BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Last Friday, a federal appeals court ordered the government to give courts and defense attorneys much greater access to information on Guantanamo detainees, challenging their imprisonment. Also recently, the Supreme Court reversed itself and agreed to consider the legality of the military tribunals that try them.
Journalist Sami al-Hajj is one of those detainees, arrested at the Pakistan/Afghanistan border in December, 2001. He intended to cross into Afghanistan to cover the U.S. military operation there. Instead, he spent six months in detention and then was packed off to Guantanamo, where he is today.
Al-Hajj is the only journalist imprisoned at Guantanamo. He was crossing into Afghanistan to cover U.S. military operations there for Al-Jazeera. In fact, his lawyer claims that's the main reason he's still in Gitmo, a U.S. government grudge against the Middle East's leading news channel.
Rachel Morris is an editor at The Washington Monthly. She spent the past seven months covering al-Hajj's case for the Columbia Journalism Review. She said that since he was detained, he has been charged with an ever-changing series of misdeeds. RACHEL MORRIS: When he initially got there, there were some allegations about attempting to purchase Stinger missiles in Chechnya. More recently, there have been things about him carrying money, which made its way to charities that supported terrorists in some way.
There's also things about him having once met an al Qaeda lieutenant but with no explanation of what the meeting involved.
Those are the sort of more serious ones in the summary of evidence against him, and there's also a long list of vaguely suspicious-sounding things that he's said to have done without a lot of context about what they might mean. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Al-Hajj's lawyer told you that 120 of his 130 interrogations at Guantanamo have been about Al-Jazeera - its internal workings, its principal funders, the backgrounds of individual presenters, not about any charges against al-Hajj.
RACHEL MORRIS: His lawyer has also said, by the way, that at one point in an interrogation, that al-Hajj was offered the possibility of release if he would go back to Al-Jazeera and provide information about Al-Jazeera. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Spy, in other words. RACHEL MORRIS: Well, I think there's a clique inside the government that sees Al-Jazeera as, at best, a mouthpiece for terrorists. It's been very well documented that Donald Rumsfeld, people in the office of the Vice President, have a very, very low opinion of Al-Jazeera and do almost essentially see it as the enemy. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You asked the Defense Department how significant a factor in al-Hajj's continued detention is his background as a former Al-Jazeera employee, a journalist. And how did they respond?
RACHEL MORRIS: Well, they didn't give me a very direct response to that question. What they basically said was that all the people in Guantanamo are unlawful enemy combatants and there's no special category of, you know, the law or the military regulations governing detainees that would provide an exception or some sort of special treatment to a reporter or a member of a media organization.
But it's certainly quite telling that when they summarize all these things that he's said to have done that interviewing the Taliban seems to carry the same weight as carrying money that makes its way to a terrorist organization. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Seems/suggests - the fact is you don't really know what the charges are. You don't know what the evidence is. The Defense Department won't talk to you. At best, you can get some time with the lawyer of the detainee, if he has one.
So how do you deal with the fact that your story is going to be, of necessity, one-sided? RACHEL MORRIS: It's a really uneasy experience for any reporter, I think. Obviously, you can do a little more than talk to the lawyer. I did manage to speak to someone who had lived in the cell next to Sami al-Hajj to corroborate some of the things that his lawyer had told me about how he'd been treated. But still, your opportunities to do that, I think, are quite limited.
I think all you can do is basically say that the issue of Guantanamo for journalists is sort of a special case. Because your opportunities for getting an official side of the story are limited and because the legal processes for the detainees down there are so flawed, in that circumstance it's a necessary and legitimate thing for journalists to present the best collection of information that they can find about a person, and say to the best of our knowledge, this is what we could learn about this person who's down there. We asked the Defense Department to elaborate on it, and weren't successful.
You cannot really write it like a normal story, either. I think if you're at least honest about where your information came from and what you could and couldn't do, then I think that that helps to an extent. It's certainly not ideal, but it's better than saying I cannot do a balanced story, so I’d better not do one at all. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rachel, thank you very much. RACHEL MORRIS: Thanks so much. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rachel Morris is an editor at The Washington Monthly. Her story, Prisoner 345, is in the current issue of The Columbia Journalism Review.