Guantanamo Bay will almost certainly outlive this U.S. presidency, and possibly even the next. Despite pledging to shut the military prison, Barack Obama clearly does not intend to do it any time soon. Yet while the president seems to have accepted the camp’s usefulness, the recent 10-year anniversary of its use as a base to imprison suspected terrorists has led to a predictable glut of negative press.
There remains a refusal to contemplate the possibility that some of the people housed at Guantanamo have actually committed crimes. Two former detainees have written op-eds in the New York Times. CNN unquestioningly exonerated one former prisoner, while Britain’s foremost liberal Sunday broadsheet, the Observer, went one better this month by exonerating the records of all former British detainees in just one piece. There is a clear determination to deify these former prisoners.
Take Moazzam Begg, a former detainee who was released in 2005 and is now a vocal anti-Guantanamo campaigner. In Guantanamo, Mr. Begg signed a confession that admitted that he was a jihadist recruiter, that he attended three al Qaeda terrorist-training camps in Afghanistan, and that he was armed and prepared to fight for the Taliban and al Qaeda against the U.S. He has since said this was coerced, which four U.S. government inquiries have rejected.
Either way, Mr. Begg’s hand-written evidence to his Combatant Status Review Board at Guantanamo—which is meant to represent his side of the story—describes his visits to camps on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he was responsible for “small arms and mountain tactics” training. He also admitted to sending money to military training facilities in Afghanistan, including to the Khalden training camp, regarded by pretty much everyone other than Mr. Begg as al Qaeda’s elite paramilitary training base. Five years after his release, he also admitted to the Nation magazine that he had fought in Bosnia.
All of this is irrelevant to CNN, which stated unequivocally in a report on Mr. Begg this month that he was only in Afghanistan for “aid work.” Why Mr. Begg was, after the U.S. invasion, in Tora Bora—a remote region that served as a stronghold for al Qaeda and is not renowned for its aid opportunities, or at least non-jihadist ones—goes unaddressed. (The reason he offers in his memoirs, published in 2006, is that he had got “completely lost” and ended up there by accident.)
There are several other egregious examples among Britons. Three men from Tipton—Asif Iqbal, Rhuhel Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul—entered Afghanistan via Pakistan just after U.S. bombing began in 2001, as Mr. Ahmed said in a 2010 BBC interview. The U.S. government accuses them of being members of terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, who traveled to Afghanistan from the U.K. specifically to fight America. They signed confessions about their jihadist activities in Afghanistan, which they have since said were taken under duress.
Yet during that same BBC interview—hardly a Guantanamo interrogation room—Messrs. Rasul and Ahmed admitted to visiting Taliban training camps and handling weapons. Another member of the Tipton group, Munir Ali, went with them to the Taliban camp and never returned to the U.K. Two further detainees, Richard Belmar and Binyam Mohamed, admitted at their Combatant Status Review Boards to training at al Farouq in Afghanistan—widely acknowledged as an al Qaeda training camp. Mr. Mohamed was even trained by a senior al Qaeda operative, as he admitted to a Combatant Status Review Board in Guantanamo.
Yet the Observer, and many other news sources across the world before it, does not give any of this even a passing mention.
This dishonest cycle is continuing. Shaker Aamer, the sole remaining Brit in Guantanamo, openly says that he went to Afghanistan in 1998—coincidentally, with Moazzam Begg. He says he stayed in Afghanistan with a known al Qaeda facilitator and travelled again in 1999 and 2000, the latter time specifically to fight with the mujahideen. He describes how he was former roommates with Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person to have been convicted in the U.S. of involvement in 9/11. Mr. Aamer admits that he was an associate of shoe bomber Richard Reid in Kabul, and that he used to breakfast with Ibn al Shaykh al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s Khalden emir.
Furthermore, in Guantanamo, seven separate sources described to U.S. commanders Mr. Aamer’s connections with al-Qaeda and closeness to Osama bin Laden. This includes Abu Zubaydah, about as senior al Qaeda figure as there was in 2001, who described Mr. Aamer as an “extremely active” recruiter for the group. Despite this, Mr. Aamer still seemingly has the entirety of the liberal press and human-rights industry on his side.
In a U.S. Department of Defense memorandum released by WikiLeaks, I have uncovered another, especially devastating source who spoke out against Mr. Aamer in Guantanamo. “UK558” described Mr. Aamer as a “recruiter” for al Qaeda. He outlined how Mr. Aamer and he traveled to meet members of a European al Qaeda cell in 2000, and how Mr. Aamer fought in Bosnia under the leadership of Abu Zubayr al-Haili, a senior al-Qaeda figure. “UK558” talked of the training in AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades Mr. Aamer received.
“UK558” is the Defense Department memorandum’s code-name for none other than Moazzam Begg. Back in the U.K., Mr. Begg consistently calls for Mr. Aamer’s release. He has said that it is Mr. Aamer’s “personal character and charisma” that keeps him in Guantanamo, “as opposed to anything he has been accused of.” He also suggested that he is only being detained because he could expose British complicity in torture. Yet while in Guantanamo himself, Mr. Begg was telling the U.S. that his “lifelong friend” was an al Qaeda recruiter and mujahideen fighter. (It is worth repeating that four separate U.S. inquiries have dismissed Mr. Begg’s accusations that this information was obtained under coercion.)
Exposing this kind of contradiction is only part of the solution to the problem. Some regard Guantanamo Bay as so immoral that those detained there must not only be innocent, but uniquely good. Mr. Aamer clearly is not, and should not be treated as such. Detainees have freely admitted to terrible acts, only for that part of their story to be completely ignored in the media.
The White House should push back. President Obama’s administration should be far more open about the activities of all those it has detained there. This may not play well to his electoral base, but it is vital for America’s overall reputation. Instead of the year in which Mr. Obama shuts down Guantanamo, 2012 should be the year that he starts defending it.