October 27, 2016

Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg just wants some basic facts.

What she’s after used to be freely available but is now kept secret by the Pentagon. It involves hundreds of millions of dollars, thousands of people and 60 prisoners. She’s been chasing the information for more than two years.

And now, she’s going to court to get it.

On Wednesday, Rosenberg went public with her lawsuit against the Pentagon after a years-long battle to uncover how many people work at the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. With help from the Yale Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic, Rosenberg is seeking the prison’s staffing information for every day since it opened in January 2002.

That information is key to understanding how the United States is spending $455 million per year on the 60 prisoners detained there, she said.

“That works out to more than $7.58 million dollars per prisoner per year,” Rosenberg said.

The Department of Defense has told Rosenberg that between 1,950 and 2,200 people are assigned to the prison on a daily basis. For each prisoner, there are 32 staff workers, including lawyers, linguists, doctors, guards, cooks and spokespeople.

That may seem like a lot, but Gitmo is a sprawling base. There are several camps at the Cuba complex, including high-security steel enclosures, a psychiatric ward and a juvenile lockup. Workers are building a new, $12.4 million dining facility to cook for detainees and staff and spending another $8.4 million to convert an empty prison block into a mini-medical center.

There’s also a separate, secluded prison for 15 other captives with their own medical facility.

“That’s a lot of investment in an operation currently staffed by around 1,950 troops and contractors for 60 captives today,” she said.

Staffing levels rose after her in-depth coverage of a hunger strike at the prison in 2013, she said. After that, the Pentagon added more medics and nurses to care for the prisoners, some of whom were being force-fed through tubes.

The office of the Director for National Intelligence said in its latest summary that 122 of the 693 prisoners released from Guantánamo “re-engaged” in “terrorist activities” after they were released.

About half of them were captured or killed — the others are still free. Another 86 former prisoners are “suspected” of re-engaging with terrorists. In all, the U.S. government believes close to a third of the prisoners it has released may have joined terrorist organizations when they got out.

The lawsuit is a last-ditch effort to get staffing information from the Department of Defense, which tends to drag its feet on public records requests regarding the overseas prison, Rosenberg said.

“When you file a Freedom of Information Act request involving Gitmo, it goes to the Department of Defense, which does nothing,” she said. “The request goes nowhere.”

The Department of Defense cites “operational security” as grounds for denying her requests, she said. But they used to give the data out freely, suggesting an ulterior motive.

“They don’t want somebody looking over their shoulder,” Rosenberg said. “Guantánamo is out of people’s sight, and not enough people are asking for the information.”

Rosenberg has tracked the evolution of the prison at Guantánamo Bay since it opened with about 300 prisoners in 2002. Her editor, Mark Seibel, decided they would cover it as if it were a local story until it was over. She took him seriously.

Seibel thought the story would play out in three years, he said. But the fact that it didn’t go away means it’s still worth covering. Rosenberg agreed.

“I cover it because nobody else is covering it,” Rosenberg said. “It is about to enter a third administration.”

This isn’t the first time Rosenberg has gone to court over information related to the prison. Three years ago, she and the Miami Herald filed a federal lawsuit that forced the government to release the names of the 48 Guantánamo prisoners deemed “too dangerous to release but ineligible for trial.”

As expensive as Gitmo has been — and after 14 years of controversy over its very existence — the prison is seldom mentioned in the 2016 presidential campaign.

But the future of the prison and the inmates who live there could not be more different depending on who is elected president. At a July rally, Donald Trump said that, on his watch, the United States would “fill it up.” Citing national security reasons, Hillary Clinton said she plans to close the prison.

Whatever the outcome, Rosenberg and Seibel will be watching. Seibel, now chief of correspondents for McClatchy, never envisioned the story would drag on this long. But it’s essential journalists like Rosenberg stay on it and fight for open records.

“Whenever the government sets something up with the clear intent to skirt accountability, it’s our responsibility to work extra hard to learn independently what it’s up to,” Seibel said. “They picked a naval base in Cuba thinking it would be out of reach of courts and observers.”

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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