At Guantanamo, showing up counts

Having boots on the ground lets Carol Rosenberg cover the military facility like few others
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Carol Rosenberg

Unlike most beat reporters, the Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg doesn’t have the luxury of moseying on downtown to ply her sources at City Hall or the local courthouse.

Rosenberg’s beat is the Guantanamo Bay detention center, which means that she gets there under U.S. military custody, sleeps in a tent, and reports under constant observation. And sources are hard to come by.

But for Rosenberg, there is no other way to cover Guantanamo, which she began writing about when it first opened just months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. “Showing up counts,” is her mantra, and that shows in her coverage.

Without dispute, Rosenberg is the dean of the Guantanamo press corps. She uses modern tools of journalism – from a prolific Twitter feed to Google Glass – to give readers as much of a “you are there” feeling as possible. Because of Rosenberg’s persistence, the Herald is an essential repository of information about Guantanamo, including details about each detainee.

Why does the Herald keep sending Rosenberg to Guantanamo? “Because it’s our obligation to report on a place where few can go,” executive editor Aminda Marqués Gonzalez wrote recently. “We don’t cover Guantanamo to get anyone off, or out of jail. We do it to show the American people and the world what is being done in our name.”

Rosenberg, who will be given an award by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press at its May dinner, answered questions for The News Media & the Law about her coverage, also offering advice for other reporters covering challenging beats.

Why do you feel it's important to be there often – and how often is that?

I figure I’ve averaged a week a month there since the prison opened in January 2002. I’ve missed several months at a time – for example, during the 11-week stretch in 2004 when I was in Iraq and the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal broke. But I’ve spent long periods at Gitmo as well – more than 100 days in the first six months. Plus, I did a 41-night stretch in Media Tent City in the summer of 2008 to report on the trial of Osama bin Laden’s driver and some Sept. 11 conspiracy pretrial hearings.

I learned long ago that showing up counts. You can’t see the progress, the changes, if you’re not on the ground and asking questions, observing. Also, it often takes several trips to get a reasonable or reasoned answer from people in the military. Some stonewall until their rotation ends, the question is dropped, or the institutional knowledge evaporates. Troops down there come and go, are frequently clueless and resort to repeating urban myths that make no sense. Example? The U.S. military now claims it never before 2013 systematically gave out prison hunger strike figures. That’s simply untrue. In the very first hunger strike in 2002 the military gave us a meal-by-meal breakdown of how many refused to eat until the Marine general in charge figured out how to end the hunger strike.

You’ve been banished, blacklisted and blocked from coverage at various times. What is your advice for reporters who are assigned to a beat where virtually all the people you need to be in contact with are hostile?

Have the strong support of your editors. My bosses have written letters of protest, picked up the phone and complained and hired lawyers to argue for our right to coverage. I remember at one point very early on one of the prison camp commanders wrote my editor that they’d like a new Miami Herald reporter to cover the story, one who’d never been there. The depth of my knowledge, the general wrote, intimidated the escorts who didn’t know as much. My boss was brilliant. The editor wrote the general back that in a democracy the newspaper decides which reporter covers the story, not the military. He also wrote the general that it sounded like the military had a troop training issue, not a reporting issue. I kept reporting there, and although the general never apologized, he never said a word about the effort, and like every commander moved on.

What are your techniques for making court procedures, legal concepts and legalese, understandable and important for lay readers?

For starters, you have to read the briefs. Usually, more than once. And you have to consult the law and regulations. Then, one thing I do is I call up a lawyer or paralegal or someone who’s involved in the process and tell him or her what I think the brief is trying to say in ordinary English. I say, “Listen I know you would say it another way. But I’m wondering if what you’re saying is…” You’d be surprised how many lawyers go along with the exercise because it helps them frame the explanation for the next reporter. Example? There’s something called a “motion to dismiss for unlawful command influence.” I ask, “So this is a claim that someone up the political or military chain meddled in the process, right? You think the judge should throw the case out? What’s the most persuasive example of meddling, in your opinion? What’s the government say about that?” It doesn’t replace the need to read the briefs. But it lets you talk about it with someone who understands it, with give and take, before you write about it.

What are the one or two things you would like judges or court personnel to do to make proceedings more accessible and understandable to you and the public?

First of all, we’ve had a long-running struggle over release of the court filings. The Pentagon has this elaborate procedure of shopping the briefs around the intelligence community for 15 or more business days to let them redact them. They delete this, black-out that, withhold something as sensitive or the name of a person in a court filing who’s a colonel or lower in rank. They do it even if the person’s name is obvious from the job description and can be acquired in a Google search. I don’t approve of this sweeping culture of secrecy, but they at the very least need to make the briefs public in timely fashion. Reporters and other court watchers need time to read them, make sense of them and chew over the content so we can report what goes on better.

As for the war court judge, I wish he’d slow down when reading his rulings in court – and elaborate with greater detail on why he’s going into secret session. He’s been using a script lately that says disclosure “could reasonably be expected to damage national security, including intelligence or law enforcement sources, methods or activities.”

If the goal is to promote confidence in the system and decision-making, I’m not sure gobbledygook helps.

You've called Guantanamo's war court "a court like no other." How so?

Reporters travel in U.S. military custody, sleep in tents, have troops in the back of their filing center and at their elbow when court is in session. The Pentagon gives intelligence agencies 15 business days or more to censor court filings of information they want to protect. We hear the proceedings on a 40-second delay, can’t walk to court without a military minder, have a sticker on our filing center phone that says we consent to government monitoring of our conversations. And that’s the best way I can consult my editor aside from using email, which costs $150 a week and is provided by a Pentagon contractor.

Why do you "live tweet" the Guantanamo military proceedings, and who do you think follows the play by play?

They built this court out of reach of so many people who are actually interested in the incremental down there. This bulletin-style reporting lets those who know the cast of characters and issues dip in and out in the course of a day. Lawyers’ spouses follow me. Sept. 11 victims follow me. Law students and other attorneys follow me. I know of two judges who've read the stream: one a Navy reservist who said he had a clerk print it out to read during court recesses; the other, a military judge who sent word through a clerk that I'd gotten something wrong. I had said, based on the explanation of the minder at my elbow, that a witness had a SERE tab on his uniform. The judge, an Army colonel, wanted me to know there’s no such thing as a SERE insignia. I double checked, and tweeted a correction. The other thing about tweeting: I know that some folks at Guantanamo follow the report. One officer told me he was expecting to testify on a given day and had on a uniform for going to court, saw my tweet that his testimony was postponed – and changed back into battle dress.

What advice do you have for anyone interested in covering the military commissions and Guantanamo in general?

You have to read the briefs, ask questions, show up, and keep going back again and again to be able to write meaningful stories on what's going on. And don't get seduced by escorts offering Camp X-Ray tours, souvenir shopping or a sail on the bay while court's in session. Keep your eyes open, think about the logic of what you’re being told or not told, shown or not shown and recognize that the story unfolds a tidbit at a time.

An example: The current leadership seems to have lost confidence in its message, and is blocking information. But there was a time some years back when you’d have a fairly free exchange with the commanders after-hours, off the record. The leadership would talk to reporters about a wide range of challenges, although not about specific detainees. One night, after one of these exchanges, a colonel dropped us off with a reminder of Gitmo policy, “you can report anything you see.” To this she added, “But we won’t elaborate or comment.” Later that night, a Saudi jet arrived at the airstrip, easily recognizable to anyone who’d traveled throughout the Middle East by the emblem on its tail. Thus began the Bush-era shuttles of Saudi prisoners home. That’s why I always tell colleagues that showing up counts. Not every story can be reported in an email inquiry.

— Tony Mauro is the Supreme Court correspondent for the National Law Journal and a member of the Reporters Committee's steering committee.