Carol Rosenberg On Covering Guantánamo

An excerpt from Carol Rosenberg's May 2014 Pringle Lecture delivered to the Columbia Journalism School's graduating class.

|
Nov 10 2014, 10:00am

Illustration by Molly Crabapple

The following is an excerpt from Carol Rosenberg's May 2014 Pringle Lecture delivered to the Columbia Journalism School's graduating class. The full text was originally published by the 'Miami Herald' ​here.

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 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 US 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 than 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 September 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 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 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.


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 9/11 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.

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.

And somebody had the bright idea to pick them up and fly them 8,000 miles to a US 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 presidents, four secretaries of defense, and 14 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 US 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.


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.


Sometimes when I get a bit lost or wonder why write about these 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.

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.

Since Carol Rosenberg delivered this speech, six more detainees were released—five temporarily to Qatar, the sixth to Kuwait. You can read the speech in full, here.

More VICE
Vice Channels