On close examination, however, claims of links between Al Jazeera and terrorist organizations prove murky. I spoke to a number of military officers and commanders who had served in Iraq. Several told me that they suspected Al Jazeera stringers of communicating with insurgents, but had no concrete evidence. “This was reported by every commander throughout Iraq—the Al Jazeera journalists always seemed to be at the right place at the right time,” said Col. William Darley, who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 as the chief Public Affairs Officer for Combined Joint Task Force-7. “Most of the senior commanders loathed Al Jazeera. There was a very uneasy relationship of suspicion and distrust between Bremer and the cpa staff and Al Jazeera.” (L. Paul Bremer was head of the Coalition Provisional Authority.) Darley added that the Army made “probably at least a dozen” efforts to catch Al Jazeera reporters in such activities, but never succeeded. A former senior U.S. intelligence official told me that if there were any serious evidence pointing to links between Al Jazeera and Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, he would have known about it. “It wasn’t a major theme of any consequence in the intelligence community,” he said.
Asma al-haj didn’t know what had happened to her husband until late 2002, when she received a letter from him explaining that he was in Guantánamo. Around the same time, Al Jazeera issued a press release announcing that an employee was being held at the camp. The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld requesting information, but received no reply. For the next three years, little was known about the circumstances of al-Haj’s detention, until early 2005 when he obtained the services of Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer based in Britain.
The unorthodox legal processes governing detainees at Guantánamo are ill-suited to the familiar legal terminology of a trial. For the first two years that Guantánamo operated, the administration was able to prevent inmates from having access to any kind of legal forum at all, including Article 5 hearings under the Geneva Conventions (historically used by the military to determine whether a detainee is a legitimate prisoner of war) or habeas corpus review in a U.S. court. When the Supreme Court pronounced this state of affairs unconstitutional in June 2004, the administration devised special panels for detainees: a Combat Status Review Tribunal, or CSRT, to review whether a detainee’s “enemy combatant” status was justified; followed by an Administrative Review Board, or ARB, an annual assessment of whether the detainee still belonged at Guantánamo. But those forums bear little resemblance to trials. They begin with the assumption that the detainee’s enemy combatant label is correct. Instead of charging a detainee with violations of international or national law, military officers present an “Unclassified Summary of Evidence,” which is assumed to be accurate. The detainee and his lawyer (if he has one) are rarely permitted to see the evidence itself, if at all. Nor can the lawyer attend the hearing (the detainee is instead provided with a military representative, who is obliged to tell the panel of any useful information he learns about the detainee in the process of helping him prepare). So far the written summaries in al-Haj’s CSRTs and ARBs are the only formal information Stafford Smith has about why his client is being detained in Guantánamo.
The accusation that al-Haj had filmed Osama bin Laden did not resurface in the unclassified evidence described to al-Haj in the three hearings he has had. Instead, the allegations against him have evolved over time. In his status review, held in late 2004, military officials said al-Haj had gone to Afghanistan to buy Stinger missiles to fight in Chechnya, a charge that has since been dropped. Then, he was alleged to have sought the missiles in 1996, although Stafford Smith says he can prove that al-Haj was in the United Arab Emirates every day of that year.