< The Enduring PR Offensive


Friday, January 16, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: Now, when it comes to other fronts in the war against government opacity, the Obama Administration has some pretty significant battles ahead.

PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: I don't want to be ambiguous about this. We are going to close Guantanamo and we are going to make sure that the procedures we set up are ones that abide by our Constitution. That is not only the right thing to do but it actually -

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, that’s a plan. Just wondering, though, has anyone – say, Obama’s Defense Secretary-Designate Robert Gates – broken this news to the current Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates? – because this week at Guantanamo things were not only business as usual, the Pentagon was flying foreign journalists in and out of the base to show off the safe, humane and transparent processes of military justice. Carol Rosenberg covers Guantanamo for The Miami Herald. By the time we spoke to her, the English, Korean and Chinese reporters had just departed and she was awaiting the next group of journalists to arrive.

CAROL ROSENBERG: All the foreign press left this morning, and the next batch comes in Saturday.

BOB GARFIELD: So you’re the only one there.

CAROL ROSENBERG: Yeah. Well, they've got us in a tent city with 120 beds in it, and I'm the only occupant tonight.

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Well, there goes the slumber party.


BOB GARFIELD: So in the interest of transparency, the Pentagon invited foreign journalists, including one from the People’s Republic of China, to come, and that reporter was doing her TV standup. What happened?

CAROL ROSENBERG: Well, she did her TV standup to tape. She was going to take it back to the States and send her story out. But before you leave with any tape, you have to show it to the operational security officer. Actually, he’s the censor. So in the background of her standup, where she’s been taken to do a standup, there’s a bit of a fluorescent orange barrier, which is a demarcation point for the area where they're keeping the media. And he orders her to destroy the imagery and go out and shoot the standup all over again because you can't have fluorescent orange in your standup.

BOB GARFIELD: And the Pentagon doesn't want fluorescent orange in your video because…?

CAROL ROSENBERG: They say it’s a national security issue. People might know how we secure things, I guess, with fluorescent orange. This is one of the most controlled transparent places you've ever seen.

BOB GARFIELD: Why at this very late stage go through this process, which sounds an awful lot like P.R. theater?

CAROL ROSENBERG: They really believe in Guantanamo. There are people at the Pentagon who still think that this is a really good thing. They still are using the exact same talking points they used a couple of years ago about how it’s safe, humane and transparent, and they like to say that, you know, hundreds of journalists from dozens of countries have come and seen it, and this is a totally transparent operation. It’s almost like they can't turn the talking point off.

BOB GARFIELD: Hasn't that P.R. battle long since been lost by the Bush Administration? Doesn't Guantanamo, in the eyes of the world, stand for illegal detention and worse?

CAROL ROSENBERG: Look, President-Elect Obama has said he’s going to issue an order to close it, but it’s going to take some time. And it’s almost like an “I told you so” from the Bush Administration. They said, we wanted to close it too, but you can't just close these things because it was created for good reason. And it’s almost like they're still trying to win that P.R. war by bringing in foreign media and saying, this is something good we've done. This is something important we've done. This has got a bad rap. Soldiers and sailors down here do good work.

BOB GARFIELD: There’s something confusing about all of this. Obviously the Bush Administration has a very different point of view on Guantanamo than does the incoming Obama Administration. But the Secretary of Defense isn't changing. Robert Gates is the Secretary of Defense now. He supports the closing of Guantanamo. Why on his watch is this bit of P.R. kabuki taking place?

CAROL ROSENBERG: I think the Secretary of Defense has always been preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan and hasn't much paid attention to the Guantanamo theme. He said he wants to close it but he’s never changed the talking points. He's left it out there as something that’s a problem that he hasn't dealt with. I think that career public affairs officers, when given the message at the Pentagon, deliver that message until someone tells them to stop. There was a prosecutor here yesterday, and we said to him, why are you prosecuting this Sudanese guy when the understanding is this war court’s days may be numbered? And he said, I'm an American naval officer. It’s full steam ahead until someone tells me to stop. And I guess that nobody’s told them to stop.

BOB GARFIELD: So the weirdest thing about what you’re witnessing there this week is that on Tuesday it could all just dramatically change – new set of marching orders, brand new talking points, no invitations to foreign press, no message of transparency and humane treatment. It all – pfft – just goes away?

CAROL ROSENBERG: As a reporter, this is the worrisome part. We still need the answers to the same questions, and there will still be the same people on the other end of the line not answering the questions. So if then they say, we're not even going to put on the show tours and we're not even going to bring media down here because Guantanamo’s no longer a story, so if on Tuesday he orders it closed and on Wednesday a bureaucrat at the Pentagon says, no more media, how do we cover the story?

BOB GARFIELD: Well, wait, wait, wait a second. So let me see if I've got this right. We have the Bush Administration for another couple of days putting on – let's just say it’s a P.R. show, but when the incoming Democratic Obama presidency begins, the show may end. But are you suggesting they could actually interfere with reporters getting answers to the questions that remain unanswered to this day?

CAROL ROSENBERG: My question as a journalist down here is, they wouldn't answer us before. If they close it down or if they decide that they want to close it down, will they start answering us now? The transparency talking point has never been filled in. They've never told us how much money has been spent here. They've never shown us whole parts of the prison camps. There’s 10 percent of the people here on a hunger strike. They'll still be on a hunger strike come Wednesday or Thursday, I suspect, and we won't see it. So the administration changes. The question is, how do we as reporters, with the new “let's close Guantanamo” talking point, get the answers to the questions that existed today next week this time?

BOB GARFIELD: Carol, thank you very much.


BOB GARFIELD: Carol Rosenberg covers Guantanamo for The Miami Herald.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips and Nazanin Rafsanjani and edited this week by consensus. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh and John DeLore. We also had help from Deena Prichep. Mike Ventura has been our webmaster, and we wish him good luck as he – Venturas forth.

Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. Brooke will be back next week. Meg Ryan will not, as she moves on for the next three months to run The Brian Lehrer Show. We will miss her more than end-of-show credits can credit. I'm Bob Garfield.