The Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg on How to Report From Guantanamo Bay

The Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg has reported from the detention center at Guantanamo Bay since the first detainee arrived in 2002. Last month, President Obama scuttled the office responsible for closing the center, which means Gitmo’s “media tent city” will be a permanent press encampment for the foreseeable future. Petra Bartosiewicz spoke with the veteran correspondent by phone from Gitmo’s Camp Justice, where Rosenberg has been covering pretrial hearings this month of the alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

When he took office, President Obama promised to close Guantanamo within a year. Now the office dedicated to closing the detention center has itself been closed. What’s going on?
There are 166 detainees here right now. Congress has incrementally imposed harder and harder restrictions on their resettlement. Last year, two detainees went to El Salvador and two left dead. Nobody wants to be the person who sent someone back who will be behind the next terror attack. So it’s Guantanamo forever.

How many times have you been to Guantanamo?
I’d say I’ve averaged about a week a month over the past eleven years. My longest stay was 41 nights. To get here you have to fly to D.C. You show up at a golf course near Andrews Air Force Base at about five in the morning and then get on a plane to Guantanamo with the judge, the defense attorneys, the prosecutors, and the media. It’s the war court on a plane, everyone but the defendants.

What are the conditions for reporters like?
When we first came down here, we were put up in guest housing that was like a bad Motel Six. Now we live in tents. Each tent has six little plywood-surrounded compartments with a twin bed, bureau, a light bulb on a pull chain, and a massive generator-run ventilation system that pushes very cold air through. We were told you have to keep it at least 70 degrees to keep the rodents out. There’s a creature down here called a Banana Rat, which looks like a possum. It’s a problem.

Do you feel you’ve made any inroads as a reporter?
Soldiers come and go on six- to twelve- month to two-year rotations here and every time a rotation comes through, you have to fight the same battles in terms of your ability to function.* The photos you took yesterday may be considered a national security violation by the next rotation. I should say though that this is a very liberal moment at Guantanamo. Until recently, we had a 10 p.m. curfew.

When you say liberal moment, what do you mean?
It used to be if you referred to the prisoners they’d say ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, we don’t have any prisoners here,’ and until you referred to them as detainees they wouldn’t acknowledge the question.

Are reporters being monitored less now?
Well, there are two soldiers in the room with me right now, and there’s a red sticker on my phone that says, ‘This telephone is subject to monitoring at all times, use of this phone constitutes consent to monitoring.’ I think being on this island basically constitutes consent to being monitored.

Speaking of the island, do you ever take a break and go for a swim?
I haven’t done that for years. There was a time when the military was offering beach opportunities to the media. They were like, let’s have a picnic, let’s have a barbecue, let’s go on a boat trip. In my opinion it was to distract us from reporting. I’m here to report. I’ve never been on the sailboat, and I’ve never been on the golf course. I have been to the bowling alley.

The Defense Department spokesman, Jeffrey Gordon, brought a sexual harassment case against you in 2009, accusing you, according to the complaint, of saying to him, “Have you ever had a red hot poker shoved up your ass? Have you ever had a broomstick shoved up your ass? Have you ever had anything shoved up your ass? Have you ever had anything in your ass? How would you know how it feels if it never happened to you? Admit it, you liked it. No wonder you like to stay in South Beach on your Miami visits.” Does any of this sound familiar?
I’m not going to comment on that. There’s nothing I can say that doesn’t make it more prurient. It was a terrible episode. All I’m going to say is he was removed from his job. I kept mine.

How has covering the detention center changed?
When we first came down in 2002 a couple days before prisoners came, there was a real sense that this was an important moment in history and the military wanted coverage. They wanted reporters to report on it. They were really proud of what they were doing here. It was definitely a place where reporters were being brought in 40 a week to talk to commanders. Now, if you’re not here for a trial they bring in maybe four a month.

What have you not seen that you want to see?
I want to see Camp 7. That’s where they keep the sixteen men who were kept by CIA in the dark sites. The camp’s existence came up in a briefing by mistake, and no one has ever told me who built it, how much they paid for it, or who the contractor was. They take us here year after year and they call it safe, legal, humane, and transparent detention, and they systematically keep us out of a place that holds the people who were held in dark sites. I’m not saying to them “I want to go in and interview Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.” But you have to ask who is running it and why it has to be such a secret.

Gitmo has always been such a study in contradictions: It was chosen as a kind of legal black hole where due process requirements could be avoided, yet it has been presented as a place where the detainees are getting a fair hearing through the military commissions —
It was chosen because it was lawless, outside the bounds of the law. But it’s a lawless place where if you’re going more than 35 miles an hour you’ll be stopped by a navy cop and written up.

You’ve been giving a play-by-play of the hearings on Twitter.
This court was built out of the reach of the American public. And out of the reach of most American media. That’s why I do a Twitter feed. People want more insight.

I notice you tweeted that Zero Dark Thirty is playing in a couple months at the base movie theater. I think people don’t realize what a community there is around here. The base has a full-time population of around 6,000.*
A third [of the people here] are Defense Department contractors, largely Jamaican and Filipino laborers, another third are related to the detention center, guards, cooks, and intelligence analysts. The rest of the base is like a giant gas station in the Caribbean. The Coast Guard and Navy come in for refueling stops and use the base for supplies and the bars. It’s like a small town with a prison. There are suburban neighborhoods here with schools and playgrounds and there’s a McDonalds and a church, and an outdoor movie theater. Since the detention center was built, the quality of the movies has really improved.

Weirdest thing you’ve stumbled across?
I once ended up at the detainee library where I discovered that the Fresh Prince of Bel Air was the rage among the detainees. They were ordering more copies of the series.

How long do you think you’ll continue covering Guantanamo?
There are people who call the War on Terror the “forever war”; if this is the forever war, then this is the forever prison. I want to stay here for the 9/11 trial, which I think is years away. I feel like I have an institutional knowledge. Everyone else rotates in and out of here. The soldiers come and go, the lawyers come and go, most of the reporters come and go. I feel a responsibility to stay. I want to see how it ends. I’m a little concerned it’s never going to.

* This article has been updated since its original publication. It has been corrected to show that the base’s full-time population is 6,000, not 8,000, that the population of laborers is Jamaican and Filipino, and that soldiers come through on rotations of up to two years.

*A condensed version of this article appears in the March 4, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

How to Report From Guantanamo Bay