Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald witnessed the arrival of the first al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba on Jan. 11, 2002. “They wore fluorescent orange jumpsuits, and those whose legs were shackled walked with baby steps. Apparently, when a few resisted, one of two Marine MPs at each arm deftly dropped them to their knees, then quickly pulled them up, to show who was in charge,” Rosenberg wrote.
Nonmilitary news photographers and camera crews were prohibited from documenting the transfer of prisoners to Camp X-Ray, as Rosenberg noted in her story. Other news organizations were there to document the arrival, including CNN, the Associated Press and Reuters.
Over the intervening 17 years, a great many reporters have dipped in and out of Guantanamo coverage as the news has warranted. That whole time, however, Rosenberg has stayed, monitoring the lawsuits, the hearings, the repatriations, the transfers and quite a bit more. She is the only reporter covering Guantanamo Bay on a full-time basis. And even though the detainee population now stands at 40 — about 780 detainees have been held at the site — there remains plenty to do. For example, there’s the trial of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi man, for his alleged role in the 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole, which is a death-penalty proceeding. “America wants to execute this man, and I have been the only reporter at these hearings, and not once or twice,” says Rosenberg.
Rosenberg’s permanence on the Guantanamo beat, however, has now come into question: On Friday, McClatchy, the chain of 30 media brands including the Herald, the Sacramento Bee and the Kansas City Star, made a predictable announcement for a 21st-century newspaper company. Four-hundred-and-fifty employees would be receiving a voluntary early retirement offer, noted president and chief executive Craig I. Forman in a memo to colleagues.
Forman’s message included an essential part of the modern newspaper downsizing missive: lamentable and inscrutable language. “The changes outlined above will help us get to growth faster in a digital company that will be smaller for the foreseeable future. They are the culmination of the enormous progress McClatchy has already made in our transition to a digital future; progress that in many ways has paced the industry and would not have been possible without the effort, talent and dedication of the people reading this note.”
According to company spokeswoman Jeanne Segal, pension rules determined eligibility for the buyouts. Whatever those rules prescribe, the 59-year-old Rosenberg confirms that she has received a buyout package. She has until Feb. 19 to decide whether to accept it. “I don’t want to stop covering this story,” she said.
She has some help on that front: The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting has provided funding to support McClatchy’s ongoing reporting on Guantanamo Bay. In a statement, Segal tells the Erik Wemple Blog that “whatever moves Carol may or may not make, our coverage of GITMO will continue.” Segal futher confirmed that coverage would be full-time.
Replacing Rosenberg would entail a drop-off in experience on this Byzantine coverage area. “She’s the expert. There’s no one in the United States that knows more about Gitmo than Carol Rosenberg,” said Mark Seibel, who served as managing editor for news at the Miami Herald as Rosenberg was starting to work the story. “I assigned Carol to Gitmo and jokingly told her not to come back until after the executions had happened.”
On a more serious level, Seibel felt the place deserved coverage because it was “such an aberration in American jurisprudence and, really, in American military practice to have put in an internment camp where our intention seems to have been to hold these people forever.” Seibel left McClatchy via a buyout in 2017; he went to BuzzFeed and was recently laid off.
“Aberration” is an apt description, considering the details that Rosenberg has reported from Cuba: “My two suits are covered in mold,” said a lawyer for alleged Sept. 11 plot deputy Walid bin Attash in a pretrial hearing in November. As it turned out, there was a broken air conditioner in the trailer shared by six death-penalty defense teams.
Other recent notable stories include one detailing the Trump administration’s decision to close an office tasked with tracking inmates released from Gitmo; a piece on the arrest of a former Guantanamo naval base commander for allegedly covering up an affair and a “fight he had with a base worker who soon afterward was found drowned in the bay”; the scheduling of a trial in February 2020 for an Iraqi facing charges that he directed combatants in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Sept. 11 trial and the USS Cole trial are stuck in pretrial challenges, part of a tribunal system that, according to New York Times reporter Charlie Savage, “keeps spinning its wheels year after year without results.”
Another story under Rosenberg’s byline last year drove at how much work lies ahead on her turf: “The U.S. military’s mission at Guantanamo is shifting to permanent detention for al-Qaida and other war-on-terror detainees, commanders told reporters this week in a rare public pitch for Congress to fund a new $69 million, wheelchair-accessible prison — complete with a hospice-care cellblock — for the five accused 9/11 plotters and 10 other captives who were in some instances tortured in secret overseas CIA prisons.”
Savage, author of “Power Wars,” says this of Rosenberg’s contributions: “Her work on Guantanamo is an area where The Miami Herald and McClatchy have regularly distinguished themselves with reporting of national and international significance that cannot be found anywhere else. Guantanamo was one of the costliest and most disputed national-security legal-policy experiments by the Bush administration after 9/11 — and it’s not over even though the Bush and Obama administrations eventually got rid of most of the detainees Bush brought there.”
Not only is the tribunal system a mess, but the U.S. government has determined that there are some prisoners who defy its menu of options. “We are going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country,” said President Barack Obama in 2009. “But, even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States.”
All these considerations demand focused coverage, says Savage. “The very nature of this quagmire means that it is rarely generating flashy front-page news in this period,” he notes. “Yet how the military is handling the rump population of no-trial detainees still in its custody and the struggles of the tribunals system remain important — in part because some continue to advocate filling the prison back up with newly captured detainees, rather than trying them in civilian court or letting them remain in the custody of allies. Against that backdrop, Carol’s work is a public service, serving as a sentinel for the world. If she is unable to keep her franchise going, there will be nobody left writing about the factual reality of what is happening at Gitmo on a daily basis.”
The Herald’s focus on Guantanamo precedes its 2006 accession to the McClatchy group. For decades, the Miami Herald has viewed itself as the “New York Times of Central America” and the Caribbean, in the words of one source. What’s more, Miami is the home base of the U.S. Southern Command, to which the Joint Task Force Guantanamo reports. Even when McClatchy cut its international platoon a few years back, says Seibel, the Miami Herald has kept up its reporting from its southern backyard.
And as Rosenberg told Poynter’s Al Tompkins in 2013, it’s the cheapest overseas beat around. There are no hotel expenses because she doesn’t stay in one, even though she has logged at least 1,100 nights on site. “The tent is free,” she said. She pays $50 a month for Internet. Meals can be had for cheap in the mess hall — $3.45 for breakfast; $5.60 for lunch; and $4.85 for dinner. It’s $400 round trip for military flights in and out of the base. Here’s the tent:
One of Guantanamo’s commanders once contacted Seibel to request a new correspondent for Gitmo. The complaint was that PR types providing tours of the base were embarrassed because Rosenberg knew the place better than they did. Seibel said he told the commander that this was more of a management problem for the prison than it was for the Miami Herald.
Now Rosenberg, who was hired by the Herald in 1990, is tasked with figuring out whether to leave the organization that has published all of her Guantanamo stories. An icky calculation lies at the center of the decision. The note from Forman includes this warning in bold type: “This will be a one-time opportunity; we do not anticipate another voluntary early retirement program.” In other words, if you pass up this offer, you may be missing something good that’ll never come your way again. Companies say stuff like that to maximize buyout takers, the better to trim their personnel costs.
In 2017, the New York Times announced a buyout program and warned that if the initiative didn’t sufficiently thin the ranks, layoffs might be necessary. Is a similar dynamic at play with McClatchy? “We hope that offering voluntary early retirement and shifting to a functional organization will create enough savings in operating expenses to avoid layoffs,” Segal said.
Key word there — “hope."
“I thought I would retire in this job, but I hope it’s not so soon,” Rosenberg said.