Carol Rosenberg on Admiral John C. Ring, and the long arc of Guantanamo Bay

Carol Rosenberg is the world’s only full-time Guantanamo Bay reporter. She has more continuity on the Naval Station and its infamous prison than even its federal employees. The National Guard soldiers, Navy admirals, lawyers, and translators who work on the island base leave at the end of their tenures. Rosenberg is a constant.

She began her journalism career as a stringer for United Press International in the late ’70s, when she was still a college student at UMass-Amherst. Her first full-time jobs were at the New Bedford Standard-Times— a “tough fishing town” she says, “with lots of murders and attempted murders”— and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. She returned to UPI, moving between US bureaus before relocating to Jerusalem in 1987. In 1990, she joined the Miami Herald as a Middle East correspondent; her beat covered up to 31 countries. She returned to the US in the mid-’90s, but continued to make regular reporting trips overseas. That changed in 2001; before the end of that year, she says, someone from US Southern Command—known as Southcom, the branch of the Department of Defense that oversees GTMO—called her and said, “We’re getting into the prison business.” 

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On January 11, 2002—four months to the day since the 9/11 terrorist attacks—Rosenberg witnessed the arrival of GTMO’s first detainees. “They had blackout goggles, turquoise surgical masks, orange jumpsuits,” Rosenberg recalls. “Southcom said they were teaching Marines how to handle potentially fanatical suicidal ideologically driven prisoners. Everybody in their mind had this idea that they were getting the next batch of hijackers. People that were willing to slit throats and bring planes down.” The detainees were shackled, unidentifiable to reporters, and flanked by Marines. “They processed them one by one and then they brought us in to Camp X-Ray and they said, Voila. Twenty men in orange jumpsuits in cages.” 

Rosenberg spent her early days at GTMO watching detainees arrive. Over time, her coverage broadened and became more incremental. “I would call embassies to ask if they had prisoners here. There was an episode of a detainee biting a guard. You could ask the doctors questions. I wrote about the first time they amputated a leg. I wrote about the day the interrogators arrived. They were trying to get congress to approve permanent construction, so I spent a couple of years writing about construction projects. Anything and everything was news. They were inventing this thing in front of our eyes.”

When I traveled to Guantanamo in 2017, it was Rosenberg who helped me get my bearings. She advised me to bring heavy layers to Cuba. (The A/C in the press tents, it turned out, was set to frigid temperatures.) She let me tag along to the bowling-alley pizza hangouts. Unlike nearly everyone else there, she seemed comfortable. “A Southcom commander nicknamed me the dean of the press corps of Guantanamo Bay,” Rosenberg says, “and I actually take that seriously.”

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Last year, as McClatchy offered buyouts to Herald staffers, Rosenberg, whose work is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, moved to the New York Times. Decades into her beat, her recent work—including revelations on the CIA’s torture programs—ranks among her best. Guantanamo, she says, “is a part of history that people are trying to sort out in their heads. And everybody who thinks about it knows that the last chapter hasn’t been written. There’s more to come.”

We spoke during an off-day from sessions of GTMO’s military tribunals. I’d caught Rosenberg at an interesting time: In late April 2019, Rear Admiral John C. Ring was suddenly relieved of his duties as commander of the Guantanamo Bay prison. Since then, GTMO Public Affairs have largely stopped communicating with reporters, says Rosenberg. “This is a pretty dark period. There’s no sunlight on it.” Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Admiral Ring was fired the day after you published a piece in which he spoke very candidly about the medical needs of aging GTMO detainees. Was there a connection—

That’s what everybody wanted to believe. What happened is, [the piece] went up on a Saturday, and they announced on Sunday that he was fired. But the chronology was that on Friday he was told to come to [Southcom headquarters in] Miami. As much as I would like to think that he told this truth and they didn’t like it, I don’t believe that’s what happened. 

That was one of my first stories for the Times, but I had written an earlier version of that for the Miami Herald, when the admiral first started talking about this stuff. He had been doing the same talking points throughout his tenure, and they were definitely approved. 


Southcom said he was fired for—

Mishandling classified information.” So was he talking about something he shouldn’t have been talking about? Did he give access to somebody who wasn’t classified? “Mishandling classified information” doesn’t necessarily mean documents. It’s been very difficult to find out what happened. 

The Trump administration canceled Obama’s order to close GTMO. So the Pentagon redefines the mission and calls it “enduring.” Meaning, plan for 25-50 years. So the Pentagon started thinking about things on the record that they had been wondering about for years. Like, Are these men going to grow old and die here? And Ring got permission under the new mission to plan for that. So he talked about something that had been blessed by higher headquarters. But then something happened. 

I know a lot of people want to blame it on that story. If I thought it was related, I would say it. If I find out it’s related to that story, I’ll write it. But it’s just another Guantamo secret. 


What’s changed since Ring was fired?

They’ve rotated out the spokesperson we knew. The new spokesperson, she’s a Navy commander. We happened to encounter her and she ran away. She was walking past us and she said ‘hello!’ and then she ran away. I don’t know if it’s a choice, or she’s under orders to have no contact whatsoever with reporters.

[The US government] is spending $108,000 a year [for each of] nine public-affairs people here. So the people who won’t drive us, who can’t talk to us, who don’t offer tours to the prison—who we don’t know what they do—are here at nearly a million taxpayer dollars, running a public-affairs operation that doesn’t operate. The government is paying a soldier’s wife on the base to drive reporters to meals, because the Army won’t do it. They can’t have any contact between the prison operations and the press. A soldier recently told a colleague of mine, “You can’t know my name.” I said to my colleague, “It’s on the back of his hat.”

Now there’s this new admiral, who I’ve never met, and has never done anything public. He’s just in there, inside the prison zone, taking meetings. Usually you get a meet-and-greet, a chance to see them.


In your experience, is GTMO secretive just for the sake of being secretive?

I’ll give you a good example. There’s a prisoner here charged with being a commander of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He’s been having spine surgeries. He’s in bad shape. He’s on all these pain killers. They bring him to court with a hospital bed. They realized that, for this guy to go to trial, they would need to provide accommodations. So the Pentagon fast-tracked this gigantic holding cell in the back of the court. 

I called this holding cell “jumbo cell.” I was thinking, Eggs: there’s large, extra large, and jumbo. Then, in court, the judge, the defense lawyer, and the prosecutor referred to it as “jumbo cell.” And that was redacted from the public transcript. So whoever is deciding what is classified may not know that I named it! How could I have made up a classified name? That’s the weirdness of Guantanamo. 


How much of your work is persistence? Asking for things over and over again?

Well right now, it’s not working. [Laughs]. It’s very frustrating. It doesn’t mean you can’t figure stuff out. Now, more and more, you have to read everything. You have to read transcripts of the secret sessions that get released six months later. You read between the redactions. The job is documents, interviews, watching court, reading social media, asking questions and asking questions, and FOIA.


How did the focus of your coverage expand over the years?

To counterbalance prison reporting, I wrote a lot about life at GTMO. I wrote about this weird cemetery in the security zone that looks like a copy of Arlington, and where there are babies and merchant Marines and Cuban laborers and people who had nowhere to go. I wrote about the Cuban population. I covered traffic court. It’s the other court at Guantanamo and nobody knows about it and it’s not on 40-second [classified material] delay! 

The default is to secrecy. Even when it’s just human interest, even when it makes this place look more like us, the default is to make it look more like one big scary prison. It’s not one big prison. It’s like small-town America. There is life here. There’s kids and beach parties and environmental cleanups. I still like to do those stories. But right now, they’re not letting me do it. 


Does that still shock people, when they hear that, that it’s selectively normal at GTMO?

As many times as I report that there’s a McDonalds at Guantanamo, people are still like “There’s a McDonald’s at Guantanamo?!”


At what point did you realize, I might be coming here for a long time

When Obama didn’t close it. [Laughs


What was it like when the place was really swarmed with reporters?

It was exciting. When there’s a lot of reporters asking questions, there’s more interest in answering them. I thought it showed the importance of this place. One of my frustrations is, I think this is a hugely important story and nobody shows up. Or, when they do show up, it’s so incremental they don’t know what to do with it. And I don’t blame them. People come once to get the T-shirt and the selfie. 


Yeah. I only came once. 

Well. You had a specific assignment.


There weren’t many other reporters when I came, but I still got a sense for that reporter camaraderie. 

Well, that’s the thing about having colleagues. Court ends, we’ve been taking notes all day, we’ve gone to dinner, and now we’re at the picnic tables outside the tents. It’s the only place we’re really allowed to drink at Camp Justice. So court ends and you have a glass of something and you pick apart the day. And if there’s nobody to pick apart the day with, you’re on your own


In 2008, former GTMO spokesperson JD Gordon said you harassed and bullied him. [The Herald investigated and, according to The Atlantic, “cleared Rosenberg of everything but cussing too much.”] Can you tell me anything more about that?

I was asking hard questions about torture, about why a defendant named Mustafa al-Hawsawi was sitting on a pillow in the 9/11 hearings. I saw it, and I pressed for answers. It was a question that I had for years, until the Senate’s investigation of the CIA program, the black sites, explained that it was the result of rectal abuse. 


You were temporarily banned in 2010. 

I was banned for reporting something that Southcom said was a violation of ground rules. I missed two sets of hearings.


What did you report that led to the ban?

I was banned with three Canadian reporters. We identified the name of a witness who the prosecution were going to call Interrogator Number One. The problem was, Interrogator Number One was a former Staff Sergeant named Joshua Claus, he’d already identified himself to Canadian media, and we were always allowed to relay information that was in the public domain. I knew I didn’t break any ground rules. 

It got tense. McClatchy hired a First Amendment attorney and he organized American news organizations to prepare a writ to go to federal court to say, “You are depriving her of her rights.” And the Pentagon folded and said, “She can go back.” 

After that, they wrote new ground rules. You signed them. They’re terrible; they restrict all sorts of things. But they do make clear that if you take something in the public domain and put it in your article, it’s not a violation. So they vindicated me. 


Were those the only hearings you’ve missed?

I’ve gone to Fort Meade, in Maryland, once to watch [via video feed]. I once missed a hearing because I was trying to buy a house. [Pause] I’m not proud of that. I should have come. I was trying to close on my condo, and in the end I didn’t close! Then I came down for a hearing and I closed by fax. 

The reason that I was disappointed in myself was that there were two hearings going on simultaneously, and nobody went to the other hearing. It was for a man named Ahmed Ghailani, who had been in a black site. This was a man who had been disappeared, and this was his first public appearance! We brought these people to Guantanamo and we’re going to call them public hearings, and nobody will come. That’s part of why you have to show up, right?


You’ve been there through, what, twelve, thirteen GTMO Commanders?

More. It’s seventeen or eighteen. I have a list somewhere. [In a follow-up email, Rosenberg wrote, “There have been 19 Joint Task Force commanders. I have met all of them except the current guy.”]


You have a good rapport with the base staff. Is that important—keeping the civility there?

You get credibility. One of the things that used to happen is, new public-affairs people would arrive and they’d get briefed to watch out for me. I don’t know the details. But the ones that were interested would actually read my articles. And they would tell me, “You know, you just write what happens …” 


What do you do on Guantanamo when you can’t get anyone to talk to you? 

I don’t think any day is a loss. There are thousands of pages of court documents to be read, and there is no excuse not to read them all. So if all else fails, sit at the computer and read a filing. And when you don’t understand a filing, call a lawyer and say, “I don’t understand it.” This is a new court with new rules. This is new jurisprudence. 

And showing up counts. Showing up all the time counts for something. People know you’re serious.

That story that we talked about at the beginning, about how these guys are gonna grow old and die here, it wasn’t based on one trip. It’s based on an overarching understanding of who the last 40 prisoners are, what their health issues are, what they’ve done here in terms of taking care of people. And it’s based on having listened to tons of defense lawyers talk about the damage that torture does.  


Has there ever been a point when you considered quitting Guantanamo reporting?

I have had times when I thought, “Why am I doing this?” It’s not a front-page story. It’s hard to get answers. But I’ve long understood that the accumulation of covering this thing is something that makes my reporting stronger than it could be for a new person. I’m not even sure that there’s a new person that would do it!

If I had thought about it, maybe I would have asked for a partner. Someone to do some of it with me. And then there would be someone else who had interest. But it’s really hard to be a reporter at Guantanamo. You lose weeks at a time for not always very big return. 

But I had an editor [at the Herald] who was sort of my mentor and he would tell me, “You have to go back, you have to go back. If you don’t do it, nobody will.” So I kept coming back. Now I don’t need him to tell me that. Because I know that. 

I believe that I will stay at this job until retirement. I believe that Guantanamo Bay will not close before I retire. So I believe that this is the last story that I will ever cover. It sounds so sad. I don’t mean it that way. 

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Amos Barshad is a journalist in London and the author of No One Man Should Have All That Power: How Rasputins Manipulate The World.