Moazzam Begg: The Ex-Gitmo Prisoner Now Doing the United States' Work

LONDON -- Explain to me again why WikiLeaks is wicked, why Secretary of State Clinton is calling for criminal prosecution? In today's NYT cache, one dispatch stands out, and not just because of its catchy subject line, "To Hell and Back: GITMO Ex-Detainee Stumps in Luxembourg." What exactly is the harm in this information being made public? Indeed, why was the cable classified Confidential in the first place? It should have been stamped "MUST READ," and disseminated by the State Department.

More broadly, the cable also raises a very serious question about the wisdom of the United States seeking to repress free speech in the name of national security.

The "ex-detainee" in question is Moazzam Begg, a dual British-Pakistani citizen, who was picked up by the CIA in Pakistan in 2002. He had trained with al-Qaeda and was preparing for attacks on Americans, according to American officials. He fled Afghanistan after the U.S. attacked following 9/11.

Begg was held at the American base at Bagram, Afghanistan, for a year, where he says he was kicked, beaten, and had a bag placed over his head, and was then sent to Guantanamo. He was ordered released by President Bush in 2005, as a concession to Britain, where America's detainee policy was under severe criticism across the political spectrum. The CIA, Pentagon, and FBI objected to Begg's release saying that he was a dangerous terrorist.

The Bush Administration wanted Britain to impose a gag order on Begg, but British Prime Minister Tony Blair knew that the Queen's subjects would never accept that.

Begg quickly demonstrated just how dangerous he was. Not by slipping back to Pakistan or Afghanistan, or joining any secret al-Qaeda cells in Britain. Rather, with public appearances and writing.

He became a celebrity. "Human rights groups have hailed his courage. University students have invited him to speak," Tim Golden wrote in The New York Times eighteen months after his release. Golden, who interviewed Begg several times for the article, described him as "a small, soft-spoken man with a professorial air." Begg, standing only 5'3", became a regular commentator on British television and he penned a memoir: Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar. He started an organization to help other detainees, Caged Prisoners, and worked openly with Reprieve, a London-based human rights group that represents detainees as well death row inmates in the United States.

Begg's conduct and reception convinced the Bush Administration that detainees released in the future should be barred from speaking, such as in the case of the Australian David Hicks. A lost soul, adventurer, more than a committed Islamic ideologue, Hicks was picked up in Afghanistan in December 2001. He was initially charged with conspiracy to commit murder and engage in acts of terrorism. That was reduced to one count of material support for terrorism, to which he pleaded guilty, and was sent back to Australia in early 2007, where he was subject to a gag order.

It is hard to comprehend how the gag orders were necessary to protect American national security. The only secrets the Bush Administration was seeking to protect were the secret prisons where suspected terrorists were tortured.

Putting aside the example for the world's tyrannical dictators when a democratic government seeks to repress speech, the policy appears to have been misguided.

"Mr. Begg is doing our work for us," an American diplomat in Luxembourg wrote in a Confidential cable in January of this year. Begg was in Luxembourg as part of "barnstorming" trip throughout the continent to persuade governments to take Guantanamo detainees for resettlement. Which was precisely what the Bush Administration tried to do, and the Obama Administration still is.

Begg was traveling with the Center for Constitutional Rights, that well-known subversive organization, at least to many American conservatives who cannot fathom why the organization would provide legal representation to Guantanamo prisoners.

He also attended a screening hosted by Amnesty International, of Taxi to the Dark Side. The documentary is "a harrowing depiction of alleged torture inside Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo," the American diplomat wrote. He described it as "an undisguised attack on the Bush Administration, focusing much of its venom on Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Former Vice-President Cheney."

Begg's presentation was in stark contrast, he noted. Begg focused "not on the ill treatment he allegedly received, but on what can be done to resettle the remaining 'releaseable' prisoners in Guantanamo Bay." The diplomat added, "his articulate, reasoned presentation makes for a convincing argument."

Clearly astonished, the diplomat concluded, "It is ironic that after four years of imprisonment and alleged torture, Moazzam Begg is delivering" the same message as the United States is: "please consider accepting GITMO detainees for resettlement."

The cable might give pause to those who argue for gag orders, overclassify documents, and call for the prosecution of leakers.