentagon in the name of all of those organizations, arguing that restrictions on printing public information constituted illegal and unconstitutional prior restraint. On August 2, representatives from those organizations were invited to the Pentagon for an off-the-record meeting.

Bryan Whitman, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, says that Claus may have given an interview to the Star in 2008, but it was only because of things said inside the Guantánamo hearing room that reporters were able to identify him as “Interrogator #1.” If a military court judge says that witnesses’ identities are protected, then reporters should respect that, Whitman says. “The vast majority of reporters down there followed the rules,” Whitman says. “They didn’t publish the name. Four reporters decided not to.”

Be that as it may, the Pentagon announced in early August that it was acceptable for news organizations to use Claus’s name. And in September, it issued a new set of ground rules, including a provision that makes clear that reporters may publish information that they legitimately obtained outside of their work at Guantánamo.

The Beat Goes On

There have been nights when Rosenberg has been the only person sleeping in the media tent city, which can hold as many as fifty-four people. (Less rarely, she has been there with only one or two other reporters: Michael Melia, of The Associated Press, and Jane Sutton.)

Many reporters complain about the tents, but Rosenberg says they have advantages over the old arrangement, where reporters were housed on the leeward side of the island, far from the courtrooms.

If Rosenberg ever feels uncomfortable in the tents, she may have herself to blame. The tent city owes its existence, in part, to a story that Rosenberg broke in November 2006. Thanks to a tip from an officer, she discovered on an obscure government-contracting website that the Pentagon was planning to spend up to $125 million on a huge facility to support military-commission trials. The complex—which Rosenberg privately refers to as “Commissionsville”—would have included beds for 1,200 people, a dining area for 800, and hotel-style rooms for reporters.

But the project struck some as outlandishly expensive. More troubling, as Rosenberg revealed, the Pentagon had planned to bypass the standard congressional appropriations process by invoking certain post-9/11 emergency powers. Her stories helped provoke an uproar in Washington, and Robert Gates, the freshly nominated Defense Secretary, disowned the project during his testimony before Congress.

On this most unusual of beats, then, Rosenberg has made her bed—figuratively and, in this case, literally. And despite the recent turmoil, and her persistent criticisms of the way the military runs things at Guantánamo, she seems somehow suited to the story. So of course Rosenberg is taking a wait-and-see approach toward the liberalized media ground rules that were recently announced. The Guantánamo press officers who are charged with implementing the rules did not join a September 10 conference call when the new rules were described, as they had been expected to do. And when Rosenberg and nine other reporters next traveled to Guantánamo on September 20, no one there seemed aware at first of the new ground rules. None of that was encouraging.

After the last eighteen months, Rosenberg feels like the beat is unlikely to get more difficult than it has already been. “Every time something happens,” she says, “I just seem to stay here longer.” 

CORRECTION 1/26/11: The article originally claimed Horton’s article suggested the detainees had been murdered by their guards. It makes no such claim, instead suggesting that other government agents may be responsible for the deaths. The text has been corrected.

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David Glenn is a staff writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education.