News & Politics

Guests at Guantanamo

For journalists, covering Guantanamo Bay has always been hard—and Obama’s promise to close the base is making it even more difficult

Carol Rosenberg is no stranger to tough reporting conditions. The Miami Herald journalist was at Guantanamo Bay the day the first 20 alleged Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners arrived, and she’s reported from there on and off ever since. Until, that is, she was kicked off the base in May. Rosenberg and three other reporters were expelled after publishing the name of an army interrogator. His name was public knowledge, Rosenberg said at the National Press Club Tuesday night—she first came across it in a 2008 Toronto Star article—but according to an expansive interpretation of Pentagon rules, he was supposed to be referred to only as “Interrogator No. 1.”

“At Guantanamo, if you ask them ‘why,’ they’ll tell you, ‘That’s the rule, ma’am, that’s the rule today,’ ” Rosenberg said.

In her talk, Rosenberg outlined the growing challenges facing journalists who cover Guantanamo Bay. While strict protocol has always been the norm, the last few years have seen a rise in arbitrary and inconsistent rules for members of the press, she said.

“You can go to court only in the company of a public-affairs officer,” she said. “If someone has to go to the bathroom, then every other reporter has to leave with them. This happened last week. Reporters are considered guests of the government.”

Not particularly well-treated guests, either. Rosenberg said that while most American officials at Guantanamo sleep in trailers or hotels, reporters are shunted into what she called “Tent City.” Press briefings used to be held in an air-conditioned shed. Now, they take place in a dirty and humid hangar.

“If reporters protest, [the government] says, ‘Fine, don’t come,’ ” she said.

Rosenberg’s grievances extend past the logistical inconveniences. It’s increasingly difficult for reporters to attain timely and accurate information from judicial proceedings at Guantanamo, she said. The courts take months to make documents public, even though such proceedings aren’t classified. Access to lawyers, even during breaks in court, is now severely limited.

She said President Obama’s promise to close Guantanamo has exacerbated the already hectic environment on the base because individuals are stationed there for shorter periods of time, allowing more people to make more—and different and contradictory—rules.

“Guantanamo thrives on random rule-making,” she said. “Once the President said he was going to close it, it became even more chaotic because tours are shorter.”

According to David Schulz, the lawyer who represented Rosenberg in her efforts to return to Guantanamo as a reporter (the Pentagon reinstated her earlier this month after she signed a statement promising to adhere to military guidelines), regulations regarding the press are frequently changed, reinterpreted, and reinvented because existing rules are unclear.

“Under Department of Defense ground rules, public-affairs officers are given the authority to enforce [guidelines which are] very vague,” Schulz said. “They have inconsistencies and ambiguities.”

As for the Rosenberg incident, there “were no standards, no procedures, no notices given to the reporters, saying what they’d done wrong,” he said.

But the Pentagon could take a number of simple—and free—steps to promote transparency without compromising security, he said.

“The military commissions are required to have a filing inventory with unclassified information,” Schulz said. “There’s no reason they can’t be released on a contemporaneous basis, but nine times out of ten, they won’t come out until proceedings are over. And it does no good to know about motions six months after.”

He warned that unless the Defense Department embraces reform, tensions between journalists and the military could erupt in a lawsuit. Improving the press-Pentagon relationship is the subject of a meeting slated for next week between the DOD and lawyers representing such news organizations as the Miami Herald, the New York Times, and the Associated Press, the New York Times reported Tuesday. Schulz said reporters will also be present.

“The incident in May has gotten the press energized,” he said. “Sooner or later, things could get sufficiently problematic that someone is going to take it to court. But let’s hope it doesn’t get to that. If the military really wanted transparency, it could be done.”

Subscribe to Washingtonian
Follow Washingtonian on Twitter

More>> Capital Comment Blog | News & Politics | Party Photos