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Tweeting from Guantanamo: Recording History 140 Characters at a Time

[Guantanamo Bay prison. Image from Lisa Hajjar] [Guantanamo Bay prison. Image from Lisa Hajjar]

Starting in the spring of 2009, whenever the Guantánamo (GTMO) military commissions hold hearings, there is usually a journalist or two—or more for high profile cases when the press pool is larger—tweeting from the Media Operation Center (MOC). The court proceedings are broadcast to the MOC on closed circuit TV. Journalists who opt not to go into the court, where all electronic devices are prohibited, can tweet a real-time record of interactions and quotes 140 characters at a time. To appreciate why tweeting is an important means of reporting from this place raises the larger issue of the indispensible role that journalists play in shedding light on how “justice” is being dispensed at GTMO. The only kinds of people who have access to observe these military commissions (other than those involved in the cases or assigned to guard the courts) are journalists and one-person delegations from a handful of authorized non-governmental organizations; academics can’t go—at least not as academics, nor can interested citizens unless they are also journalists. But only journalists have access to the MOC with its closed-circuit broadcasts and thus they alone can do live-time tweeting. Those tweets contain lots of information that never makes it into the other, more conventional kinds of reporting that the journalists also produce. Tweets from GTMO can be read by anyone who wants to know what is happening in real time, including journalists, bloggers, analysts, advocates, and government officials. Although the consumers of these tweets number at best in the thousands, these eye witness accounts will provide a bounty of otherwise-unreported information for historians of the future, since Twitter is archived in the Library of Congress.

The Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg, dean of the GTMO press corps, has been reporting on the prison since shortly after it opened in 2002, and she has attended almost every military commission proceeding since the first one in 2004. Rosenberg began tweeting on April 17, 2009, and today, over 1,760 people follow her on twitter. @carolrosenberg’s readership, including people from the Pentagon, the Department of Justice, and the Office of the Military Commissions, spikes when she reports from GTMO. A URL to her twitterstream is posted on blogs and gazettes read by commission watchers. By adding tweets to her journalistic repertoire, she has amplified her ability to convey an encyclopedic knowledge of GTMO and to share all kinds of critical information and colorful details about what goes on at this US naval base on the south side of Cuba. Given the complete exclusion of the public, Rosenberg’s voluminous reporting and tweeting exemplifies the best of the Fourth Estate. On November 2, 2010, the following was published in the letters section of the Miami Herald:

Informed on Twitter

I am a lawyer in Sydney, Australia. A few weeks ago I started following Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg on Twitter. She has been reporting, via the site, the military trial of Canadian national Omar Khadr at Guantánamo. There has been little, if any, media coverage of the trial in Australia. Rosenberg's coverage of the trial, and her reporting from Guantánamo on Twitter was absolutely fantastic. Whether one supported the prosecution or defense, it was incredible to be getting minute-by-minute reporting of this important court case. The Miami Herald should be congratulated for dedicating the resources to covering the Khadr trial; and I thank Rosenberg for her excellent coverage of a controversial case.

PHILLIP GIBSON, Sydney, Australia

Twitter is a relatively new medium (created in 2006) whose potential for conveying important information in real time was on vivid display during the 2009 Iranian elections. Being an effective live tweeter of news, though, is an acquired skill. When Rosenberg started tweeting, she used it mainly to post links to her new articles. The person she credits for modeling the potential of live tweeting from GTMO is Spencer Ackerman of The Washington Independent who was on the press delegation in April – May 2010 to cover pre-trial hearings in the case of Omar Khadr. (Ackerman has since moved to Wired.) Those hearings focused on the question of whether Khadr’s self-incriminating statements to US interrogators at Bagram and GTMO should be suppressed on the grounds that they were elicited through coercion and abuse. Khadr, a Canadian citizen who was 15 when he was captured in Afghanistan in 2002, claimed that he had been tortured, and the defense had witnesses to support that allegation. The prosecution had its own witnesses to contest claims of mistreatment in order to argue that his incriminating statements were given freely and therefore were reliable evidence of his guilt. Interrogators, soldiers, FBI agents, doctors, military police and others provided testimony and were cross-examined by the other side. Ackerman zoomed in on all kinds of heretofore untweeted information, offering up a witness-by-witness and question-by-question account of how the torture-focused hearings were playing out in court. Here are a few of @attackerman’s live tweets from those hearings:

Interrog #1 told 15 yr old #khadr a 'fictitious story' abt Afgh kid who lied to detainees was raped in US jail by '4 big black guys' & died

Gator #1 says his use of Fear Up, story about rape/killing to #Khadr 'didnt help out, didnt release any actionable' intelligence #GTMO

surreal to be at #Guantanamo and hear Glenn Beck argue against torturing Faisal Shahzad & citing John Adams. No one tell Liz Cheney

You think of #Guantanamo Bay as a Naval base hosting an indefinite detention facility. I think of it as the place I got my 5000th follower.

On April 27, @attackerman tweeted on the fact that the manual for the military commissions, which incorporated the revised Military Commissions Act passed by Congress in October 2009, did not arrive from the Pentagon until the first day of the hearings:

Sec Gates signed Manual for mil cmsns today. Prosecution, defense counsels are right now alerting Col Parrish to its existence. (Parrish was the judge presiding over Khadr’s case.)

Rosenberg was inspired by Ackerman’s example, and live tweeting from GTMO has never been the same. She has taught several journalists new to GTMO (including me) how to tweet @attackerman-style.

During those spring 2010 pre-trial suppression hearings, Rosenberg and three Canadian journalist—Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star and author of Guantánamo’s Child, Paul Koring of the Globe and Mail, and Steve Edwards of Postmedia News—reported the name of “Interrogator #1,” Joshua Claus. His name was already in the public record, and three of the journalists had published it previously. But the Pentagon regarded his identity as classified information. The four journalists were “banned for life” from GTMO. @attackerman tweeted the text of the Pentagon’s banning letter to his 5,000 followers. According to Rosenberg, the banning and the challenges to it—ultimately successful since all four have been unbanned—significantly increased the number of her own twitter followers.

Rosenberg was the first of the four unbanned journalists to return to GTMO. In July, she was there for a hearing after Khadr fired all his lawyers; the judge ruled that he must retain his military lawyer, Lt. Col. Jon Jackson. The following month, Khadr’s trial began. During the voir dire that seated a seven-member military jury, tweets relayed information about the original pool of 15 officers and their answers to questions from Jackson and the lead prosecutor, Jeff Groharing, to assess their attitudes about GTMO and the military commissions. Then the trial began, but it was abruptly suspended at 4:00 the first day when Jackson collapsed in court. Rosenberg held back until she could confirm that Jackson’s wife—who was following @carolrosenberg—had been informed about her husband through means more appropriate than a tweet.

GTMO journalists tend to follow each other, often retweeting and commenting back and forth, creating a cyber-echo that is carried out of the MOC on the twitter stream. Those tweets also provide a supplemental record of quotes and information that individual journalists might have missed in their own note taking. Since the transcripts of hearings are not released for many months, twitter provides an immediate, open, unredacted transcript. And, as Malorie Beauchemin, who tweets @m_beauchemin, aptly noted:

Only in Guantanamo. Reporters run outside to see if it's true, when one reporter tweets that it's raining.

Shephard started tweeting several weeks before her unbanned return in October for the final phase of the Khadr case and @shephardm had hundreds of followers by the time she got to GTMO. According to Shephard, live tweeting enables her to do what she does anyway, which is taking notes, but also to share them instantly with an interested audience. One of @shephardm’s tweets reflects the fraught political stakes of the Khadr proceedings in Canada:

Note to my dedicated emailers. Thanks for suggestions to stay here in #Gitmo, marry #Khadr, or just go and die. Don't shoot the messenger.

Koring, who also returned in October, doesn’t tweet from the MOC because he regards his employer as having exclusive rights to his observations and analysis, and he doesn’t want to impart free news to journalists who haven’t done the work or paid the price to get there. Jane Sutton of Reuters, who has been to GTMO almost as often as Rosenberg, doesn’t like to tweet, but her fact-filled insights are disseminated by those who do.

The press delegation that went down to GTMO in October for the conclusion of Khadr’s case had twenty-five journalists. On the first day, October 25, the commission convened around 9:00 a.m. The judge, Col. Patrick Parrish, announced that the defense and prosecution had reached a plea bargain agreement, which was no surprise since that story had been broken days earlier by Muna Shikaki of Al Arabiya who tweets @munashik. But what the tweeters in the MOC could convey in real time were details about the charges to which the now-24-year-old Khadr had pleaded guilty, as well as information about his demeanor, expression, outfit, and the atmosphere in court.

Some of the journalists who have been reporting for years on the Khadr case were surprised that the government had apparently given up nothing in the way of charges and that Khadr had conceded guilt to everything to reach a deal on the sentence—which Edwards had first reported several days earlier as eight years, one to be spent in GTMO and the rest in Canada. After each specification in the plea bargain agreement was read aloud, the judge asked Khadr if he was guilty, and in a muted tone he replied “yes.”  Yes to the crime of “murder in violation of the laws of war” for throwing a grenade that fatally wounded Special Forces Sgt. Christopher Speer, yes to attempted murder for building and planting improvised explosive devices intended to kill US and allied forces, yes to material support for terrorism, conspiracy and spying. By the time the judge called a recess, the news had already been pumped out of GTMO on the twitter stream. The journalists in the MOC could not see the reaction of Speer’s widow, who was in the courtroom, because the camera was not on her. But those who were there came back at recess to report that she cried when the murder charge was read and Khadr said “yes.” That information was immediately tweeted.

The same seven military jurors who had been seated in August for the trial were now assigned the role of passing a sentence; they did not know the terms of the plea agreement. By the rules of the commissions, whichever sentence is lower would be the one that the convicted prisoner serves. Over the next four days of sentencing hearings, the lawyers put on witnesses to testify about aggravating (prosecution) or mitigating (defense) factors that they would like the seven members to consider. The possibility that the jury might pass a sentence lower than eight years, or significantly higher was narrated and debated as journalists tweeted about the persuasiveness of witnesses and the effectiveness of lawyers’ lines of questioning.

For example, one of the prosecution witnesses, Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist, testified that in his professional opinion, Khadr poses a “high risk of future dangerousness.” According to Welner, Khadr (whom he met once for 7-8 hours) is an unrepentant “radical jihadist” who has been “marinating” for years in the “extremist” environment of GTMO’s Camp 4. Welner assessed that Khadr’s religious devotion, evidenced by the fact that he has memorized the Qur’an and is a popular leader of prayers, to be a significant “data point” in his risk assessment. The fact that Khadr had met Osama bin Laden and that his own father had been an al-Qaeda insider gave him the status of a “rock star” and “al-Qaeda royalty” in GTMO and would add to his dangerousness if he was ever released, Welner testified. The doctor, who had no previous experience with risk assessment for radical Islamists, explained that he based his analytical framework in large part on the research of a Danish psychologist, Nicolai Sennels, who conducted a prison study in Copenhagen and authored Among Criminal Muslims. Welner had never actually read the book, which is written in Danish, explaining that he had heard about it and called Sennels to discuss the latter’s findings and methods.

Journalists in the MOC started googling Sennels and immediately found an interview he gave to the right-wing on-line publication, Frontpagemag.com, in which he propounds on various defects of the “Muslim personality.” They also found an article authored by Sennels in which he says that Muslim “inbreeding” has adverse impacts on their “sanity” and “intelligence.” These links were tweeted while Welner was still on the stand, along with his frequent spicy quotes about how Khadr was “marinating in jihadi stew.” @shephardm tweeted:

"That's not all," says Welner, #Khadr is "charming," speaks various languages and that he "has attracted more attention to Cuba than Fidel".

Welner invoked the name of Woody Allen three times, although journalist tweeters could not agree on the point he was trying to make. During the cross-examination by defense lawyer Maj. Matt Schwartz, Welner was questioned about Sennels’ radical views, his own inexperience with radical Islamists and the fact that he had never read the book on which he constructed his analytical framework. @shephardm tweeted:

#Khadr lawyer Schwartz challenging Welner's research about #GTMO detainees and recidivism rates. "Your sample size was Omar Khadr?"  

 @carolrosenberg tweeted:

Welner said he did not consider Dane doctor's "political positions": "It's my understanding Omar #Khadr is not a product of inbreeding."

After a lunch break during which Schwartz asked Welner to read several articles about Sennels’ views, I tweeted @lisahajjar:

Welner on redirect says reading Sennels articles today makes Welner even "more impressed" with his insights.

@munashik, the wittiest of the GTMO tweeters, posted:

Coming up w/book titles4Welner: "Woody Allen, Omar Khadr, psychoanalysis and YOU" "Jihadist Marinade: the art of straddling forensics &law"

And: Welner great insight re who influences Omar Khadr: his family+other detainees in camp4. Umm, can he interact w/anyone else?

During Welner’s testimony, someone who goes by @hashtager tweeted from the world beyond GTMO:

# Hashtag surfing and landed on #Khadr. Sucked into the live-tweeting of @amayeda @shephadm @carolrosenberg @lisahajjar @munashik.

The following day @carolrosenberg tweeted:

Witness in Camp Justice media center! Dr. Michael Welner, celebrity forensic psychiatrist, just walked in to see court sketches of himself. (No one is allowed into the MOC except journalists.)

During the testimony of a defense witness, Welner was seated behind the prosecution. Beauchemin, who was sitting next to him in the courtroom, tweeted when she got back to the MOC:

Dr Welner feeding questions to the prosecution : "Wasn't Ayman al-Zawahiri only 15 when he became a radical?" #Khadr#Guantanamo. (The prosecution wisely ignored Welner’s tip since al-Zawahiri is not on trial.)

When Tabitha Speer took the stand to give victim impact testimony about how the killing of her husband Christopher had affected her and her two children, tweeters commented on her eloquence. @carolrosenberg tweeted:

Widow of soldier #Khadr killed: "A part of my daughter died with my husband." She was 3 1/2. Now jury is seeing soldier's last family photo.

As Speer read aloud a letter addressed to Khadr, @carolrosenberg tweeted:

Also in soldier's daughter's letter: "My dad never got to see me play soccer or go to kindergarten."

Speer directly addressed Khadr, saying, “The victims, the children, they are my children. Not you.” These statements were critical references to common characterizations of Khadr as a child soldier and a torture victim. When Shephard got back to the MOC, she tweeted about the atmosphere in the courtroom:

Just back from #Guantanamo court. Extremely emotional testimony by Tabitha Speer. Many court spectators crying. #Khadr had head down.

On the final day of the hearings, the last person to take the stand was Khadr himself, who gave unsworn testimony. Because the two main questions that would be of concern to the jury were his remorsefulness and his rehabilitative potential, the tweeting included descriptions of his demeanor and expressions, as well as his words. He told the jury a few things about himself, and then stood to address an apology directly to Speer. “I'm really really sorry for the pain I caused you and your family. I wish I could do something that would take this pain away from you.” Those words were tweeted out of the MOC in real time. When the journalists who were in court got back to the MOC, they tweeted that Speer’s reaction was to shake her head and mouth the word “no,” meaning apology not accepted.  

When the lead prosecutor, Groharing, delivered his closing argument, he stressed the personal loss to the Speer family, the fact that Khadr might have been young at the time of his capture but was old enough to know right from wrong, and asked the jury to “send a message” with a sentence of 25 years. @carolrosenberg tweeted:

Prosecutor took exception to mention that #Khadr read "Walk to Freedom." Says, "Ladies and gentleman, the accused is no Nelson Mandela."

And: #Khadr prosecutor to jury: "Make no mistake. Your sentence will send a message. The press of the world are here to report it."

The lead defense lawyer, Jackson, delivered his closing arguments not from notes at the podium, as Groharing had done, but off the cuff standing in front of the jury box. He stressed Khadr’s youthfulness, his lack of choice and the culpability of his father in sending him into Afghanistan in 2002, and the fact that al-Qaeda uses children. He also appealed to the jury to consider that of the thousands of soldiers who have been killed by enemy fire and bombings in the “war on terror,” Khadr alone is being prosecuted for murder. He asked them to disregard Welner’s testimony as having “zero significance” because it is not based on “real science.” And he asked for leniency in light of the abuses to which Khadr was subjected in US custody and the fact that he had already spent eight years in GTMO. @carolrosenberg quoted Jackson’s most pointed reference to Welner and the consequences if the jury were to agree with the prosecution’s request for 25 years:

Army defender, Lt Col. Jackson: "For the next 25 years at #Guantanamo he’s going to be marinating, marinating in this jihad sauce?"

During the jury deliberations, which stretched into a second day, @carolrosenberg tweeted:

My Globe and Mail colleague Paul Koring has been crunching numbers: #Khadr has spent 3012 days in US military custody, 2919 at #Guantanamo. (Koring doesn’t tweet.)

And: Human Rights Watch observer spotted four #Khadr jurors and widow of soldier he killed taking brunch in same #Guantanamo dining room today.

A few minutes before 5:00 pm on the second day of deliberation, it was announced to journalists that the jury had arrived at a decision. Those who wanted to be in court raced up the hill with their military escorts. When the president of the panel (military-speak for lead juror) stood to announce the verdict, he wasn’t speaking into a microphone and when he was finished the judge did not restate the jury’s sentence. Rosenberg, who was in the MOC, said she thought her “head was going to explode.” She tweeted what happened:

Omar #Khadr is standing. The sentence was announced but the jury wasn't miked and we in #Guantanamo's filing center didn't hear it.

Now the judge, who is miked, is explaining that #Khadr serve at most 8 years. And after a year US will OK his request to serve in Canada.

There's absolute DISMAY in the Camp Justice filing center. The Pentagon spokeswoman says jury sentence is 40 years. He serves only eight. (The dismay refered to in this tweet was the protracted delay for those in the MOC to hear the answer to this most important question; Maj. Tanya Bradsher, Pentagon spokeswoman who was in the MOC , had to call  up to the court and then announced to the journalists that the jury had decided on 40 years.)

When she got back to the MOC, @shephardm tweeted what happened in court when the decision was read:

40 years. Wow. #Khadr looked straight ahead. Widow of soldier he was convicted of killing cheered out in court.

I tweeted:

Jury sent message with 40-year sentence, alright: plea bargains rule.

And so, thanks to the technology of twitter, the interested public could learn within seconds how the historic Khadr case concluded. Within minutes of the decision, Khadr was moved into the semi-isolation of Camp 5 where the two other convicted prisoners are housed. He will be out of GTMO in one year and repatriated to Canada where he will serve out the remainder of his eight-year sentence, or some lesser amount of time.

 

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1 comment for "Tweeting from Guantanamo: Recording History 140 Characters at a Time"

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Following these events in real time was stressful and psychologically disturbing, at least for me, and as an academic. In fact, it was gut wrenching, particularly the information about the forensic psychiatrist, who clearly brings shame to the profession, and continues the damage of the 'war on terror' propaganda, when we clearly see it for what it is. One has to wonder why the state/prosecution would choose Dr. Welner from all of the professionals in the field.

But maybe the worst is the reaction of the widow in the cheering at his insanely punitive sentence. Maybe we should have expected exactly that, especially in light of the comment that a part of her 3 1/2-year old daughter DIED with her husband!?

On the other hand, this is also a witness to just how remarkably revolutionary this technology is to the future of journalism. What it provides both NOW and to future historians is an invaluable aid to getting truth to the surface.

Carla Coco wrote on November 05, 2010 at 12:04 AM

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