It’s impossible to assess the veracity—or the relevance—of the government’s claims. The Department of Defense did not answer a list of detailed questions about al-Haj’s case, and instead provided me with a written response which read, in part: “There is a significant amount of evidence, both unclassified and classified, which supports continued detention of Sami Al-Hajj by U.S. forces.” But current and former intelligence and military sources I spoke with doubted that al-Haj was of any significance to U.S. interests, even if he did commit the alleged offenses. The former senior intelligence official told me that if al-Haj was truly a significant detainee, he would have been briefed on his case.
For his part, Stafford Smith believes that al-Haj “is clearly in Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo told me that those contentions seem plausible, but they are impossible to confirm.
There is one public record of an interrogation of al-Haj. In 2005, Eric Saar, a former Army linguist at Guantánamo, published Inside the Wire, a critical account of his experiences. Saar describes an interrogation of an Al Jazeera cameraman, to whom, like all the prisoners in the book, Saar grants a pseudonym—in this case “Adib.” (Saar is prohibited by the Pentagon from commenting on the book.) The interrogation is conducted by an employee of an unnamed government agency. She asks for “Adib’s” restraints to be removed, offers him a Coke, and questions him about the financing of particular Islamic charities. Saar does not mention any questions about Al Jazeera, although at the end of a cordial conversation, the interrogator asks “Adib” whether he would do a story on Guantánamo. He replies: “I can’t wait to do the story . . . . I’m going to tell exactly what I’ve seen here—that the American authorities have no respect for Islam, and they are holding innocent men without charging them with anything.”
It’s worth noting that in the public allegations, at least, al-Haj has not been accused of committing any aggressive acts against the U.S. According to a review of the first 517 combatant status reviews by the Seton Hall University School of Law in 2006, this places him in the same category as 55 percent of Guantánamo’s inmates. (Only 8 percent were accused of fighting for Al Qaeda.) The thousands of pages of status and administrative review transcripts often make for curious reading. Sometimes, a detainee is presented with a serious accusation, such as attending an Al Qaeda training camp. But in other cases, the assertions are based on circumstantial connections with suspected terrorists or organizations that support them. What is especially striking about the reviews is that rather than being a process to assess the fairness of the allegations, they instead appear to provide an additional forum to gather information about the detainee.
On August 12, 2005, at his first administrative review, al-Haj appeared in front of the three-man panel in the white uniform worn by detainees deemed to be well-behaved, with his right foot swathed in a blue bandage or cast. A person identified as the Designated Military Officer summarized the evidence against him. In addition to the claims mentioned above, there were some related to his journalistic work, such as a statement that al-Haj had interviewed several Taliban officials in Kandahar, as well as a member of Al Qaeda. The officer noted that al-Haj had told interrogators that “he would exercise caution in future assignments with Al Jazeera.” “Before, I worked for Al Jazeera as a cameraman but I am not sure I can ever go back to journalism,” al-Haj responded. “It is too dangerous, and I want to be with my family.”