At the IPI World Congress in Helsinki I live-blogged a panel discussion that featured four journalists who had been taken prisoner by terrorist organizations (See "How to interview terrorists and survive kidnapping"). The panel* included Hamid Mir, the last journalist to have interviewed Bin Laden.
On a surface level, the panel discussion concerned two topics quite distinct from one another: 1) how to interview terrorists; 2) how to avoid and survive captivity. The panelists had all interviewed terrorists before, and each happened to have been captured by a terrorist group and held captive. But for most of the journalists on the panel (those from Western countries) the answer to both questions was not one and the same.
But Hamid Mir's perspective on the topics at hand was unique; for this journalist, the two questions were one. Mir's response to the questions points to an issue that -- even some eight years after the interview -- has never been more timely.
Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir told us about the last interview he had with Bin Laden. That was in Kabul in November, 2001.
"The third time I interviewed Bin Laden," Mir addressed the assembly of global news media editors and executives, "I was not sure I would ever get back to my office safely." Mir's advice for reporters who find themselves in a similar circumstance? "When you are confronting a big terrorist you must not become his tool" Mir said. He continued: "You have to ask tough questions. Encounter him! So if you are arrested, you can present your questions as evidence that you exposed him or proved him wrong."
Mir now believes his last interview with Bin Laden was a close call. Not only because Al-Qaeda might have killed him, but -- in retrospect -- because of how the United States would be conducting itself in the so-called War on Terror. In short, this leading Pakistani journalist suggested that interviewing Bin Laden very nearly got him thrown into Guantánamo Bay prison.
But was Mir's concern justified? Surely the US would never imprison a Pakistani journalist for doing his job?
If you think that's a stretch, consider the facts. A number of journalists from the Middle East have been imprisoned without trial by the government of the United States. They include:
- Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj - held in Guantanamo for six years without charges.
- AP photographer Bilal Hussein -- held in Iraq for almost two years without charges.
- Reuters freelance photographer Ibrahim Jassam -- remains a prisoner of the United States despite an Iraqi court ruling that found no grounds for his detainment.**
Luck. But for two strokes of good fortune, one of Pakistan's most courageous journalist might still be languishing his life away in Guantanamo or worse.*** That's what I learned after the panel discussion when I joined Hamid Mir for lunch in the dining hall of Center Finlandia.
"During your interview, did Bin Laden ever admit to carrying out the attacks of 9-11?" I asked Mir.
"I asked Bin Laden that question," Mir said.
Gesturing towards an imagined tape recorder on the white tablecloth, Mir pantomimed the terrorist leader's response. Mir leaned forward in his chair. Pounding a finger down into the table top -- as if to press the stop button on the invisible tape recorder -- he said "Yes!" Mir leaned back for a moment, and then, pounced forward again. After his finger hit the button on the imaginary tape recorder a second time -- as if to turn it back on -- he said "No!" Mir repeated this sequence of actions for me. When the tape recorder was set to "off" Bin Laden admitted to carrying out the attacks of 9/11; when it was "on" Bin Laden denied everything.
Although it was risky, Mir decided to challenged Bin Laden to stop playing games with the tape recorder and to go on the record "Why won't you go on the record?" Mir asked the most-wanted man of all time.
Mir said Bin Laden replied, "Do you think Bush would go on the record about anything?!"
Mir said: "In reply to that remark, I asked Bin Laden: 'So are you saying there is no difference between yourself and President Bush?'"
"Bin Laden didn't like to be compared to Bush!" Mir said with a laugh.
Mir would survive his 2001 interview with Bin Laden. But in hindsight of the past eight years, Mir's worries had just begun.
Because, as Mir explained to me, for long segments of the hours-long intense interview Bin Laden had kept Mir's tape recorder turned off. Apparently, most of Mir's more critical questions had not been recorded. The implication of this seemed to be that mainly chit-chat remained on the tape.
However, Al Qaeda was also recording the interview -- the whole thing -- on two video cameras. And that was a good thing for Hamid Mir.
Mir said, "It was luck that Osama had made those two tape copies of my interview. And it was luck that when the US military moved into Kabul they managed to retrieve those Al Qaeda tapes of my interview."
Mir is convinced that the discovery of the Al Qaeda tapes saved him. Mir said he had been told by the US ambassador to Islamabad of the day: "You are safe only because we have a record of your hard questions."
What is the lesson of Mir's story for journalists? Especially if you happen to be a courageous reporter from a so-called "failed state," the key to successfully interviewing a terrorist will be avoiding later imprisonment without trial by the United States.
Another question, of course, concerns the implications of Mir's story for the United States as a beacon of freedom. Recall that besides luck, Mir believes that one particular quality spared him from interment at Guantanamo. Mir's attributes own his self-preservation at the hands of the Amricans to "professionalism." That is, having asked Bin Laden tough questions.
If what saved Mir from years of captivity at Gitmo was a high level of professionalism, ironically it was a degree of professionalism that would prove far beyond the reach of most of Mir's American counterparts.
Because while intelligence agencies were questioning Mir about his interview with Bin Laden, in the United States journalists were asking only softball questions of Bush and Cheney. The rest is history. Before long, the United States would be torturing its prisoners and fighting a never-ending war in Iraq.****
* The other panelists were Peter Bergen of CNN, Alan Johnston of the BBC, Giuliana Sgrena of Il Manifesto.
**Like most of the prisoners in Guantanamo, these journalists have Arabic names. I wonder if that's that's why, as Glenn Greenwald noted, their detainment has hardly been covered in the American news media.
*** Mir might have been subjected to what the NY Times and NPR insist on calling by the euphemism "enhanced interrogation techniques" for what Obama calls a "prolonged detention."
**** "You don't want to be mistaken for Bin Laden do you?" If only Americans journalist had asked that sort of question of Bush and Cheney before it was too late.
---> Check out "How to interview terrorists and survive kidnapping," Jotman's live-blog of this IPI World Congress panel.