“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.”
—Carol Rosenberg, speech to Columbia School of Journalism, May 2014
Read Carol Rosenberg’s dispatches from the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and you may be unsure if you are reading a human rights dossier, a court stenographer, or the paper of a small town with scant news. (“Navy screens #Guantanamo  premiere of “American Hustle” inside Detention Center Zone tonight.” “‘Fresh Prince’ replaces Harry Potter as entertainment for Guantánamo prisoners.”)
For covering the notorious prison whose name is synonymous with the worst of the “war on terror,” Rosenberg’s tone is curiously matter-of-fact. She does not turn either side into the adversary. And, she hits the mark for how we reporters who cover conflict should approach our subjects.
Guantánamo was a hot story when the first war on terror detainees arrived in January 2002. The Pentagon had allowed reporters to visit the newly constructed detention center, with the understanding that they would all leave when the detainees arrived. But a group, including Rosenberg, with The Miami Herald, refused to get on the outgoing plane when they realized that the prisoners were soon to arrive; the government and the media reached a compromise that allowed half the reporters to stay and write pool reports. No images. It’s what Rosenberg, in a 2010 interview , called “a moment that every print reporter sort of yearns for,” when “what we write is what the world will see.”
Some 13 years later, Rosenberg is one of the few to stick it out, the longest serving Guantánamo correspondent and doubtlessly the most thorough.
I first became familiar with her work when I was beginning my own journalism career. She had the kind of gumshoe, old-school reporter experience romantically envied by my generation of journalists. We are from the Internet journalism era, permeated by the troubling idea that the news happens online. Writing on trending topics guarantees more clicks; all the better if you take a popular story and find an angle that bumps its sensationalism up a notch.
At that time I was learning what kind of reporting and writing appeals to editors and readers, what makes “a good story.” A colleague commented to me that yes, Rosenberg has an unparalleled body of work on Guantánamo. But her stories were a little “dry.”
The criticism sat with me in the following years as I became engrossed in her reports, each usually under 1,000 words and telling the incremental inside-baseball account that is the story the public can access about Guantánamo. What are the detainees’ names? Can reporters see how a force-feeding of hunger strikers is carried out? What parts of the Constitution apply here?
Indeed, her writing did often have an un-outraged tone to it, even when describing extraordinary situations. Take her report on a court hearing to decide if a hunger-striking Syrian detainee, cleared for release since 2009, should have the procedures for his force-feeding modified :
“The evidence produced at the hearing regarding pain was very mixed,” Judge Gladys Kessler wrote in her 20-page decision on the up-to twice-daily insertion of a feeding tube into the 43-year-old Syrian’s stomach through his nose. “There is evidence in the record, including Mr. Dhiab’s medical chart, that he often tolerates the procedure without complaints of pain or significant discomfort.”
Furthermore, she said in the decision issued late Friday, “there is simply no evidence” that U.S. troops use a restraint chair that immobilizes his limbs and head during the feedings “in order to deliberately cause him pain or suffering.”
Rather, she noted, Guantánamo records indicate that since April 1, 2014, the detainee has hit and kicked medical and guard staff, threatened murder and thrown his feces and vomit on some guards.
As a journalist — and a freelancer, to boot, I know well the pressure to find drama in a story, the temptation to the sensational that sells well. Writing to an audience’s sympathies guarantees a buyer.
But I’ve come to see that this so-called dryness carries its own, more powerful sort of punch especially when covering the outrageous. It’s not a forced government-said-NGO-said parity in the name of impartial journalism. It’s a carefully told, incremental story, what Rosenberg, in an interview with me, called “cutting it thin.”
Using ordinary language to describe the extraordinary reminds us how close to home this is happening. Rosenberg makes what she calls the “forever prison” of the “forever war” knowable, marked by concrete events and populated by humans. It has people who are not all good or all bad, victims and abusers. These are not exotic events; it is an American jail.
We know well the consequences of a fear-mongering narrative in the war on terror. The claim that the detainees are extraordinarily and uniquely evil and therefore cannot be seen through the lens of law enforcement and legal rights but rather a “gloves off” war fought under new rules.
On the other hand, a pathetic account (read: pathos, eliciting an emotional response) has its own pitfalls. Writing about abuse of power and its effect on victims is a valid and important part of reporting. But we need to question how, as readers, we engage with such stories.
In her essay “The White Correspondent’s Burden ” in the Boston Review, Jina Moore discusses the birth of “the sentimental narrative,” in which readers are expected to care about the suffering of others. Moore is writing about the stories of misery that dominate Africa coverage, though her critique is relevant to how we read about those who suffer in other contexts:
Superficially, it seems humane, a good-hearted response to the impoverished and their plight. But it also objectifies the sufferers it nominally empowers—people with pain to ameliorate, against whom wrongdoings are to be prevented, on whose behalf this compassion is to be invested. However many noble or real or useful things that investment may bring, it also flatters us, by affirming our own righteousness.
Referring to her previous post as a Jerusalem-based correspondent in the Middle East, Rosenberg talks about the “opinion-laden coverage” common in media reports on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She brought her experience of identifying and eschewing that sort of writing to her work at Guantánamo.
The problem with Guantánamo coverage, Rosenberg says, is that journalists would like to think they can wrap up the problem of the detention center in a story or a few. It’s never been one thing or another, she says–—it’s “an organic story” that “raises questions society hasn’t bothered to ask.”
Then add the difficulty of deeply understanding the appeal of trying to write viral stories. If you are going to write one or two hit stories with that great dateline from the navel base, Rosenberg says, you don’t need more than a few sensational talking points.
Call it dry: Rosenberg’s approach teaches others reporters lessons in covering conflict, where actors may be opposing but are not monolithically bad or good, and conclusions are forged by grinding into reality, eyes sincerely open to see what each actor has to show us.
Obscure and incremental
Rosenberg began her journalism career covering the courts in New Bedford, Massachusetts, filling in for a reporter on maternity leave. She went on to work across New England for United Press International, which then hired her as a Jerusalem correspondent. That began a career in the Middle East that included the Persian Gulf War, reporting trips in Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. By the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, she was a military affairs correspondent for The Miami Herald, and her beat included the Miami-based Southern Command for U.S. military operations in Latin America.
She has said repeatedly in interviews that she never expected the Guantánamo story to go on for this long, but now that she’s in it, she expects it to be the last beat of her reporting career. She’s also said she fears it will still be open when she retires.
What’s striking about Rosenberg, both when she speaks and when she writes, is her confidence. It’s not the bravado of a pundit, but the sharpness of someone who knows her topic deeply and, even after more than a decade, seems to still deeply wrestle with the rightness or wrongness of the story of the detention center.
It’s what Rosenberg has called making her “own truth.” She used that phrase when describing her first years covering Guantánamo, when detainees’ names were not officially published. They arrived wearing identical outfits, which Rosenberg saw as part of the government’s intention to make detainees indistinguishable among themselves. That was the official narrative, and they did not want questions about individuals.
So she began building files on individual detainees, some 779, even when she only knew them by their ISN— internment serial number. By the time the government officially released a list of detainees’ names in 2006, she had already figured out a significant number of them.
The point was to “turn these numbers into individuals,” she says, resisting the pressure to see them as identical, be they all criminals or all victims.
To illustrate how uniquely challenging that individualization is, take, for example, the fact that Rosenberg has never actually interviewed a detainee—no journalist has. The only journalist to really see the inside of Guantánamo is an Al Jazeera cameraman, Sami Al-Hajj, who was imprisoned there for six years. Furthermore, to go to Guantánamo, reporters need an “area clearance,” which Rosenberg once dryly described as like “a Pentagon visa to their own private country.” Reporters sleep in tents and have a sticker on their cellphones that reads, “This telephone is subject to monitoring at all times, use of this phone constitutes consent to monitoring.”
Considering the hurdles, her achievements as a reporter are all the more remarkable.
For a prison that for four years would not release the names of those it held, Rosenberg has made an encyclopedia-like guide to detainees, listing names, nationalities, any official documentation of what their alleged crimes are, and references to any publicly available court procedures they have been in, a rare chance we have to hear a detainee’s voice (or at least his representative read a prepared statement by him).
She’s done so through a combination of court and public records and secret intelligence summaries from the U.S. military made available by WikiLeaks. Clicking on a name brings up the intelligence summary. She gives us a neat breakdown of the prison’s numbers: of 136 detainees, 67 are approved for some sort of transfer. Some 59 continue to be detained without being charged with a crime. There are nine who are being handled through military commissions. And one is a convicted war criminal, serving a life sentence.
She’s done the same with the detention center itself, describing each building and what is inside it—including how many estimated detainees. “Halliburton workers from the Indian subcontinent welded metal shipping containers to create about 720 individual steel and mesh cells in boxcar-style arrangements,” she writes of Camp Delta. Camp 6 is where detainees are said by their military captors to be living collectively , with up to 20 hours of TV or radio a day. “Commanders said each of the 22-cell pods was organized according to broadcast preference with two pods having exclusively Quran readings broadcast from Saudi Arabia. Another was made up predominantly of Yemeni soccer fans who dominated in matches in the communal recreation yard.”
She became the first reporter to learn about the suicides of three detainees in 2006. She also reported the first evidence that a hunger strike was taking place in the camp, recording a short video of piles of food being thrown out. Asking what she calls “microscopic expense questions” at every interview she could, saving documents and finding sources at the Pentagon, Rosenberg came up with her own estimates of how much each detainee cost the U.S.—somewhere between $380,000 and $800,000 per year—and called the detention center “the most expensive prison on earth.”
In a prison meant to be out of the view of the American public, the precision of Rosenberg’s reporting inverts the opaqueness and fearsomeness that was meant to be our only image of Guantánamo. Instead, it becomes a place of numbers, of buildings, of happenings and of detainees in various states of legal processes, inscrutable as those processes may be.
Her lead in telling a story about the prison is a much-needed lesson to the generation of Internet reporters, who amplify stories rather than find them. It reminds us that in a democracy, journalists have the responsibility to exhaust all of our channels of accountability before throwing in the towel.
“Just like I don’t think the prisoners are all one thing, I don’t think the military is all one thing.”
For a reporter whose work provides so much material for activists opposing the premise of the extrajudicial way Guantánamo functions, Rosenberg does not disdain working with Guantanamo’s officialdom. That comes as something of a default—given that how reporters get to Guantanamo is by taking an official chartered plane from Maryland.
But at the heart of Rosenberg’s simultaneously adversarial yet collaborative approach to dealing with Guantanamo’s gatekeepers is a sincere willingness to engage. In a speech to the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, she said:
“But not every officer and not every soldier wants to throw me out, to gag and censor the media. Even when they don’t like what I write. Because those men seemed to see it as America’s prison, America’s court.”
Rosenberg cites a lieutenant colonel who she says “enables coverage, even stories he finds rather insulting.”
That doesn’t mean that Rosenberg hews to the official line in exchange for access. Quite the opposite—with her “own truth,” she often autonomously diverges from the official story in powerful ways.
Take her choice of words. Rosenberg does not exclusively use the government term “detainee” to refer to Guantánamo’s inmates, choosing “captive” which she finds precise and accurate. A detainee implies a temporary situation, Rosenberg says, these men are captives in a war that has no foreseeable end, no side to sign a truce to ensure their release. The military may not like it, but as Rosenberg says, it’s her word.
The lesson is that if we want a free press and transparent government, we should rigorously and enthusiastically pull all the levers of a democracy that we ourselves want to function. When they do work, we should recognize and cover it. When they don’t, we should push back hard and loudly.
Take Rosenberg’s recent Freedom of Information Act case, in which she sued the Defense Department in a federal court, assisted by Yale law students from a media and information access clinic. She won—and got a list of Guantánamo’s “indefinite detainees.” Those are 48 men the government deems too dangerous to release but are still ineligible for trial, either for lack of evidence or evidence that is tainted.
From that tent [in Guantánamo], 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. … [W]e’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.
Rosenberg provides hard-won details to those who are sincerely engaging with one of the most opinion-laden stories on in the war on terror. In the end, it’s not a dry story. It’s a roughly real one.