The Beat from Hell: Carol Rosenberg’s Decade Covering Gitmo

For the record, Carol Rosenberg has been covering Gitmo for more than the decade that has elapsed since she arrived there on January 9, 2002 to cover the impending arrival of the first war on terror detainees. She filed this story on March 22, 1999 and another a month later for the Charlotte Observer, when she covered the de-mining of the island.

This is “Gitmo,” 45 square miles of U.S.-controlled territory stranded in a time warp and shrinking in resources in the post-Cold War era. Two years ago, it had 6,000 residents, both military and civilian; it will have half that later this year.

Formally called the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, this hemisphere’s last outpost against Communism also is a curious island of Americana on the eastern end of Cuba.


Since [Base Commander Larry] Larson arrived two years ago from the Naval War College, the former test pilot has presided over a campaign of cutbacks and downsizing – in keeping with a military-wide austerity kick caused by the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

When he arrived, about 6,000 people – both civilian and military – lived and worked out of some 1,890 buildings, ranging from World War II vintage pump houses to bachelors’ quarters. Their budget was $41 million.

By October 1999, he plans to operate only out of 900 buildings, to cut the budget to $24 million and the population to about 2,500.

But it was 10 years ago today when Rosenberg first started covering the base’s use as a prison for alleged terrorists. As I’ve heard others who have made the trip explain, Rosenberg is now the institutional memory of the place, often describing what a space was used for years before DOD’s current press minders ever showed up. Or, as she described in a National Press Club speech last year, what the rules used to be for journalists and attorneys.

It’s a place the Pentagon likes to call the most transparent detention center on Earth. Hundreds of reporters have visited there, they say, since the first al Qaida suspects arrived eight years ago.

They skip the part about how few go back more than once — stymied by the sheer frustration at the rules, the hoops, the time, and the costs of doing basic journalism. Being a court reporter. Writing a feature story. Conducting an interview.


Guantanamo is a place where you get assigned seats in court, and if you’re me you usually get one of the two or three seats that can’t see the witness stand. Even if the media gallery is mostly empty.

It wasn’t always that way. When the court opened in the summer of 2004, reporters were VIPs, afforded seats front and center — and during breaks the lawyers would lean over the bar and explain, amplify. We stayed in guest quarters.

Now, in court, according to the ground rules, you can’t talk to the lawyers, even during breaks. Even if they want to be quoted.

It’s a place where for years a public affairs officer would scrupulously provide the number of captives being force-fed. This summer, it stopped. We never give out those figures, they said. I protest. I ask again earlier this month. How many of the 180 are being tube fed? Answer: About half of less than 10. Huh?

It’s a place where one day in the cafeteria, your escorts harp on you to display your media badge. Then another tells you to put it away because it’s creeping out the troops.

It’s a place where they say you can never take pictures at McDonalds. But I have, with permission and an escort. Where they say no one has ever taken pictures in Khalid Sheik Mohammed’s courtroom, the maximum-security bunker. But I have. They took me there, and approved the photograph.

Of course, for much of that decade, Rosenberg was one of the only ones–aside from the detainees, their attorneys, and those unlucky enough to get stationed there–paying attention. She’s often been the one to report on hunger strikes and force feeding, one new Kafkaesque rules invented for the detainees, and most recently on the high cost of keeping detainees at Gitmo–a remarkable contrast to her reporting on the cost-cutting at Gitmo from 1999.

The Pentagon detention center that started out in January 2002 as a collection of crude open-air cells guarded by Marines in a muddy tent city is today arguably the most expensive prison on earth, costing taxpayers $800,000 annually for each of the 171 captives by Obama administration reckoning.

That’s more than 30 times the cost of keeping a captive on U.S. soil.

It’s still funded as an open-ended battlefield necessity, although the last prisoner arrived in March 2008. But it functions more like a gated community in an American suburb than a forward-operating base in one of Afghanistan’s violent provinces.

Congress, charged now with cutting $1.5 trillion from the budget by Christmas, provided $139 million to operate the center last year, and has made every effort to keep it open — even as a former deputy commander of the detention center calls it “expensive” and “inefficient.”

“It’s a slow-motion Berlin Airlift — that’s been going on for 10 years,” says retired Army Brig. Gen. Greg Zanetti, a West Point graduate who in 2008 was deputy commander at the detention center.

Not surprisingly, The Miami-Herald has long been one of the best resources on the prison (Rosenberg was posting links to court filings and other documents years before the rest of the traditional media was doing so).

For her trouble, DOD has twice tried to stop her reporting. In 2009, a Navy spokesperson at the base accused her of sexual harassment, a claim the Navy later dropped. And in 2010, DOD banned Rosenberg and three other journalists for publishing the already public name of Omar Khadr’s interrogator, Joshua Claus. That ban, too, was later dropped.

As Rosenberg also noted at that press club speech, our government tried to make Gitmo “outside the rule of law.” They have also tried to make it secret–or at least so difficult to cover that no one would make the effort.

Rosenberg has defied that goal for a decade now.

It’s hard to think of many other journalists who have slogged through such a thankless beat for so long. It’s hard, too, to think of many other beats that are more important to give such tireless coverage.

Update: Rosenberg tweeted a link to her first post-9/11 story from Gitmo.

When al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners arrive this week from Afghanistan, they’ll hardly be trading their cave life for the creature comforts of the Caribbean.

Rather, this is what the Military Police have in store for them until they build a permanent prison facility:

Six-by-eight-foot cells made of chain-linked fencing that resemble open-air cages. Concrete slab floors with mats for beds and wooden roofs to keep out the rain. Guard dogs and Military Police – both men and women – monitoring the every move of members of a movement that once hid their women from public view. Halogen lights by night, no running water but a container for a toilet, a “culturally neutral diet” without meat – all out of view of the sparkling waters that feed the Straits of Florida.

And, just in case the al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners have visions of staging an uprising inside the compound called Camp X-Ray, Marines will patrol beyond several fences – armed to the teeth in the high grass beyond razor-sharp, concertina wire, beneath a brand-new American flag that was flapping in the breeze Wednesday.

“It will be humane. But we have no intention of making it comfortable, ” declared Marine Brig. Gen. Michael R. Lehnert, commander of the prison project who arrived over the weekend from Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

19 replies
  1. PeasantParty says:

    Thank you for reporting this. I was on my way over here to add a link for you, but so glad you have given this information.

    The DOD is certainly trying its best to squash anything concerning that site, not to mention all the attacks on prisoner attorney representation. Now with the new NDAA and what can or cannot be considered terror as a secret, I’d like to share this link with you now.

    That reporter/journalist needs medals and awards for being so diligent in doing what a reporter should do. Not just because there are so few of them these days, but because of the problems with our own Government!

  2. bmaz says:

    Yes, I always love the claim that the big rough and tough Navy and Marine types were sexually harassed by salty Carol Rosenburg. WAAAAAAAAAAH.


  3. news4all says:

    Guantánamo: Ten Years and Counting

    Guantánamo is a deeper problem today than it ever was. No longer a temporary exception, it has become a permanent fixture in our national firmament. And although at one time we could blame President George W. Bush’s unilateral assertions of unchecked executive power for the abuses there, the continuing problem that is Guantánamo today is shared by all three government branches, and ultimately by all Americans. With President Obama’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on New Year’s Eve, the prison is sure to be with us — and its prisoners sure to continue in their legal limbo — for the indefinite future.

  4. Jim White says:

    The debt of gratitude our nation owes to Carol Rosenberg can never be fully repaid. If only our media had many more like her.

    And, echoing bmaz: JOSHUA CLAUS

  5. prostratedragon says:

    Just think what we would not know without her steadfast efforts. Is the Peace Prize out of line?

  6. Bob Schacht says:

    The onus for Gitmo falls more on Congress, does it not? After all, did they not tell Obama that he could not close Gitmo, and furthermore, they would not allocate any funds for transferring the detainees in Gitmo to some prison in the mainland states?

    I suspect that the damned AUMF has something to do with it.

    Bob in AZ

  7. emptywheel says:

    @Bob Schacht: Sure, a year after he had done nothing.

    If O was serious about closing prisons, he’d be doing something about Bagram. Instead, he’s refusing to let the NDAA force his hand on minimal due process.

  8. phred says:

    @Bob Schacht: Billion Dollar Obama never wanted to close Gitmo per se, he just wanted to move it to Illinois.

    Alas, members of Congress (cowards each and every one) were too afraid to permit the move. You would think the United States sucked at incarceration, instead of having the highest incarceration rate in the world.

  9. Jeff Kaye says:

    Once upon a time, back in the days when reporters had heroes like I.F. Stone, any decent reporter would have given their eye-teeth to have had a beat like Guantanamo. Difficult conditions are not something that kept generations of war correspondents from doing their work with zest and commitment. I’d like to think that Carol Rosenberg found something of that kind of mission in her work (and imagine that without it, she wouldn’t have stayed at it as long as she has).

  10. emptywheel says:

    @Bob Schacht: Right. Sure. In response to a journalist who doesn’t even understand what’s going on in Bagram.

    There’s a reason he gets away with that answer and it’s not because it’s a good one.

  11. Bill Michtom says:

    @EW “Rosenberg was one of the only ones–aside from the detainees, their attorneys, and those unlucky enough to get stationed there–paying attention. She’s often been the one to report on hunger strikes and force feeding, one new Kafkaesque rules invented for the detainees …”

    Shouldn’t “one new Kafkaesque rules” be “on new Kafkaesque rules”?

  12. Bill Michtom says:

    @Bob Schacht: Here’s the line:

    “The commitment that the president has to closing Guantanamo Bay is as firm today as it was during the (2008) campaign,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

    Can’t argue with that!

  13. jer-rry says:

    Thanks Marcy, for giving her credit … she do deserve it (as well as the entirety of McClatchy) in reliably, consistently, bringing the facts to us on post 9-11 atrocities — much like yourself.

    She, along with Andy Worthington and Democracy Now (their Guantanamo-tagged article archive), are essential resources for keeping us informed. Moreover, we owe the ex-prisoners of Guantanamo (& Bagram & ‘camp’ Cropper & etc.) who are willing to speak out & to write about their experiences more than just a debt of gratitude.

    Their eloquence and ability to retain some semblance of humanity & civility despite being tortured by the US Govt. (“shameful” is how Omar Deghayes put it on Democracy Now today) are admirable qualities. Just astonishing how they made it through.

    And yet 181 still languish down there (89 ‘approved’ for release) … who knows for how much longer?

    Thanks again –

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