2:55: First prisoner comes off. He is wearing a fluorescent orange jump suit, a shiny turquoise facemask, goggles, similar colored orange socks over white footwear, a brighter orange head cover that appeared to be a knit cap. His hands were manacled in front of him, and he limped. He was frisked and led by at least two Marines to the awaiting bus.

On January 11, 2002, the first twenty detainees landed at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. Their arrival was witnessed by a cluster of journalists who stood on a hill 400 yards from the runway. One of them was Carol Rosenberg, a military-affairs reporter for The Miami Herald. She helped write the pool report quoted above.

The Pentagon hadn’t wanted coverage of the prisoners’ arrival. The previous day, a small planeload of reporters had been
given a tour of the just-completed detention facility, with the understanding that they’d leave by sundown. But when the group realized that the first prisoners were already en route, Bob Franken of CNN refused to get on the outbound plane. The standoff ended with a compromise: half the journalists would be allowed to stay and write pool reports. No photography allowed.

As Rosenberg watched the detainees being led onto the tarmac, the import of the no-photography rule began to sink in. The Guantánamo prison site had been chosen in part because it was out of public view. Unlike almost every other story on the planet, this one would not be told primarily through images. She and her colleagues would have special responsibilities here. “It was a moment that every print reporter sort of yearns for,” Rosenberg says. “What we write is what the world will see.”

Eight and a half years later, in the summer of 2010, Rosenberg is sitting at a picnic table outside an aging hangar that has been converted into Guantánamo’s media operations center. In the early evening, reporters gather at this table to play cards and let off steam. It’s a lively, disputatious crew, but on questions of Guantánamo history, policy, and etiquette, Rosenberg receives a bit more deference than anyone else, because she has spent more hours on the base since 2002 than any other journalist.

She may, in fact, have outlasted every soldier, interrogator, and lawyer at Guantánamo. The base’s military personnel have turned over several times. Hundreds of prisoners have come and gone. But Rosenberg is still here. As much as any single person, she has been the keeper of the record of what has been one of the most controversial chapters in America’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11: the government’s experiment in detention-without-trial for the hundreds of men scooped up around the world for their alleged connections to al-Qaeda and other U.S. enemies.

“Carol’s daily accounts are what you need to read to understand Guantánamo 101,” says Karen Greenberg, executive director of New York University’s Center on Law and Security and the author of The Least Worst Place: Guantánamo’s First 100 Days. “She’s still the only person who can contextualize what’s going on. Carol has been the consistent presence.”

“Daily accounts” is the operative term here. Rosenberg’s corpus of writing on Guantánamo consists of hundreds of dispatches, few of them longer than 1,000 words. She rarely writes sweeping news analyses. She has not written a book about Guantánamo, and says she won’t even consider such a project until the detention center closes.

Instead, she has approached her work very much as a beat reporter. Sometimes that has meant covering breaking news about hunger strikes and suicides. Sometimes it has meant short features about the psychiatrists who help the camp guards with stress, or the minor celebrities who visit to perform for the troops. In recent years, it has often meant incremental stories about the proceedings of Guantánamo’s military commissions—the fledgling system under which certain detainees are being tried for violations of the laws of war.

But Guantánamo is not like most beats—not even most military beats. The basic task of reporting here is something that might have been scripted by Beckett. You spend most of your time thinking about prisoners (174 of them, as of this writing) who are nearby but at the same time out of reach. You rarely see them at close range, and you can never speak with them. The military’s guidelines for reporters are eternally in flux. Are trial documents made available to journalists covering the military commissions? Some weeks yes, some weeks no. If your photograph of the courthouse accidentally includes a smidgen of the structure next door, which isn’t permitted to be described, will the public-affairs officers force you to delete that image? Some weeks yes, some weeks no. Rosenberg’s time here has involved a long line of grinding, low-level conflicts about questions like those.

David Glenn is a staff writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education.