(updated below - updated again)
(1) This month's cover story in the Columbia Journalism Review is a truly superb account, written by Washington Monthly editor Rachel Morris, of the plight of Sami al-Haj, a Sudanese cameraman for Al Jazeera who has been held in Guantanamo for the last five years.
Al-Haj has never been charged with any acts of terrorism against the U.S., which is true for 55 % of Guantanamo's inmates. Instead, the interrogations to which he has been subjected while in captivity have focused almost exclusively on Al Jazeera. As Morris documents, that news outlet has long been viewed as a virtual terrorist organization by the Cheney/Rumsfeld faction inside the administration and their hatred for it is a key part, if not the most important motivating factor, in why al-Haj has been detained:
For his part, Stafford Smith [al-Haj's lawyer] believes that al-Haj "is clearly in Guantanamo for one reason only, and that's because he's an employee of Al Jazeera." According to Stafford Smith, al-Haj has been interrogated approximately 130 times. Roughly 125 of those sessions, he said, dealt not with the allegations but with Al Jazeera's operations.
Stafford Smith told me that military interrogators have repeatedly asked al-Haj to confirm that prominent Al Jazeera journalists are members of terrorist organizations or that Al Jazeera is funded by Al Qaeda. In addition, said Stafford Smith, interrogators offered to release al-Haj if he would spy on the network. Several military and intelligence sources with knowledge of Guantanamo told me that those contentions seem plausible, but they are impossible to confirm.
Morris details that al-Haj has been subjected to the by-now-familiar litany of Guantanamo outrages -- the refusal to allow him to communicate with anyone for years, the vague and shifting accusations based on secret evidence, the severe physical and psychological abuse to which he and his fellow detainees have been subjected, etc. Morris' entire article is chilling and very well-documented, but I want to highlight one vital aspect of it:
Despite the novelty of al-Haj's status as the only journalist inside Guantanamo, it was a long time before he attracted much media attention. At first, even Al Jazeera was reluctant to cover his story.
"Up until around 2003, the air was very tense. You didn't really want to investigate it too much," said Ahmad Ibrahim, an Al Jazeera producer who has researched al-Haj's case. "At least to a lot of people around the world, holding people was probably justifiable due to the enormity of 9/11. And in the Arab world, the situation at Guantanamo was difficult to comprehend or believe, even -- that any kind of torture would be perpetrated by the U.S. A lot of people didn't comprehend what Guantanamo stood for, and the legal arguments that were used to justify it."
In 2005, Ibrahim invited Stafford Smith to Al Jazeera's headquarters in Doha. "That's when the big interest in Sami and his plight started." Since then, al-Haj has become a cause celebre in the Arab world. Ibrahim made a forty-five-minute documentary about him, Prisoner 345, and Al Jazeera regularly reports on his case. Al-Haj has also been featured in several stories in the British press.
But despite repeated efforts by Ibrahim and Stafford Smith, there was until very recently almost no coverage of al-Haj in the U.S., apart from a New York Times column last October by Nicholas Kristof. Al Jazeera "is still perceived in a very negative way" in the U.S., said Joel Campagna of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "I think that has made people pause when looking at this case."
There are numerous critical insights just in that passage alone. In the aftermath of 9/11, large portions of the world, including the Muslim world generally, were so supportive of the U.S. that they were reluctant to challenge even our most extremist detention policies based on the sense that "holding people was probably justifiable due to the enormity of 9/11." Al Jazeera itself seemed almost afraid to challenge the detention, with good reason. And much of the Muslim world was slow to react to the detention of its journalist because the notion that the U.S. would just lawlessly detain people indefinitely, let alone systematically torture its detainees, was inconceivable.
But after several years of the Bush presidency, all of that has changed. In the Muslim world, it is common knowledge -- a cause celebre -- that we have imprisoned, and abused if not tortured, an Al Jazeera journalist with no due process whatsoever, due -- at least in large part, if not entirely -- to his work as a journalist. More significantly still, while this story receives ample attention in the Middle East and even in Europe, Americans -- thanks to our sleepwalking, broken and corrupt media -- are blissfully ignorant of the entire story, thus further increasing the "Why-do-they-hate-us?" bewilderment and the gap between how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived. Along those lines, Morris makes a critical point:
But while some journalists may distrust Al Jazeera, or may have believed Donald Rumsfeld's discredited claim that the inmates represented the "worst of the worst," others may have avoided writing about detainees like al-Haj because of a more mundane bias: the simple difficulty of reporting about Guantanamo.
It's often been noted that the lopsided legal process fashioned by the Bush administration makes it virtually impossible for detainees to defend themselves. A lesser noticed consequence is that the withholding of evidence makes it impossible for journalists to write a conventionally "balanced" story about individual detaineesb
While researching this piece, for instance, I've had plenty of access to al-Haj's lawyer and to Al Jazeera, but none to the Department of Defense or al-Haj himself. This imbalance is uncomfortable, but to be deterred by it would be to miss the point. The central question underlying the case of al-Haj and the other detainees is not their guilt or innocence, but why they have been held at GuantC!namo for six years without a mechanism to fairly determine whether they belong there.
In his Press Conference the other day, President Bush closed his remarks with this claim:
And the fundamental question facing the world on this issue is whether or not it makes sense to try to promote an alternative ideology. I happen to think it does. They say, he's idealistic. Yes, I'm idealistic, but I'm also realistic in understanding if there is not an alternative ideology presented, these thugs will be able to continue the recruit. They'll use hopelessness to be able to recruit.
He is right that we are certainly promoting an "alternative ideology" in the world. But it isn't one that is likely to help us stem the threat of anti-American terrorism, to put it mildly.
(2) Several weeks ago, I wrote about the revealing belief of neoconservatives that any neoconservative -- including ones charged with and even convicted of the most serious wrongdoing -- must, by definition, be wrongfully accused. A neoconservative, after all, is so intrinsically good, so devoted to the right cause, that it cannot possibly be fair to punish them. If they are threatened with punishment, then, by definition, there must be some grave injustice.
The examples I used illustrating this mentality included Lewis Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, the AIPAC officials on trial for espionage, and neoconservative financier Conrad Black -- each of whom was charged with various degrees of wrongdoing. Each of them has been vigorously defended as victims of prosecutorial injustice by neoconservatives, who, when neoconservatives are not involved, could not be any more indifferent to the plight of criminal defendants. Quite the contrary, they cheer on every assertion of government power, no matter how unlimited and unchecked.
Just like Libby, Black last week was found guilty in a federal court, after having been indicted and prosecuted by the Bush Justice Department, of multiple felonies. Already, neoconservatives like Mark Steyn are busy smearing everyone in sight -- the stupid jury, the unfair judge, the out-of-control federal prosecutor. One of Black's (and Libby's) most fervent defenders, David Frum, is on vacation, though we will undoubtedly hear from him soon about all the grave injustices which have befallen his neoconservative comrade.
When a neoconservative is accused of wrongdoing, even by the Republican government that they run, every theory is on the table, except for the possibility that they actually did something wrong. Anyone devoted to the neoconservative agenda (including the President) by definition cannot be guilty, and the greatest injustice of all is when they are held accountable for their actions under the law. After all, they have an Epic War of Civilizations to fight against the Supervillainous Evil Islamic Fascists. What's a little stockholder fraud and obstruction of justice -- or illegal eavesdropping -- when we're talking about our Greatest Civilization Warriors?
(3) Two items that reflect very poorly on Congressional Democrats: first, Bob Geiger examines the tepid support thus far among Senate Democrats for the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act of 2007, a bill sponsored by GOP Senator Arlen Specter that would "restore habeas corpus for those detained by the United States." In May, I wrote about the responsibility of Democrats to reverse the most egregious provisions of the Military Commissions Act in light of their ignoble role in allowing its enactment.
At Digby's blog, Dover Bitch analyzes the truly appalling 97-0 vote on the Lieberman Amendment, which has no purpose other than to provide war-with-Iran advocates with (at the very least) a potent rhetorical weapon to "justify" the need for military confrontation with Iran. I will write more about this resolution and Iran in the next day or so, but it really is amazing, and infuriating, that there was not a single Senator willing to oppose this resolution, at least as an expression of opposition to the dangerous faction clearly seeking a new war.
(4) There are several additional excellent reviews of A Tragic Legacy, which is on the NYT Bestseller List again this week. Paul Rosenberg has written a typically thought-provoking review for AltWeeklies, a content-provider for alternative weekly newspapers. For those inclined, you can encourage your local weekly alternative newspaper to run his review by finding their contact information here.
Additionally, for those in the Washington D.C. area, the Cato Institute is hosting an event for A Tragic Legacy on Tuesday, August 7 at 12:00 noon. I will speak about the book, as will Lee Casey, who, along with his partner David Rifkin, is a seemingly ubiquitous supporter of Bush's radical executive power theories. The details for the event, attendance at which is free, are here.
Finally, over at the Left Coaster, Paradox has a great review of the book here.
UPDATE: In five colorful square panels, Tom Tomorrow captures exactly what most of our press has been doing over the last four years.
Separately, Anonymous Liberal replies to my post from the other day regarding the ability of blogs to influence and change our political discourse. A.L. adds some important observations and examples.
UPDATE II: The online news magazine Activate has an interview with me this week regarding blogs, journalists and related media issues.