Take the business of photo screening. Before the end of each day, reporters are expected to have all material on their cameras screened by public-affairs officers. The screening process takes place in an air-conditioned trailer parked in the middle of the hangar. There are typically two officers available to do the work, which can create serious lines at the end of the day when camera operators want to feed footage back to their newsrooms. If they see images that need to be deleted—say, because they show a detainee’s face or a secure facility—they’ll ask the reporter to sign a form that lists each file and the reason for deletion. The rule that Rosenberg and others find most vexing is that photos may not include images of the media badges that reporters are required to wear. (The fear, apparently, is that al-Qaeda would find a way to sneak onto the base by replicating those badges.) When attorneys or soldiers give press conferences, everyone hastily stuffs their media badges inside their shirts. Step away from that setting, however, and you’ll be in trouble for not displaying your badge.
Working the Fringes
Rosenberg is fifty-one, with shoulder-length hair that she tends to pull tightly back when she’s at Guantánamo. In conversation, she has a full toolkit. She can narrow her eyes, raise her chin, and be bulldog-skeptical. She can be warm. She can express open astonishment at some piece of bureaucratic mediocrity or deception, as if she were a fledgling reporter just discovering the ways of officialdom. Often she goes through multiple tones in the course of a single, long sentence: her voice will start off angry or enthusiastic then slowly drop into a husky, world-weary mode. And she can hit those notes without seeming phony or callow or theatrical. That kind of conversational range probably helps to explain some of her ability to cultivate sources.
At Guantánamo that ability is even more crucial than in most settings, because direct contact with sources is rare. Reporters’ movements on the base are heavily stage-managed, and during waking hours they’re almost never out of earshot of a public-affairs staff member. Rosenberg has done much of her work here by gaining the trust of attorneys, guards, medical workers, and other personnel—and then finding ways to communicate with them from Florida.
Rosenberg believes, for example, that she was the first reporter to learn that three detainees had committed suicide in June 2006. “Before dawn I got a phone call,” she says, “that said three prisoners had hanged themselves simultaneously. It wasn’t a person who would have had firsthand knowledge, but I made some calls and it was true. From that point forward I found this person’s tips unbelievably accurate.”
On the day she got the predawn phone call, Rosenberg had been scheduled to fly to Guantánamo to cover a military-commission hearing. The hearing was canceled, but Rosenberg and Carol Williams of the Los Angeles Times called and got permission to fly to Guantánamo anyway. Four days after they landed, however, the Office of the Secretary of Defense ordered them home. It wasn’t fair for Rosenberg and Williams to have exclusive access, the office said. Two-dozen other reporters had been scheduled to fly from Washington to cover the military commission, but found themselves stranded when that flight was canceled. Now they were clamoring to get to Guantánamo to cover the suicides’ aftermath.
“Of course what I said was, ‘Let them all in. Send them all down. I’ve got an empty bed in my room,’” Rosenberg says. “It was absurd to use that as a reason to force Carol and me to leave.”
The decision may have been driven partly by embarrassment. Rear Admiral Harold B. Harris Jr., the naval officer who had just taken command of the base, was being widely ridiculed for describing the suicides as “an act of asymmetric warfare against us.” (Rosenberg believes that talking point was developed by the Pentagon and that Harris shouldn’t be personally scorned for it.)
“It was a stupid decision to push them out,” says Charles Swift, a former military attorney who represented Salim Hamdan in a successful U.S. Supreme Court challenge to the Bush administration’s initial, ad hoc system of Guantánamo military tribunals. (After that case, Congress formalized the new system of military commissions.) “It was an absolute effort on the part of the administration to control the news.”