Ex-Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg is back in the news this week. On Sunday, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria interviewed Begg to get his perspective on the recently released report, written by Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, concerning the CIA’s controversial interrogation program. Zakaria teased Begg’s segment at the beginning of his show, saying, “Moazzam Begg wants an apology. He was held in U.S. prisons and says he was abused and witnessed torture. What is his response to the report? I will ask him.” Zakaria treated Begg’s claims of abuse as credible and barely challenged the ex-Gitmo detainee on his well-known extremist views.
On Monday, the Washington Post published a front-page story centered on Begg. The Post’s piece, authored by the Post’s London bureau chief Griff Witte, portrayed Begg in sympathetic terms. The Post sees Begg as a legitimate critic of the abuses and practices outlined in the Feinstein report. Witte did not question Begg’s claims regarding his treatment in U.S. custody and only mentioned Begg’s “hard-line Islamist sympathies” in passing. Witte made sure to note that Begg “denied participating in violence or being affiliated with terrorist organizations,” but the Post reporter could not be bothered to check the copious documentation illustrating otherwise -- such as that included in, say, the Feinstein report. In addition to the front-page story, the Post gave extra space to Begg by publishing excerpts of his interview with Witte online.
Comedian, actor, and counterterrorism expert Russell Brand got into the act. Brand led off his own interview with Begg, which Brand eagerly tweeted to his nearly 9 million followers, and Begg of course tweeted as well, by asking the ex-Gitmo detainee about his connection to the events described in the Feinstein report. Begg recounted his story - America is horrible. Brand, a.k.a. @rustyrockets, added this pearl of wisdom in one of his Begg-related tweets: “The people who do ‘terror’ best are the people who decide what ‘terror’ is.”
Here is the problem: Zakaria, Witte, and Brand clearly did not read the parts of the Feinstein report dealing with Begg. Only in Brand’s case is this understandable. Journalists like Zakaria and Witte should know better.
Begg plays a significant role in the Feinstein report, but not because he was abused or tortured. The Feinstein report does not say that Begg was mistreated in any way. On the contrary, the Democrats cite Begg’s debriefings as an example of the valuable intelligence that was learned without using coercive interrogation measures.
In fact, the Democrats use the intelligence voluntarily given up by Begg as part of their attempt to undermine the CIA’s claims about the efficacy and necessity of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.
According to the Feinstein report, Begg played a crucial role in identifying Dhiren Barot (also known as Issa al Hindi, or Esa al Hindi, among other aliases). Barot was an al Qaeda operative who cased targets in the U.S. prior to 9/11 on behalf of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM). Years later, in 2004, Barot was plotting with other senior al Qaeda terrorists to launch attacks in the U.K. The CIA has claimed that intelligence gleaned from KSM, after harsh interrogation techniques were used, led to Barot. The Democrats counter by citing Begg’s debriefings and other intelligence. Multiple streams of intelligence allowed authorities to piece together the story, and it is difficult to discern just how important KSM’s information was. The CIA, of course, disputes the Democrats’ finding. Interestingly, it appears that the CIA does not dismiss the value of Begg’s identification of Barot in 2003. The CIA claims that the questioning of other detainees in 2003 was based on intelligence first gleaned from KSM.
The Feinstein report contains assessments drawing into question whether or not Barot’s scheming posed an imminent threat or could have been successful. Regardless, the manhunt for Barot was an urgent matter for both U.K. and U.S. counterterrorism officials, as he was rightly suspected of planning mass casualty attacks on behalf of al Qaeda. Barot was eventually convicted and sentenced to decades in prison on terrorism charges. And Begg, according to overwhelming evidence in the Feinstein report, played an essential role in tracking Barot down.