In 2001, Sami al-Haj was working as a camerman for Al Jazeera when he was detained by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and then transferred to Guantanamo, where he has remained for the last six years without ever being accused of any involvement in terrorism. Instead, as Washington Monthly editor Rachel Morris detailed in her superb cover story in Columbia Journalism Review a few months ago, virtually all of al-Haj's interrogations focused on Al Jazeera and his detention was fueled at least in part by the Bush administration's contempt for Al Jazeera's reporting. I wrote about Morris' story and al-Haj's plight here.
For obvious reasons, it is highly disturbing that the U.S. Government imprisons journalists for years without bothering to charge them with any crime. The U.S. is doing the same with A.P. photojournalist Bilal Hussein. These aren't "prisoners of war" captured fighting on a battlefield, but rather, accredited journalists taking pictures and filming events that the U.S. Government dislikes.
As a result of all of this, this weekend Congressman Keith Ellison became one of America's very few elected officials to speak out against this practice, insisting that al-Haj should be either charged with crimes and convicted or released:
A campaign to free a journalist imprisoned at Guantanamo gained support Thursday from the first Muslim member of Congress, who urged authorities to prosecute or release him after more than five years without charges. . . .
In a rare show of public support from a U.S. official, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat, called for a hearing to determine whether the military has legitimate reason to hold Al-Haj with about 330 other men at the prison on a Navy base in Cuba. "If he's a bad actor, prove it. If not, let him out," the congressman told the Associated Press.
Rep. Ellison made clear that he believes all detainees at Guantanamo "should be allowed to challenge their confinement in the courts" -- what we in America call "due process" -- but also "said he is particularly concerned about the detention of a journalist." As tyrannical as the power of process-less, indefinite imprisonment is, it presents a whole slew of added potential abuses for the U.S. Government to imprison war journalists for years without charging them with any crime. Rep. Ellison is thus defending both basic press freedoms and basic due process by demanding that al-Haj be charged or released.
But the right-wing movement that dominates the Republican Party does not believe in these core American political principles. Hence, defense of those principles subjects one to the most vile of accusations. Here is Powerline's Scott Johnson -- long obsessed with spewing groundless though malicious innuendo about Ellison's loyalties -- seizing on the Muslim Congressman's belief in due process to insinuate in the slimiest way possible that he's in cahoots with The Terrorists:
Who is Keith Ellison? (22)
I believe we ran 21 posts in our "Who is Keith Ellison?" series last year before Ellison was elected Minnesota's Fifth District representative last November. I summarized the Ellison research in the Weekly Standard article "Louis Farrakhan's first congressman" and the companion post "Keith Ellison for dummies."
This week's Star Tribune report on Ellison's new cause [due process for al-Haj] prompts me to resurrect the series for part 22 . . . Reader Norm Carpenter asks us to connect the dots, from Guantanamo, to Al Jazeera, to Ellison. Who is Keith Ellison, and whom does he represent?
That dirty little smear follows, of course, from the demand which CNN's Glenn Beck made of Ellison: "I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.'" The people who are waging the most vicious war on America's defining political values -- who simply do not believe in the founding principles of the country -- have always been, and continue to be, the ones who most loudly accuse others of anti-Americanism.
Exactly the same dynamic fuels the Bilal Hussein case. From the beginning, AP has made the same demands concerning its photographer that Ellison made of al-Haj: namely, either charge him with a crime and prove his guilt or release him:
NEW YORK (AP) -- One year after his arrest, an Associated Press photographer is still being held at a prison camp in Iraq by U.S. military officials who have neither formally charged him with a crime nor made public any evidence of wrongdoing. . . .
"April 12 is a sad anniversary for Bilal's AP colleagues worldwide," said the AP's executive editor, Kathleen Carroll. "He has now been held by the U.S. military in Iraq for an entire year without formal charges or the due process that a democratic society demands."
All of this is part of an orchestrated, systematic campaign by the U.S. military to detain journalists in Iraq whose reporting it dislikes:
Dozens of journalists -- mostly Iraqis -- have been detained by U.S. troops or Iraqi security forces during the war, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Most were released without a trial after short periods, and Hussein is the only one currently being held on such a long-term basis, according to CPJ executive director Joel Simon. . . .
"The absence of evidence leads to the conclusion that Bilal is being held because of the photographs he took for the AP -- which were published around the world -- and which were part of AP's Pulitzer Prize-winning submission in 2005," [AP lawyer Paul] Gardephe said.
Hussein is among a number of news photographers and television cameramen working in Iraq's Anbar province who have been arrested.
"We continue to believe that Bilal is being held simply because his photos from volatile Anbar province were unwelcome," said Carroll.
As a result of all of this behavior, the U.S. has tumbled progressively downward in the worldwide press freedom rankings maintained by the widely respected journalist group, Reporters Without Borders. While oppressive countries such as North Korea, Cuba, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran occupy their rightful place at the bottom of the list, the U.S. -- historically at or near the top -- has fallen drastically over the last several years to 53rd place. The U.S. is thus now tied with Botswana and Tonga and well behind El Salvador, Mozambique, Panama, Namibia, Jamaica, Israel and Lithuania. Its practice of arresting journalists and holding them for years with no charges is obviously a significant factor.
Nobody has ever argued that the U.S. military has no right to detain actual Terrorists, nor has anyone argued that al-Haq or Hussein be released -- only that they be accorded basic due process before being imprisoned indefinitely. But that is a distinction that right-wing Bush followers cannot even process, let alone recognize, because these basic principles are not ones they understand or believe in. As one right-wing blogger put it when responding to a recent post I wrote advocating that Bilal Hussein be charged or released: "What bothers me the most about Greenwald's argument is that he goes out of his way to take the side of an accused enemy propagandist, Bilal Hussein, who has been detained in Iraq for being a suspected terrorist agent."
Clearly, we're at the point where a belief in due process, press freedoms and basic restraints on government and military power demonstrate a hatred for America and its freedoms. A belief in those principles constitutes "siding with the enemy." Only by joyously affirming the power of the Government to detain people for life with no charges, to break laws enacted by Congress, to spy on Americans with no warrants, to torture detainees, and to arrest war journalists and hold them for years can one prove one's loyalty to the country. A belief in due process now provokes this ominous question: "Who is Keith Ellison, and whom does he represent?"