Carol Rosenberg describes covering Guantánamo — a beat like no other

It’s hard to be a reporter at Guantánamo — it takes days to travel there, the military can be abusive, or infantilizing.

08/01/2014 7:23 PM

08/31/2014 1:26 PM

Each year the faculty at the Columbia Journalism School selects a leading American journalist to deliver the Pringle Lecture to the graduating class. Past lecturers have included Daniel Schorr, Maureen Dowd and Doris Kearns Goodwin. This year, the school honored the Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg. Here is her May 20, 2014 lecture:

Before I ever set foot in Guantánamo I was a reporter in the Middle East.

I had a house in Jerusalem and an apartment in Cairo and I traveled the region, Sudan, Syria, Baghdad, Beirut. It was before the web, so I wrote for tomorrow morning’s readers. And often I was struck by how very tribal life and my work was there. Jews and Palestinians. Sunni and Shiite. The George Bushes and the Saddam Husseins.

And journalists were a tribe too. Sometimes we traveled in packs and sometimes we tried to outrace each other to a scoop, an interview, to tell a story better. But we hung together in bars, raced together to invasions. We watched each others backs at bombings, doorstepped peace talks, were fiercely loyal when someone got in trouble — got hurt, or kidnapped. And when one of us got killed, this does happen, we mourned together.

And I came to see the world through that prism.

So in the dozen years I’ve been reporting about the prison camps at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba called Guantánamo, the place America set up after the Sept. 11 attacks to lock up suspected terrorists, I see tribes too.

There, the detainees belong to one, in a system that lumps them together — al-Qaida, Taliban and men long ago cleared to go. There are the sailors assigned to the base, like “townies” who come with their kids and cars and settle in for three or more years. Most prison camps guards go for a year or less — “unaccompanied,” live in temporary housing and are in a sense untethered. Some eat too much. Others drink too much. And another group spend their time obsessively getting fit, running, gym, spinning — prompting a clever Colorado National Guard soldier to observe that after a year at the detention center troops leave ways: Hunks. Chunks. Drunks.

There are other tribes: The 9/11 families picked by Pentagon lottery to watch at the war court. Jamaicans and Filipinos who do the scutwork. Defense lawyers who come and go and mostly have common interests.

Sometimes there are the journalists too. But at times, I’m the only reporter down there — alone in media tent city, where scoops are rare but possible, you can’t get hurt, you won't get kidnapped but you do get sneered at by American soldiers for asking questions, for asking to see something at the prison whose military mission statement includes the word transparency. It’s an assignment that when, frankly, I’m not with my tribe can be a bit lonely.

I’m not saying this in some bid for sympathy. Not at all. This is my long way of saying how grateful I am for this opportunity to talk to my tribe, you journalists, about what I do, how I do it and why.

My Beat

And that is...

For the last 12 years I have had one of the most challenging, at times frustrating, rarely boring, and bedrock fundamentally important beats in American journalism. One I could never have imagined, and wasn’t designed by editors or at a news lab. It grew organically out of an assignment that became an obligation and morphed into a beat like no other.

I cover the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for the Miami Herald — the paper that hired me to report in the Middle East, and considers Cuba a local story.

Most news organizations don’t care about Guantánamo. But the Miami Herald and McClatchy believe in this story.

I write about a place. I write about people. I write about policy and politics in what seems to me to be the first no-exit-strategy, U.S. military enterprise since the Vietnam War.

I deal with a military that at times doesn’t like to answer my questions, won’t talk to me, censors my photos, restricts my movements, routinely threatens to ban me from further visits in a system of military intimidation — and decides at times on a whim that I should sleep in a tent rather pay like anyone else for a hotel available to civilian guests.

From that tent, I write about an evolving system of justice, at times alone because no other news organization will make the trek. Or in the company of reporters who show up for a ticket-punch, a been-there, done-that dateline and a swipe at this historic system, the military commissions.

Make no mistake, this is a court like no other. Not because the United States seeks to execute six men there, five for the 9/11 attacks and one for the USS Cole bombing. And not because a soldier sits in the room behind me as I write, even when I’m the only one there. But because we’re years into trial preparations for men who were long denied lawyers or Red Cross visits — and attorneys at the war court still argue about what parts of the Constitution apply.

I don’t write about what happened to 3,000 people on Sept. 11 or why 17 sailors had to die in al-Qaida’s suicide bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen in 2000. I am certain that my fellow tribe members, other journalists will show up for that part.

I write about whether the CIA will ever allow the accused — and the world — to learn how agents interrogated suspects in nations they won’t name using now forbidden interrogation techniques we glimpse only through leaks and misconduct reports. I write about the FBI trying to turn a member of a 9/11 defense team into an informant, a snitch. This is a system that American lawyers in American military uniforms call un-American.

This American court has a motto: Fairness, Transparency, Justice.

As they close hearings and seal up the filings and soldiers sit behind me watching me work the motto comes to mock me.

I didn’t understand why exactly. Then Eugene Fidell, who teaches law at Yale, explained it: If you’re really fair, really transparent, really just, you wouldn’t need a motto.

It would be, as the founders said, self-evident.

But it didn’t start that way. It started with a phone call from the Pentagon’s subsidiary in Miami, the Southern Command, notifying me that it was about to get into the prison business — and asking would I like to come along.

It was months after the Sept. 11 attacks. America was scared. Our troops in Afghanistan were overwhelmed with foreign men dropped off and dragged into our outposts by Pakistanis and the Northern Alliance, by tribesmen looking for a CIA bounty, and, occasionally, by American troops who encountered suspected foreign fighters in their patrols.

These captives were cold; it was freezing in Afghanistan. Some were angry; they’d been treated brutally. And they were rather a mystery to us, mostly because we really hadn’t much practiced the art of military intelligence in a foreign environment since Vietnam, not interrogated in any meaningful way.

And somebody had the bright idea to pick them up and fly them 8,000 miles to a U.S. occupation zone in southeast Cuba. Where it was hot, sunny, stuck behind a minefield and, the Bush administration thought, against all reason, out of reach of American law, out of reach of the Geneva Conventions.

I didn’t know that it was going to be a place where we’d carry out tribunals whose endgame is meant to execute people. I didn’t imagine that it would go on for a decade-plus, two U.S. presidents, four secretaries of defense, 13^ prison camp commanders.

The Pentagon was setting up a prison: Donald Rumsfeld’s “least worst place" was in my paper's backyard. It was a story that hadn’t been written.

My boss told me to go down there and not come back until it was over.

I watched the first 20 men come off a U.S. Air Force cargo plane like a poor man’s Hannibal Lecter — in orange jumpsuits and shackles and surgical masks and blackout goggles.

And 759 more prisoners would follow, 625 would get to go — nine of them dead — and it’s still not over.

Tradecraft

So what do I do?
Sometimes I’m a court reporter.
Sometimes I’m a cop reporter.
Sometimes I’m a feature writer.
People think I’m a human rights reporter.
My title is military affairs correspondent.
More often than not I feel like a foreign correspondent down there.

In the 90s I'd go to places like Iraq under Saddam Hussein to write about sanctions, Kuwait to report on life after Iraq's invasion. I got a visa to Khartoum while it was the haven for the outcasts of radical Islam the way I'd go to many, many countries -- by landing a visa, an entry permit.

I'd get in by government invitation. If they wanted to show the press something, you'd hear from the embassy or Information Ministry. Or I'd pitch a story idea and hope to cover more than that one theme. They would let me in when confidence was high in their ability to control the narrative, or they were so embattled they were desperate to tell their version of the story. (And when they found the scrutiny stressful they could kick me out.)

Guess what it takes to get to Guantánamo to report at the prison? An “area clearance.” It’s like a Pentagon visa to their own private country with town and school and court and detention center, and when confidence is high in their ability to control the narrative or they feel they have a story to tell getting in is easy.

For instance, after three detainees were found hanging one June weekend in 2006, the prison commander allowed me onto the base. With tremendous limitations, but on the ground. I wasn’t allowed to see where they were found dead, or speak with the guards who discovered them. Investigators were at the base but I didn’t even get a glimpse of them, or the nooses the prisoners were supposedly found hanging in. I did get to speak with the imam who was brought in to prepare their burial —but that’s because I recognized him and he knew me from when he was posted there before. Mostly I asked questions, and more than a few by phone from one side of the bay to the other.

After a couple of days someone in Donald Rumsfeld office sent in a plane to fetch me and three other journalists. Narrative control up at the Pentagon smeared me, said I’d slipped without permission onto base. It’s surrounded by the sea and minefields — and guarded by the US Marines. And you need an area clearance, permission to enter the base.

So often I treat the assignment like a foreign correspondent. Observation and explanation of something You can’t see is a key ingredient. But you can only do so much Kilroy-was-here, peek over the wall with funny observation style reporting.

Going back again and again means going deeper.

That means I start reading and questioning and thinking and planning long before I get on the airplane to go there. And in that regard it's a virtual beat. I report from my desk in Miami, on the phone with people who frankly don’t want to be seen with me. Or at the airport in Fort Lauderdale, where a small charter plane comes from Guantánamo. I get emails but not as many as you’d think. People are afraid — and after what happened to Private Chelsea Manning they have reason to be.

I report in Washington, where the coverage is political.

I go to people who want to keep Guantánamo forever if they‘re likely to give me the information I seek. Or advocates of closure if they might disclose.

I search the web for documents and news tips — contracts, PowerPoints, Facebook, Twitter by thinking like a member of the military.

I’ve gotten anonymous stuff in the mail — and been worried someone was trying to set me up.

Sometimes I start a story with an interview at Gitmo, we used to call this gathering string, and then I pull that thread as I go from place to place — Andrews Air Force Base, the McClatchy bureau, a conference.

Increasingly calling me the military affairs correspondent seems wrong. Yeah, it's a military base and these are military hearings. But It's more like I cover a small town that has a prison, a court, and McDonald's. And also the worst Internet access you can imagine — for which I pay $150 a week — all controlled by the US military.

That means, I write in a notepad. I go on foot or on the bus to ask people questions when military minders don’t restrict my movement. And that's not the journalism most people practice these days. I describe places because the military won't let us show it on film. And I cover jury selection of unnamed U.S. military officers at the tribunals because it gives you a window into the soldiers who sit in judgment on the enemy.

I use just about every trick in a 21st century journalist’s toolbox. I have Google Glass, when they let me turn it on. I tweet a live stream of court proceedings, bulletin-style, to show people who can’t be there what’s going on moment to moment. I write for tomorrow’s paper and this afternoon’s online reader — and I take terrible photos.

Sometimes, I use the Freedom of Information Act — if I can’t persuade someone that the information is releasable. But I use it sparingly because you have to be willing to sue the government — something I did last year with a clinic from Yale Law School to shake loose a list of the prisoners the United States wants to hold forever. Now I have another suit for how much We the People spent building a secret prison down there. I hope to get a court hearing.

I don't blog because frankly I'm an old school reporter. And to me blogging is loaded with opinion. Plus, I don't know about other places but at mine we don't edit our blogs. It's self-publishing. And I am either dumb enough or smart enough to know I need an editor. Particularly when I'm writing in the press room at Gitmo where everyone's talking, there's a soldier watching, and I haven’t had enough sleep last night. In my tent.

I've been doing this since Day One, I’ve probably slept around a thousand nights there, and the military has never let me — or any reporter, any member of our tribe — talk to a detainee. It's one of those lifetime banning offenses. Even when they've wanted to talk to me. Even when I've arranged a waiver through an attorney. A few have called and emailed after they got out. You know what they say? Thank you for writing about me, thank you for telling my story.

Sometimes I follow the money. I spent 2011 ferreting out the costs of the place. I started by asking to meet with the money crunchers, do an interview. The military stalled for a while, then refused.

So I dug through contracts, worked through Congress, talked repeatedly to the Bureau of Prisons and consulted correctional experts — all to develop a theory of what I would need.

I never did get anything directly from that year’s prison’s public affairs officer, a Navy commander whose job was to provide information to the public.

But I asked microscopic expense questions in every prison camp interview, saved documents, pulled the string on searches, found friendly sources up at the Pentagon — and concluded it conservatively cost $380,000 a year per prisoner. Or liberally $800,000 a year per prisoner. That’s about 30 times the cost of keeping someone in a federal prison.

We called it the most expensive prison on earth first. Lots of folks followed us — including members of Congress who want to close the prison and who last year did a soup-to-nuts estimate — $2.7 million per prisoner a year. They uncovered costs I couldn't — and included some I wouldn’t consider directly related to the prison operations.

Why do it

Sometimes when I get a bit lost or wonder why write about these 154 men who nobody really cares about — except hopefully their families and their lawyers — I remember that the United States government built it to be out of reach of the American people, out of reach of American courts, to make it hard and remote, so we won’t think about that fact that it is ours.

You know, the military calls Guantánamo the most transparent detention center on earth. Hundreds of reporters have visited there, they say, since the first al-Qaida suspects arrived in 2002. They skip the part about how few go back more than once — frustrated by the hoops, the time, and the costs of doing basic journalism. Being a court reporter. Writing a feature story. Conducting an interview. Sometimes I go back, honestly, because they don't want me to.

Recently, the military decided after eight months of releasing hunger strike figures that its transparency wasn’t working for them. So now new troops down there call the daily hunger strike count classified. A state secret.

But part of it is the fault of American journalism too. It’s hard to be a reporter at Guantánamo — it takes days to travel there, the military can be abusive, or infantilizing.

The military supports big-sweep features that generalize to the point of being dismissible or dumb down the details. Newsroom money crunchers want crisp beginning-and-end budget travel. Editors want front-page stories that are candidates for prizes. Thank you for this invitation, really, because the incremental isn't much honored.

My stories can’t be wrapped up with a ribbon, and declared done. Guantánamo? Didn't President Obama sign an order to close it during his first year in office? There are 154 men held captive at Guantánamo by a military operation staffed by 2,200 federal employees, mostly soldiers. The death penalty trials are just beginning. Next month an admiral will arrive at the base as the 14th prison camps commander. Sometimes I tell a story a day at a time.

And I know that's an unpopular thing.

Wrap up

Plus, I like the incremental. Important stories do unfold a day a time. Process is part of reporting, the effort to distinguish in the cell blocks between prisoners so angry, who hate America so much or how they’ve been treated so much that they might do harm — from those who are just disappointed. Or beaten down. Or so ready to leave this life behind for the next one that they won’t be a threat to anyone.

Court reporting is incremental. Police reporting is incremental. Political and policy reporting is incremental too. The story’s not going away. President Obama’s pledge to empty the detention center? Totally incremental — and the clock is running against his administration. The last detainee to go was an Algerian who went home in March. Ahmed Belbacha. There are 77 other captives like him — on a list somewhere that says he can go if the administration sets up a sound plan for resettling him or repatriating him safely. Sometimes that means getting a country to agree to continue to lock him up.

So one message I have because this is the Columbia Journalism School and I've been reporting for 35 years is think about reporting in the traditional way: Courts, cops, color stories, celebrities, corruption and use the old tools as well as the new ones.

Beat reporting is its own virtue.

Getting up off your butt, stepping away from your computer, leaving those 99 Google searches to other reporters may be risky in some respects. But showing up has meaning. You can’t see the progress on what you report without going again and again to watch, ask questions.

You have to take time out to read. If it’s a court story you have to read the briefs, footnotes, transcripts.

Keep your eyes open: Think about the logic of what you’re being told and not told, shown or not shown.

Sure, call yourself an investigative reporter, but the same disciplines apply: Anonymous sources can weaken your point, errors hurt your credibility. If someone doesn’t want to put his or her name behind it, ask yourself what else that source is doing or protecting? Is there a better way to report it?

Having editors who support you is one part luck and one part tending to the relationship as much as you would a source.

And sometimes the best stories, the stories that may be the salvation of American journalism, unfold a day at a time.

But for now:

Use all the tools. Hone your craft. Care for your tribe.

New York
May 20, 2014
Pringle Lecture
Columbia University

Editors note

Since Carol Rosenberg delivered this speech, a 14th commander has arrived to take charge of the detention center at Guantánamo and five detainees, all Afghans, have been released to the custody of Qatar for at least a year, reducing the captive population to 149 foreign men.

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