Since its inception in 2002 under the George W. Bush administration, the Guantánamo Bay detention camp has been a “political hot potato,” according to Pulitzer Center grantee Carol Rosenberg, who now serves as the only full-time reporter covering the base and its detainees. The ongoing global pandemic and political inaction have made the long-awaited 9/11 trials and the closing of America’s “forever prison” as elusive as ever.
On September 16, 2020, Rosenberg joined retired Rear Adm. John Kirby for a webinar hosted by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. Moderator Karen J. Greenberg of the Fordham University School of Law led a conversation that unpacked COVID-19’s impact on Guantánamo and the trial proceedings, as well as the moral and legal arguments that continue to envelope the detention center in a critical election year.
As a result of the pandemic, the military commission tasked with prosecuting detainees has not held a hearing since February. Defense lawyers, who would be subject to a two-week quarantine inside military barracks, have not visited since March. Two quarterly International Committee of the Red Cross visits have been canceled.
“I think if there is one way to describe [Guantánamo] at this moment, people are watching and waiting for a vaccine, a plan to get down there safely, and the outcome of these elections,” Rosenberg said.
No journalists, including Rosenberg, have visited Guantánamo since late February, making the already secluded base even harder to cover. Rosenberg has reported on Guantánamo continuously since 2002 when she was at the Miami Herald. The Pulitzer Center began supporting her reporting in 2019, first via McClatchy and now as part of a special collaboration with The New York Times.
“We have made it very difficult for the press to gain the kind of access that they would normally gain for such a highly visible mission like this,” Kirby said. “We've made it physically difficult. We made it politically difficult.”
Kirby can speak to the base’s tenuous relationship with the press from experience–his 29-year U.S. Navy career included stints as deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations and Pentagon press secretary during the Obama administration.
A lack of transparency also has marked 2020, as the military stopped reporting COVID-19 numbers at the base after two confirmed cases.
“There's 2,000 Jamaicans and Filipinos serving down there as laborers, and their families want to know what the health condition there is as well. As do the residents of GITMO who ask me what's going on, because they are unaware,” Rosenberg said.
A consistent theme throughout the webinar was the question of who ultimately maintains ownership of Guantánamo’s prison and the responsibility for closing it: the Pentagon, U.S. Southern Command, the American people, or other parties. To Kirby, the answer is clear.
“That is taxpayer money that is funding the mission down there, which is not cheap by the way,” he said. “I would hope that the American people would take a sense of ownership [...] In my view, it is America's prison, and therefore all Americans ought to care about this, because they are literally putting their blood and their money down there.”
The U.S. annually spends at least $13 million per detainee, likely making Guantánamo the most expensive detention program in the world. While domestic supermax prisons spend a fraction of that cost on prisoners, bipartisan efforts have consistently stopped the transfer of GITMO’s remaining detainees to U.S. soil.
“If people thought about the price tag, I think that people might think hard about why we're doing it,” Rosenberg said. “But in the scheme of things, at a time when people are more and more concerned about their social isolation and the politics of the moment, it is hard to make people care.”
In conjunction with the webinar, the Berkley Center solicited editorial responses from scholars and policymakers regarding the ethical challenges surrounding Guantánamo. Authors covered issues ranging from the efficacy of the military commissions to torture’s place in just war tradition. You can read the responses on the Berkley Forum here.
To view the full webinar, click this link or the above embed.