Issues & Ideas

Why the Herald covers the detention center at Guantánamo Bay

In this handout photo from the Department of Defense, military police escort a detainee inside a holding area at Camp X-Ray at Navy Base Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, during in-processing on Jan. 11, 2002.
In this handout photo from the Department of Defense, military police escort a detainee inside a holding area at Camp X-Ray at Navy Base Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, during in-processing on Jan. 11, 2002. U.S. NAVY

On Jan. 11, 2002, the first group of al-Qaida and Taliban suspects arrived at the Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba, four months to the day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed 2,976 people.

On a hillside some distance away, Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg was among a knot of reporters who were there, taking notes while sitting on the dirt. No news photographers or TV crews were allowed to capture that moment. What we thought we saw that day came from that pool of reporters, who chronicled the prisoners shuffling off the plane in shackles, wearing masks and ear muffs.

Later, iconic images show the 20 detainees hours after their arrival, on their knees in a cage and clad in bright orange jump suits.

Since that first visit, Rosenberg has been to Guantánamo scores of times — she stopped counting in 2002 after 150 nights — more often than any other reporter. During that time, thousands of troops, hundreds of public affairs escorts and 13 prison camp commanders have rotated through the camp. After more than a decade on the beat, she has become the recognized expert on what takes place in this often-secret world, originally designed to be out of reach of the American people and U.S. courts.

It is an important but difficult story to cover.

The War Court functions like no other.

Spectators listen behind soundproof glass or on a secure video feed with a 40-second delay. Censors must clear unclassified motions and the names of those testifying under subpoena before the information is given to reporters. Writers send their dispatches uncensored, but it is a closed military zone. Only journalists who agree to submit their photo or video images to military review are allowed in.

Three years ago, Rosenberg was one of four journalists the Pentagon attempted to ban from covering Guantánamo for publishing the already publicly known name of a witness.

The Miami Herald led a coalition of news organizations that complained such restrictions were unconstitutional and illegal under the military commissions act of 2009. The Pentagon lifted the ban. As a result, we are part of a consortium of major media organization attorneys that engages the Pentagon on its War Court and administrative secrecy at the detention center.

We have systematically pushed back against efforts to restrict us, ban us and censor us as a condition of access to the proceedings and we’ve threatened to sue more than we have sued, using the Freedom of Information Act to get information. In response to one Miami Herald suit, the government for the first time released the names of 48 detainees deemed too dangerous to release — but are ineligible for trial.

On Oct. 9th, the Miami Herald sued the Pentagon under the Freedom of Information Act over its refusal to divulge details of the cost to build and operate the center’s Camp 7. That is where 16 high-value detainees are held, including the accused 9/11 conspirators. Rosenberg has been asking for the price tag of the secret prison building since 2008, although construction and operating costs have been released for all other facilities at the detention center. Overall, since the detention center opened, total spending stands at $5.2 billion.

We have offered gavel-to-gavel coverage and Rosenberg now live tweets from most proceedings through Twitter: @carolrosenberg.

Our website is a repository of information that is go-to material for legal scholars and Middle East experts — including an authoritative list of every detainee with detailed entries on what we have managed to learn about them over the years.

Why do we continue our commitment to cover the detention center at Guantánamo Bay?

No doubt, some of the 164 remaining detainees at Guantánamo fought against the United States or plotted with al-Qaida. Right now, the trial of five men — notably Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-professed mastermind of the 9-11 attacks — is receiving the most scrutiny in the ultra-clandestine proceedings. Another captive is on trial for the al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole off Yemen that killed 17 sailors.

Both are death-penalty cases, to be decided by a jury of U.S. military officers.

However, the majority of the men at Guantánamo remain in detention, without charges and with little chance of leaving any time soon. There is either scant evidence or the evidence that exists is too tainted by allegations of torture to be used in court. Only three of the current detainees have ever been convicted of crimes.

As of today, a federal task force has approved the transfer and possible release of 84 of the detainees.

But because their home countries are so violent and turbulent — or in some instances because of Congressional restrictions — the U.S. cannot release them.

I posed the same question to Rosenberg: Why do you care?

“For me it’s not exactly about those men, about those captives. I don’t do it because I care about them,” she said. “I care about us.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the court in one landmark Guantánamo decision, wrote: “The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times.”

Our country’s founders knew that secret courts can abuse their authority and saw a transparent judiciary and independent press as the way to ensure that justice was done.

The Miami Herald continues our commitment to cover the detention center at Guantánamo Bay because it’s our obligation to report on a place where few can go. We don’t cover Guantánamo 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.