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.
Twice in the last eighteen months, those conflicts boiled over into something bigger. In each case, it seemed possible that Rosenberg’s tenure at Guantánamo might come to an end. In the summer of 2009, a Pentagon public-affairs official publicly accused Rosenberg of sexual harassment and other unprofessional conduct. Then, in May of this year, Rosenberg and three Canadian reporters were banned from the base—temporarily, as it turned out—for allegedly violating a military commission’s protective order.
Those two episodes, as painful as they were, raised Rosenberg’s profile. She gave a blistering speech at the National Press Club this summer about media relations at Guantánamo. A few weeks later, the Society of Professional Journalists announced that she would receive its annual First Amendment Award.
“My editor at the Herald told me at the end of 2001 to come down here and stay until it’s over,” Rosenberg says. “It still isn’t.”
A Game of Inches
On August 7, Rosenberg and thirty-one other reporters assembled at Andrews Air Force Base for a flight to Guantánamo to cover the opening of the military-commission trial of Omar Khadr, a Canadian who was captured after a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002. Khadr has been charged with ambushing and killing a U.S. soldier in violation of the laws of war.
It was Rosenberg’s second trip to the base after her ban was lifted in July, and she was not in an acquiescent mood. Before boarding the flight at Andrews, each reporter was asked to sign the usual fourteen-page set of ground rules for covering military commissions. (Sample: “All direct or indirect contact, communication, interviews, photography, videography or other interaction with Cuban or Haitian migrant personnel on Naval Base Guantánamo Bay is expressly prohibited.”) But Rosenberg and two of her colleagues—Jess Bravin of The Wall Street Journal and Peter Finn of The Washington Post—added amendments beneath their signatures. Rosenberg’s read: “Without waiving my legal rights.”
After a series of phone calls, the verdict came down: those amendments would not be accepted. “We need a clean copy,” said Major Tanya Bradsher, the public-affairs official who coordinated the trip. The three reporters complied, but Rosenberg snapped a picture of her rejected version and posted it on her Twitter feed.
This kind of sparring between the press and their military minders defines the beat at Guantánamo. It is a frustrating game of inches.
Several hours after landing in Cuba—after being checked by bomb-sniffing dogs, waiting in line for badges, and riding a ferry across Guantánamo Bay—the reporters were herded into a briefing room. There a genial civilian, Efrain Malave, explained the base’s operational security rules: no photographs of the new courtroom complex. No photographs that reveal the layout of the tent city. No photographs of radar installations or guard towers. All photographs and video will be reviewed at the end of each day.
Then Brad Fagan, the commander of the public-affairs unit for the task force that operates the detention center, had something to add. “I want to clarify this point about doodling in the courtroom,” he said. “That is not forbidden, and it has never been forbidden. What you can’t do is sketch the courtroom.”