Hey, Journalists - Remember That Other "20th Hijacker"? The One Abused at Guantanamo?

The military abused al-Qahtani to a degree that horrified an Army investigator, and forced a confession out of him. Now it turns out all that may have been aimed at the wrong man.
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I'll be the first to admit that sometimes I just don't get what's wrong with us reporters: did we party too hard in college and destroy our short-term memories? Were we trying to find details on playground malfeasance while everyone else in kindergarten was learning how to connect the dots?

What is it that keeps some of us from observing that events have context?

Take Wednesday's story that the phantom "20th hijacker" had finally been identified, via a newly released Al Qaeda video, as Fawaz al-Nashimi. The report made few waves; so far, almost all of the coverage has been restricted to the reprinting of an Associated Press article.

And, truthfully, the story is hardly big news -- al-Nashimi is, after all, only the latest in the line of purported 20th hijackers.

In fact, it was just last month that the original 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, was sentenced to life in prison. By then, even prosecutors had dropped the claim that Moussaoui was the 20th hijacker, but, as I wrote at the time, plenty of news outlets were still reporting that Moussaoui was a "conspirator" in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Some, like Daniel Henninger, deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, and MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, even continued to tag Moussaoui with the moniker.


At least up until now, Mohammad al-Qahtani was the man United States officials were claiming as the real 20th hijacker. Indeed, evidence introduced at Moussaoui's trial, including testimony quoting 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, implicated al-Qahtani. But there's more, much more, to al-Qahtani's story. Unfortunately, it's what wasn't said in yesterday's stories -- the missing context -- that's really important.

In April, responding to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Associated Press, the Pentagon released a list of more than 500 prisoners currently held at the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention center. Al-Qahtani was number 50; it was the first official confirmation that he was imprisoned there, but that's been an open secret for some time now. That's because al-Qahtani is the central figure in the reporting on some of the abuses that have allegedly taken place in Guantanamo.

In June 2005, Time magazine published excerpts of the secret log kept during al-Qahtani's interrogation (the full log was released recently; it is available here) and documented a list of the tactics used to question the suspected terrorist, including sleep deprivation, isolation, deliberate humiliation and, as in Abu Ghraib, intimidation by a military dog. These tactics, the magazine reported, led one senior FBI counterterrorism official to the conclusion that al-Qahtani was "evidencing behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma."

These kinds of tactics are of dubious legality. On its website, Human Rights Watch says that: "Even persons who are not entitled to the protections of the 1949 Geneva Conventions (such as some detainees from third countries) are protected by the 'fundamental guarantees' of article 75 of Protocol I of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions. The United States has long considered article 75 to be part of customary international law (a widely supported state practice accepted as law). Article 75 prohibits murder, 'torture of all kinds, whether physical or mental,' 'corporal punishment," and 'outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, ... and any form of indecent assault.'"

And, according to Salon.com, the interrogation of al-Qahtani was not just another incident of low-level soldiers supposedly acting on their own. The general outlines of his treatment were approved from the highest levels:

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was personally involved in the late 2002 interrogation of a high-value al-Qaida detainee known in intelligence circles as 'the 20th hijacker.' He also communicated weekly with the man in charge of the interrogation, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the controversial commander of the Guantánamo Bay detention center.

During the same period, detainee Mohammed al-Kahtani suffered from what Army investigators have called 'degrading and abusive' treatment by soldiers who were following the interrogation plan Rumsfeld had approved.

Even seasoned generals and Army investigators were disgusted with al-Qahtani's interrogation.

"There were no limits. ... Just for the lack of a camera, it would sure look like Abu Ghraib," Lt. Gen. Randall M. Schmidt, who interviewed Rumsfeld as part of an investigation into al-Qahtani's treatment, told the Army Inspector General.

Let's go over that again. The military, under the direction of the current secretary of defense, abused al-Qahtani to a degree that horrified at least one Army investigator, allegedly forced a confession out of him, and then government officials trumpeted him as the definitive 20th hijacker. Now it turns out all that -- the sleep deprivation, the humiliation, the "degrading and abusive" treatment -- may have been aimed at the wrong man.

And no one, apparently, finds this worthy of mention.

This is an excerpt of a column that originally appeared on the online magazine Dragonfire; the full column is available here.

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