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Pt. 2: Enemy Combatant: Moazzam Begg on His Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar

StoryAugust 01, 2006
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The British-born Moazzam Begg joins us from Birmingham, UK to discuss his time inside the most notorious overseas prisons run by the United States. He was released 19 months ago without ever facing charges. He has just written the first book about Guantanamo by a former detainee. [includes rush transcript]

We air part two of our interview with Moazzam Begg, a British citizen and former prisoner at Bagram, Kandahar, and Guantanamo Bay. Moazzam Begg has written a book about his experiences. “Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar,” has just been published in the United States. Moazzam Begg joins us live from Birmingham.

  • Moazzam Begg. A British citizen and former prisoner at Bagram, Kandahar, and Guantanamo Bay. Moazzam Begg has written a book about his experiences. “Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar,” has just been published in the United States.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Moazzam Begg joined us in our studio live — well, not exactly our studio, but he joined us by satellite from Birmingham, England, where he lives. We conducted the interview live during the broadcast and continued afterwards. This is part two.

AMY GOODMAN: Moazzam Begg, I wanted to talk to you about the effect or how much communication you had with your family, with people on the outside. And before you answer that question, I wanted to turn to your father, Azmat Begg, who joined us in the studio in the midst of your imprisonment. You were at Guantanamo at the time. He had come to the United States to let people know what was happening to you, his son. This is Azmat Begg.

AZMAT BEGG: It’s about two years now. It’s over two years now. He was taken from his house in front of his daughter and his wife. And two American soldiers, assisted by two Pakistani soldiers, pulled him out, bundled him up and put him into the trunk of the car, and took away. And he rang me up from the trunk of the car, possibly he had a mobile, and he told me in the middle of the night here in England that, “Daddy, I have been arrested.” I said, “What for?” It was a very [inaudible] sort of noise; I couldn’t believe. He said, “I’ve been arrested, Daddy.” I said, “Why?” He said, “I don’t know. And they are taking me somewhere, which I do not know. Please take care of my wife and children who are” at so and so address in Islamabad.

AMY GOODMAN: Azmat Begg, speaking to us about ten months before Moazzam Begg was eventually released. You called your father from the trunk of the car, where you had been shackled and thrown in in Islamabad?

MOAZZAM BEGG: I think my father got it slightly wrong. It wasn’t from the back of the vehicle. It was actually inside the cell where I was held. One of the reasons why I maintain, of course, that this was a kidnap and not an arrest, which is what people often say, is because they didn’t even conduct a body search. Had they done that, they would have found my phone was still in my pocket.

And so, the first person I’ve called was my father. I whispered on the phone down to him, and I remember him being so shaken that he whispered back, but my father was obviously, as I said, shaken and didn’t know what to do. But I asked him also to take care of my family, to ask other family members who lived in Pakistan to come and visit them and to make sure that they’re okay and to also approach some lawyers.

It wasn’t an arrest. It wasn’t that we could follow any legal procedure, in at least trying to obtain a court appearance or a charge or anything of that nature. I was carried away by people unknown to me [inaudible] place. They actually said to me the terms, “You have been illegally detained.” And I said, “What does that mean?” And they said “It means that you’re held in a position by us illegally, but because nobody knows that you’re here, there’s nothing really that you can do about it.”

AMY GOODMAN: How important was your father’s activism? He [inaudible] this country, I believe at the time he was with Vanessa Redgrave, the actor, and Corin Redgrave, her brother. What difference did it make, his making your case known?

MOAZZAM BEGG: I think wherever I go, wherever I speak, and I think I’ve spoken at hundreds of events and venues, my father’s voice has preceded me, happily so. His campaigning has been vociferous, diligent and constant. People from all walks of life that I’ve come across, even from the British Foreign Office, themselves, have conceded the point that my father’s campaign was very dignified and very persistent. He met with members of the British cabinet. He met with people on the ground who were campaigning. He was also helping to campaign for release of other detainees and their families. And he went to the very doors of the White House, itself, to call for justice for his son.

So I think this is what I’ve learned in hindsight, now that I’ve returned, and I owe that man, who’s my father, a great [inaudible] he’s done to highlight not just my case, but by extension the whole of the issue of Guantanamo Bay, at least in this country, if not in the greater world.

AMY GOODMAN: Moazzam Begg, you were born in England?

MOAZZAM BEGG: That’s correct. Yes, in this city.

AMY GOODMAN: In Birmingham. Why did you choose to leave? Why did you go to Afghanistan and Pakistan? Can you talk about the trajectory of your life?

MOAZZAM BEGG: Yes. I think that, first of all, this type of question, we’re living in a huge sort of global village in a way. It’s easy to be in one point of the world and the other side of it in the same day. There are British ex-patriots all around the world, in every corner of the globe that you can think of, deep in the Amazon jungle or elsewhere.

It seems that because I’ve gone to Afghanistan to live with my wife and my kids to work on a project that I believe was of social benefit, somehow there is some suspicion behind it, because I’m a Muslim, I’m active — I was active in supporting Muslim causes in Chechnya or in Bosnia, and therefore I must be synonymous with terrorism and a terrorist type.

It was important for me during the '90s, as part of a search for my own identity of faith and nationality in broadening my horizons about how I fitted in with the rest of the world and the rest of the people who I related to, which was Muslims, [inaudible] that a lot of people take — they don't necessarily take it to Afghanistan or elsewhere, but I do remember when I was living in Afghanistan, right across the road there were a family of Americans, who shortly left after I arrived, but nonetheless were part of an NGO, as indeed were — there were Germans and French and Brits living there, non-Muslims, Caucasians, working in Afghanistan and living there and trying to do a job, what they felt was of social benefit to the people.

I think that this is still a problem that people face when they’re traveling now, particularly people with my sort of a background, in that suspicions arise, not least because of what happened September the 11th because of hijackings and so forth, but to be able to throw off this suspicion in the world that we’re living in today is extremely difficult, because you don’t have the ability to combat or to challenge these spurious allegations that are being put against me. And, you know, after 300 interrogations, after three years of incarceration, after the MI5, the CIA, the FBI, the Military Intelligence of the United States of America pitting all their wits against me for all this time, still they came up with nothing. It’s a great shame.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the comment of U.S. government officials, as well as a military interrogator. He was quoted on the PBS program, NOW. His name is Chris Hogan. He was at, I believe it was, Bagram at the same time you were. This is the military interrogator, Chris Hogan.

CHRIS HOGAN: I think that he would be mischaracterized if you said that he was a high-level enemy fighter or planner with the capacity to wreak havoc on the U.S. or its interests. I always had the impression that he was a bit of a romanticist. But at the same time, the image that he paints of himself now, as one of being someone who was an innocent being persecuted by the enormous machine, is not accurate.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Hogan, being interviewed by PBS’s NOW. Moazzam Begg, your response?

MOAZZAM BEGG: I remember Chris, and I’ve read his book since I’ve returned, The Interrogator’s War. I only ever spoke to him actually, I think, once, when he offered me a copy of the Bible, which I had asked for when I was in Bagram, because I was having a discussion with some guards and I wanted to make some comparisons between it and the Koran. But I never had any — he was never interrogating me or he never had any conversations with me.

I felt that he was a decent chap, that he was not one of the abusers, by any standards, just from his demeanor and how he’d behaved with other detainees, from what I saw. And I suppose, in a sense, he could be right, that I was a romantic, that I believed in concepts, which pushed me to go to Bosnia and elsewhere.

But despite all of that, my position would be this, is that: what is it? I want to know, what is it, actually, tangibly, that I’ve done to harm the United States of America? I’ve certainly had opportunity, if I wanted to join any terrorist organization. It wouldn’t be too difficult to do that. I mean, I think John Walker Lindh has proved that it’s possible to join the Taliban, whoever, if you wanted to. But I didn’t do that. And what is it, I want to know, that I’ve done to the United States to harm them?

Now, in response to that, of course, is I can say all the things that they’ve done to harm me and my family and the people that I’m a part of, which is the Muslim people. And he has ruined the years, the early [inaudible] the lives of my children. I had a child born six month after I was taken into custody. People say that somehow I’ve managed miraculously to survive all of this, after the abuses that I faced.

And for Chris to say that I paint myself as somebody who is being persecuted as an innocent is not correct, well, why is it then that even the United States government has been so vociferously active in supporting the war on terror, even the Supreme Court now has ruled that President Bush’s actions in relation to setting up these kangaroo courts of commissions have deemed to be illegal? Then, why is it that the world is outcrying that Guantanamo Bay and places like that should be closed? Why is Kofi Annan saying what he said? Why the United Nations report’s so powerful and vociferous about closing the place down? Why is it that even the senior legal advisor to the British government itself has called unequivocally for the closure of the place?

The fact is that people are being persecuted there. They may not be having their fingernails and toenails pulled out, but the absence of the rule of law, the fact that you’re in legal limbo, the fact that you have no meaningful communication with your family, the fact of the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, the fact of psychological abuse, that you have no idea [inaudible] and you don’t have even an inkling as to what it is that you’ve done to harm this country that has ruined and destroyed your life.

AMY GOODMAN: Moazzam Begg, I wanted to read to you from the New York Times a piece they did on you and get your response to what they say. They say, “Inspired by the guerrillas’ commitment, he threw himself into helping besieged Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He said he traveled to the Balkans nine or ten times with a small aid agency, Convoy of Mercy. But the group’s founder, Asad Khan, said he had no recollection of Mr. Begg. Defense Department officials said one of Mr. Begg’s former associates was Omar Saeed Sheikh, who volunteered on a Convoy trip in 1993. Mr. Sheikh was later convicted of kidnapping Western tourists in India and is facing execution in Pakistan for the murder of the Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl. Mr. Begg insisted he did not know Mr. Sheikh.” Could you respond to both of these issues?

MOAZZAM BEGG: Yeah. I think there are two things. First of all, the insinuation that going to Bosnia is somehow synonymous with terrorism, let’s not forget, you know, I didn’t do anything in Bosnia, although I think I would have been justified if I took part in some sort of ability to defend the Bosnian Muslims who were being massacred. But I think, you know, let’s not forget, the Americans were the ones who bombed and killed many of the Serbs, and it’s one of the things that I agree with to some degree, as long as it didn’t harm any civilians.

But the insinuation about Omar Sheikh Saeed, I think his name is, where is the evidence for this? I mean, if I say that I don’t know the man, then you need to prove otherwise. There has to be some sort of tangible proof. The fact that what they say is that he worked or went on a convoy with the Convoy of Mercy, therefore means that I must have met him, because I’m also from Birmingham, when in fact I’m from London, and that over a period of three or four years, however long the Convoy was running for, that I would probably have bumped into him, is ludicrous. The Convoy of Mercy had scores of people working for it at any given time.

I had never heard of Omar Sheikh up until his case was highly [inaudible] portrayed in the media, about how he had been arrested by the Indian authorities. And again, my point about all of this is that if you have this sort of proof and if it’s actionable, then action it. Bring it forward. But to sort of lay these allegations, which amount to nothing in the media for the sake of spin, is really quite debasing for themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Moazzam Begg, speaking to us from Birmingham, England, where he now lives with his family, after being imprisoned by the United States at Bagram, Guantanamo and Kandahar for more than three years. He has written his memoir. It’s called Enemy Combatant.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to our interview with Moazzam Begg. He has written a book about his experiences called Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar. We spoke to him at a studio in his hometown of Birmingham, England.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times goes on to say that your book, Enemy Combatant, “does not mention one Palestinian friend, Khalil Deek, who also lived in Peshawar at the time. The United States 9/11 Commission described Deek, a naturalized American, as an associate of Abu Zubaydah, a senior al-Qaeda lieutenant of Palestinian descent who was also in Peshawar then, recruiting new operatives and sending them to train at Afghan camps. An American counterterrorism official who began tracking Mr. Begg in 1999 said the CIA And MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence service, suspected Mr. Begg of working with Mr. Deek to create a CD-ROM version of a terrorist manual, “Encyclopedia of Jihad,” which Mr. Deek gave to two Palestinians who plotted with Mr. Zubaydah to bomb tourist sites in Jordan.”

And the New York Times article goes on to say, “American intelligence officials also said Deek helped arrange transportation to Jordan for some operatives in the foiled plot, but after being held in Jordan for 17 months, he was released without charge.” And the Times says, “Begg acknowledged in an interview he had met Mr. Deek in Bosnia, later invested with him in a small business deal to sell traditional Pakistani clothing, but said he never met Abu Zubaydah, something Pentagon officials said he had admitted to his interrogators. He also denied an assertion by Mr. Whitman, the Pentagon spokesman, that he spent five days in early 1998 at Derunta, a notorious al-Qaeda-affiliated training camp in Afghanistan, learning about poisons and explosives.” Moazzam Begg, your response?

MOAZZAM BEGG: Well, there are a whole load of things there that you’ve mentioned. Yes, Mr. Deek, I did meet Mr. Deek, and I maintain that I met him in Bosnia, and I did do that thing with the clothes, in relation to selling them from Pakistan to Britain. And that’s it. These sort of, again, these are these sort of airy accusations that are not based on any proofs. Again, I’ve mentioned quite clearly, if there is a crime here, tell me what it is, let’s go to court, let’s hammer it out.

What is Mr. Deek being convicted of? What is even Abu Zubaydah convicted on? In fact, recently I read [inaudible] that’s written by somebody who work [inaudible] maintains that Zubaydah, himself, is not this lieutenant of al-Qaeda and, in fact, is a very low-key player, somebody who’s been beefed up since 9/11 to be a strategist and so forth. All we have is the intelligence, the U.S. intelligence and perhaps to some degree the British intelligence word for it.

We don’t have independent inquiries. We have no way of knowing, no way of checking all of the allegations, all of the statements that are made. We know that the U.S. administration, in cahoots with its own intelligence service, has used evidence extracted under torture to enter into Iraq on a pretext that al-Qaeda was working to obtain weapons of mass destruction via Saddam Hussein. So how is it that we’re supposed to take their word for it?

And again, in relation to me knowing Deek or the possibility that I might have met Zubaydah and so forth, where on earth here is there a crime? What is it that I’m supposed to have done? Again I’m asking, what is it that I’ve done to harm the Americans? I have not been involved in the setting up of this so-called CD. I have no knowledge of how to set CDs up, and certainly in 1999 I had very little computer knowledge, other than being able to use an email.

And what is it that Mr. Deek was supposed to be convicted of? You make an allegation against somebody, and then you find out that, in fact, he wasn’t guilty of anything, then he’s freed and released, and still you’re trying to argue that this allegation holds? On what basis?

It’s again these sort of spurious allegations, even if — let’s say, for argument’s sake, all of the things that the Americans maintain, that I went to a training camp in 1993, that I went in 1998, that I met Deek, that I may have even met Zubaydah, does all of this now justify American actions? Does it justify to torture somebody, to beat them, to have them threatened with rape, to have them hear the sounds of a woman screaming, to have them be debased cruelly, inhumanly, and degradingly? Is all of that justified to deny them the rights to access of the law? This is the question that people need to ask, because, after all, some of the worst convicted terrorists, killers, convicts on earth have better access to general facilities than any of the detainees do in Guantanamo Bay.

AMY GOODMAN: Moazzam Begg, in your book Enemy Combatant, you talk about Timothy McVeigh. Why do you raise this case?

MOAZZAM BEGG: I think it’s very important. One of the questions I was asked — I remember for a joke I told one of the guards in Kandahar, he said, “What are you here for?” I said, “Oh, I knew Timothy McVeigh.” And the guard actually believed me. And it seemed so strange and bizarre that he would actually make this link, that he felt that somehow Timothy McVeigh could be involved or people who knew Timothy McVeigh could be involved in all of this.

But the reason why I bring this all up, of course, is that Timothy McVeigh killed over 150 people. There were people that he was involved with, too, the Michigan Militia, the people that he trained with, the people who showed him how to use weapons and explosives, they’re still running around the mountains of Michigan training and fighting and preparing for some sort of a war in the middle of America. And yet, they weren’t bombed and arbitrarily detained and held in such ways. One person was caught, I take, which was Timothy McVeigh, and executed.

But what of the ideology that pushed him? Because the direct threat that we hear about all of this war on terror is that we are fighting the ideology. We imprison people in a preemptive way to stop them from committing acts of terror. Then what about Timothy McVeigh’s associates and the people in America, through all of the militias and the armed groups and so forth, that continue to plague the United States of America by carrying weapons openly and indiscriminately shooting people? Surely that is an aspect of terrorism.

But because it’s homegrown, it was argued to me by many interrogators, this is something that we can deal with. What we can’t deal with is something that’s from outside of the state, and we have to deal with it in a military response and launch the war on terror.

But, of course, terrorism is a crime. You don’t launch wars on crime, you crack crime, you solve crime. And to say that somehow the military is going to be able to — is now a crime fighter, removes the ability or the understanding of people, what people have, of what crime is supposed to be about.

AMY GOODMAN: Moazzam Begg, I don’t know if the word “befriended” is appropriate, but you came to know your prison guards, one of them you believe involved in a murder. Can you talk about him, and where you were?

MOAZZAM BEGG: This was in Bagram in 2002, I believe around June or sort of midsummer. One of these guards — this was one of the guards that I became sort of friendly with and close with in Kandahar, and one of the things he said to me was that he had grown up on a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina and fought his way up as a youth to earn their respect. And so, it was a subject that I was fascinated about, by the Native Americans. And so we built up a rapport and relationship.

Later, he and I were both transferred to Bagram. In Bagram he began to become a little desensitized, but prior to that he definitely said to me that “When I see you people, it reminds me of my people,” and he was talking about Native Americans, in that how they were initially demonized because of the language that they spoke, because of the color of their skin, because of their religion, because their eating habits, because of all their persona, and he felt that we were being dehumanized in a similar way.

But he became so desensitized that I remember he told me after this detainee had tried to escape that he administered elbow and knee blows to him so hard that his arm had to be in a cast for several days after the beating. He’d, in fact — I’d seen him start shouting and screaming at the detainees in order for him to try to make himself understood, which, of course, he couldn’t, because he didn’t speak their language. And sadly, he had been involved in committing this killing, which was extremely difficult for me, because he was somebody I felt was, initially at least, one of the decent people there, and yet he had done this terrible deed.

AMY GOODMAN: Moazzam Begg, as you talk to us today, you’re in Birmingham, England. We’re in the United States. Your book is being released in the United States, Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar. But you can’t come here. In fact, you can’t leave England, is that right? The British authorities have your passport?

MOAZZAM BEGG: No, I have my own passport, but the British authorities have put a condition on me traveling abroad, which is something that I have to make representation for. It’s my own decision, my own choice, not to make a representation to travel to the United States, not least because I don’t want to be imprisoned and incarcerated again on a whim, but also that they’ve turned back people from this country, like the former Cat Stevens, Yusuf Islam, the singer, and also even people like Zaki Badawi, who was the most senior Muslim advisor to the British government. So if they’re going to turn people like that away, I think that I stand very little chance, so I would rather not even make the application.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, when you were brought to Guantanamo and held largely in solitary confinement, you say that the physical abuse was not as intense at Guantanamo as what you experienced in Afghanistan. But can you talk about the psychological abuse that you experienced at Guantanamo and whether in the end you felt that was the most difficult part for you and for other prisoners there?

MOAZZAM BEGG: You know, by the time I was sent to Guantanamo Bay, I was actually looking forward to it, after having spent such a long time in Bagram, not having seen a natural light or even the sun or the moon or the stars for almost 11 months. So I was almost looking forward to it, because I was told that it would at least be the beginning of the end, a very long end, as it turned out to be, of course.

And yes, I didn’t have — I wouldn’t call them physical violations, in comparison to what I sustained in Bagram. There were things like being chained to the floor for eight or nine hours, just so that an interrogator wanted to see me. I don’t know whether that’s because of incompetence on the part of the guards or whether it was part a design, perhaps it was a little bit of both. That happened on several occasions, not being able to move, not being able to go to the toilet, not being able to do anything because you’re chained physically to the floor.

On other occasions, when I needed medical treatment sometimes, I was taken and held in hospital, in a very state-of-the-art type of hospital, with the equipment that they used. But it included having my legs and hands shackled to the bed, so that I couldn’t move. And that was very inhumane treatment.

I think the hardest part of Guantanamo for me was the solitude, the isolation that I spent in Camp Echo with no access to any other detainees or any meaningful communication with my family, which was often letters that I received through the International Committee of the Red Cross, that had either been severely obscured and censored, even letters from my seven-year-old daughter had been greatly crossed out, and also the fact that being in an eight-foot by six-foot cell, not being able to take more than three steps either way for such a long time, other than the recreation yard that I was given access to a couple of times in the week initially, which increased. So all of that had a great amount of psychological effect.

I was in a room, in essence, that there was no natural light in at all. I couldn’t see whether it was day or night unless I managed to peek through the side of the cell and look through the door when the guard opened the door.

But the one thing that did happen was that I managed, because I was in close proximity to a guard at any given time, to establish very cordial and friendly relations with several of the guards, to learn from them firsthand about how they felt, not just about where they were, but also to transfer and to go off to their normal lives, their day-to-day lives, in how they lived in America, and for me to reciprocate and to talk about how I lived back in the U.K. and elsewhere and how our lives were close and how our lives were different.

And I think that helped to break a lot of the ice and break a lot of the stereotyped images that they had of these detainees who were deemed by the government to be killers, terrorists, dangerous people. I would maintain happily to this day that many of those guards that I came across, even interrogators, some of the interrogators, were extremely decent, humane people, who I would happily call my friends if they would allow me to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: Mozzam Begg, finally, where do you go from here?

MOAZZAM BEGG: That’s a difficult question, because this story is not just about me, even though the book is about me. It’s much bigger. It’s even bigger than Guantanamo. It’s bigger than Bagram and Kandahar, because it’s now part of something that’s so huge, that sadly, as long as places like these black holes of detention exist, the ones that are known like Bagram, Kandahar and Guantanamo, and the ones that are unknown that may be in Diego Garcia and elsewhere, perhaps in Thailand or in Egypt, I have a sad, but important, job to do, and that is to try to explain, to sometimes be a bridge between misunderstanding and recognizing where people are going wrong on both sides and to point out quite clearly that the abuses that are taking place in Guantanamo and elsewhere need to be stopped.

But, of course, you know, just recently today we’ve been told that Camp 6 has been built, something I knew from a long time ago, another state-of-the-art super maximum-security prison installation in Guantanamo Bay, and that is there to stay, at the cost of tens of millions of dollars. I can’t see the United States government closing it down, despite the fact that President Bush recently, after the suicides, said that he would like to see the place closed. I think he was playing to a public voice, not to the reality on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: Moazzam Begg, author of Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar. Last year he was released from U.S. prison at Guantanamo. He had been imprisoned for a total of about three years, speaking to us from Birmingham, England, where he lives with his family.

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