The Oath

PBS Premiere: Sept. 21, 2010Check the broadcast schedule »

Audio: A Conversation with David Brancaccio, Laura Poitras and Brian Mizer


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David Brancaccio: Welcome. David Brancaccio here, along with Laura Poitras, filmmaker. She is the director of a new documentary, The Oath, which provides rare insight into jihadist thinking and the U.S. military commissions, the trial-like procedures that are going on in Guantánamo.

Laura, welcome.

Laura Poitras: Hi David, it's great to see you again.

Brancaccio: So, second film in a trilogy that you're working on post-9/11. First film, the Academy Award-nominated My Country, My Country (POV 2006), is about the U.S. occupation of Iraq from the perspective of a Sunni doctor and his family, a wonderful film in itself.

Now, the new documentary is about Al Qaeda, from the perspective of kind of an insider.

Poitras: Yes. This film takes a bit of a dark turn -- not that My Country, My Country was such a bright picture of the world [laughs], but this one's actually -- the main protagonist is a guy who worked as bin Laden's bodyguard for four years and is currently driving a taxicab in Yemen. And that's when I met him, and I thought, well, what's this guy doing driving a taxicab in Yemen? And I ended up spending a couple years in Yemen, going back and forth and filming with him.

The Oath - Setting up the audio

Brancaccio: Now, one of the tensions in the film is, is he repentant or is he not repentant? We can talk more about that. But he's still fiery. Do you think to American eyes, when many people watch this they'll find him shocking?

Poitras: I think they will find him shocking. But the thing that I find very interesting about him is that he has turned away from those tactics, and he -- at a very pivotal moment in the film you learn that he has strong disagreements with the tactics, and particularly 9/11. And, you know, it's a complicated time to release a film like this, right? I mean with all the sort of public debate around the idea of building a cultural center near Ground Zero, and then to present a film about somebody who's an avowed member of Al Qaeda. But ... my feeling is that it really provides a much more complicated depiction of what this universe is and what the actual dangers are. And this guy's a really interesting person, because he did turn away.

Brancaccio: So, a little bit of context: he was a jihadist who first went to, what, Bosnia?

Poitras: He went to Bosnia first, yes. He left home at 19, went to Bosnia. He fought there, and then from there he went to Somalia for a year, and then went through Yemen, which is where he met Salim Hamdan, who's the other protagonist of the film. And then they were trying to go to Tajikistan, which is where they met bin Laden, because they were going through Afghanistan.

Brancaccio: And according to Abu Jandal, it was not like he shook hands once with Osama bin Laden. I mean they hung out together; he became his bodyguard, and presumably if you're in the bodyguard position, some kind of trusted confidante.

Poitras: For sure, yes. At that point bin Laden had just left the Sudan, and he was regrouping in Afghanistan, and he was looking for people to join him, and people from the Arabian Peninsula. So, Yemenis, Saudis. And there was a group that were passing through that was being led by Abu Jandal, and he convinced him to stay, and they both did, in different capacities. So Abu Jandal took on the role of a bodyguard, and also ran a guesthouse, and Salim Hamdan became a driver.

And what the film explores is what happens to [the] both of them after that point, and their different levels of culpability.

The Oath - Yemen Taxi Traffic
The streets of Yemen in a scene from The Oath. Courtesy of Praxis Films.

Brancaccio: Before we go much further, Salim Hamdan, the other person, who you don't see that much in the film but plays an important role in the film, because he's imprisoned in Guantánamo -- just remind us, he plays a crucial role in the history of U.S. jurisprudence.

Poitras: Sure. Salim Hamdan is probably the most famous Guantánamo detainee. He was one of the first guys captured in Afghanistan that had any association with bin Laden, and was sent to Guantánamo and became one of the very landmark Supreme Court decisions, Hamdan versus Rumsfeld, which basically struck down the military commission process and the ability of the president to legislate without consulting Congress around the military commissions. So it's a very famous case. There have been three very well known Supreme Court cases, all of which have struck down the legality of Guantánamo, Hamdan being the second case.

Brancaccio: And by the way, even people who don't follow legal stuff too much may recognize the famous case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. It's this Hamdan v. that Rumsfeld.

Before we get back to Salim Hamdan, let's go back to Abu Jandal, and I want to get a look behind the scenes on the making of this movie. How did you hook up with this guy?

Poitras: You know, when I started shooting the film in Iraq about the occupation, I was also interested in Guantánamo, and very concerned as an American citizen what are we doing there. And when I finished working in Iraq, then I turned my attention to Guantánamo, and I went to Yemen with a lawyer who was representing several Yemeni detainees, a man named David Remes with the idea of trying to find a story that I could stay and follow. The story I was actually looking for was a story [about] what happens when someone comes home from Guantánamo.

So I was meeting families and going on this trip, and when we were in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, we were working with a local journalist, Nasser Arrabyee, and he asked a very simple question, "Would you like to meet Salim Hamdan's family?" And I said of course, I wanted to meet Salim Hamdan's family, famous Supreme Court case, I knew it very well. So that afternoon we were ushered into Abu Jandal's living room.

Brancaccio: It was his living room?

The Oath - David Brancaccio and Laura Poitras in recording booth
David Brancaccio and Laura Poitras in the recording booth.

Poitras: Yes. And it took probably about ten seconds to have my head completely spun around, because here was a guy who by all accounts was much, much closer to bin Laden than anyone at Guantánamo -- certainly much closer than Salim Hamdan. And he was responsible for recruiting Hamdan -- he was bin Laden's bodyguard -- and also was interrogated right after 9/11. So this is a guy who is really, really fascinating, and on top of all that he's a taxi driver in Yemen.

Brancaccio: By the way, in a famous interrogation. I mean this is -- when the FBI, I guess, sat down with this fellow, Abu Jandal, apparently Jandal spilled the beans.

Poitras: It's probably one of the most significant post-9/11 interrogations. It's written about in a very compelling way in Lawrence Wright's book, The Looming Tower, which everyone really should read if they're interested in Al Qaeda and 9/11. And in this interrogation, it went on for two weeks. It began six days after 9/11, and was done with Miranda rights -- all by the book. And it's very interesting to try to figure out why we took this other path that we ended up taking, with CIA black sites and legalizing what many people have argued is torture and disappearing people, and when it began, right after 9/11, with Miranda rights, it yielded intelligence.

Brancaccio: So you meet Abu Jandal --

Poitras: Right.

Brancaccio: And, you know, I'm sure he didn't immediately spill the beans to you. You had to develop some sort of connection. How did that evolve?

Poitras: You know, it took a long time. I mean I knew pretty instantly he's a fascinating person. He also was terrifying. I mean, he's terrifying on the most basic level, like what are the risks for me, an American, working in Yemen, and can I trust this guy? And because I certainly am aware that I'm a potential target working there.

So he's scary on that level, but he was also scary on other levels, because you never quite knew if you could trust what he was saying. And then there was just this thing, like what does it mean to make a film about somebody who was so dedicated to a jihadi worldview. So there was the sort of nervousness, but I also felt like this was an incredible access to somebody who was going to open up into this world that we actually should know about, that it serves us to understand better.

I don't think I would have made the film if it hadn't have been for this interrogation. Because it showed him, it showed ... this pivotal moment. And I don't want to say too much about it, for people who haven't seen the film, but it showed this pivotal moment of turning away. And if I hadn't had that, I really probably would have had a hard time focusing on him, both because I wouldn't maybe have known where he stood -- I mean, the interrogation is a primary document that's pretty irrefutable [about] what happened, what went down on that and we have that as his words. And that was just incredibly compelling to understand how somebody who was on the trajectory he was on turned.

Brancaccio: Did you ever imagine that he would ultimately give you the access that he did? I mean he gets up early in the morning to pray, wakes up his long-suffering son, I may say, at 4:30 in the morning to pray. But also, in his taxicab that he's driving around Yemen -- I think you must have a camera in there, right?

Poitras: Yes. I knew pretty instantly that I wanted to put a camera in his taxicab, but it took a long time. It took a lot of patience for me to actually get the access. So I didn't -- I was uncertain for quite some time, because he's -- he's got a lot of things to worry about. There's a younger generation of Al Qaeda who have him targeted on a hit list. He's got to worry about the Yemen government, he has to worry about the U.S. government. I mean this is a guy who has enemies in many places.

Brancaccio: This is one of those almost unfair open-ended questions, but I want to try it on you, Laura. I mean, you've thought a lot about this. You've worked years on this film. Did you yourself have a different view of Al Qaeda after making this?

Poitras: I never imagined that I would be entering into this territory, or making a film about someone like this. And I do think probably what changed is trying to understand this radical movement on a spectrum, and that people fall within different places of that spectrum. And I think that that's actually a useful thing to understand.

So, for instance, there are these young men who he teaches, and I think that's probably the most compelling aspect of the film, because you can see that they're kind of on the edge. Like, with a little bit of pushing they could pack up their bags -- and, you know, at that point a lot of young men were going to Iraq, and he was sort of keeping them sort of from going. And you could see that moment of this movement, this sense that this radical jihadist movement is attracting young people, and you can see it in their eyes, and you can see the precipice of people who were leaning --

Brancaccio: It is fascinating, just to watch, there's the moment where they could become jihadists before your eyes, and you get what it is that is pushing them forward. But it's terrifying.

Poitras: Yes. Yes. So I think it provides an insight into how this organization exists on a spectrum. And I was very fascinated by a guy who was such a believer who ends up turning away. I thought that that provided really important insight.

Brancaccio: So, Abu Jandal, enormous access to him and his thoughts over time, 24 hours a day in many cases. But the other protagonist in the film, Salim Hamdan, is in Guantánamo. You don't have any access to that guy.

Poitras: Yes. So basically the story unfolds around these two stories. And Abu Jandal's story is a slowly revealing backstory of who this guy was and this interrogation, and Hamdan's story -- and Hamdan is essentially a ghost in the film. He appears through words in his letters home, and through these very stark images of the landscapes of Guantánamo, because we couldn't film him, and then through his lawyers who are defending him at the prison. So we followed the trial.

Brancaccio: He knows Osama bin Laden as well.

Poitras: Right. Right. Hamdan was bin Laden's driver. And what I was compelled by is this idea of who are we as a nation around issues like Guantánamo with the hard cases, right? And this gives an example of a hard case. He was clearly an associate. He was clearly hanging around with a bunch of people who were engaged in terrorist activity. And I think he must have known. But I don't think that he was a participant. And the question that gets raised in the film is what rises to the level of a war crime? And he was somebody who was a driver, sort of an employee, and there were lots of people who were employees for Al Qaeda -- [T]here were cooks, there were drivers, all these kind of low level associates. And I think that's an important question when we're sort of moving forward into war crime trials.

Brancaccio: We're speaking with Laura Poitras, the director of The Oath. Laura, hang here just a second, because we're going to bring Brian Mizer on the line, and we'll come back to you in just a second.

Brian Mizer, former military lawyer who represented Salim Hamdan, and now -- Brian, are you, what, a public defender?

Brian Mizer: Federal public defender in the Eastern District of Virginia.

Brancaccio: So let's talk about Salim Hamdan. Just for some context, for people listening to this before they've seen the film, what were the events that resulted in Hamdan's arrest? How'd they get him?

Mizer: There were a group of Americans and American Special Forces on a road that -- I think the government described it as a highway, such as highways exist in Afghanistan. And he was stopped at a checkpoint by American forces in November of 2001.

Brancaccio: And it emerged -- and I don't think you'd dispute that -- he was a driver for bin Laden, right?

Mizer: Yes. He was most certainly a driver for bin Laden, and that's what he stands convicted of, the purported war crime of driving bin Laden.

Brancaccio: Well, just to be clear, you don't think that's such a big deal, in the grand intergalactic scheme of terrorism, driving for bin Laden doesn't reach a certain threshold for you?

Mizer: It doesn't. And I think testimony at Mr. Hamdan's trial was that there were a number of paid employees: cooks, gardeners, laborers and drivers. Mr. Hamdan was one of those paid employees and was never a member of Al Qaeda.

Brancaccio: Now, remind us. I know this is a big part of your resume now, and I remember the headlines, but tell me briefly about the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. I mean you won that thing.

Mizer: Yes. [Actually,] the lawyers from Perkins Coie, and my predecessor on the case, Charles Swift, prevailed at the Supreme Court on Mr. Hamdan's behalf, in which five members of the court held that the first version of the military commissions were unconstitutional and violated the Geneva Conventions.

Brancaccio: And so what happened was, among other things, the U.S. Congress went into action and drew up a new law. I think it's in 2006, right?

Mizer: Yes, that's right, the first Military Commissions Act in 2006, specifically targeted at Salim Hamdan, to try him for war crimes. And unfortunately for Mr. Hamdan, they created a new war crime, and that is the war crime of material support for terrorism, which arguably doesn't exist today, and certainly didn't exist at the time Mr. Hamdan was driving bin Laden in 2001.

Brancaccio: You know you may be in trouble when the U.S. Congress draws up a law that's focused at your case.

Mizer: Yes. [laughter] Right. That's right.

Brancaccio: He said, chuckling only grimly.

So, military commissions, this is a trial-like procedure, but it is not exactly the type of trial that a defendant in a U.S. regular case would recognize.

Mizer: Yes, that's right. Nor is it like a trial that happens all over the world routinely in military courts. It doesn't mirror a military court-martial either.

Brancaccio: I think the ACLU has called the commissions some sort of second-class system of justice. Is that fair?

Mizer: Yes, absolutely. I've also heard it described as Federal Court lite, and I think that would be --

Brancaccio: Lite, L-I-T-E, yes.

Mizer: L-I-T-E, that's right. And I think that that would be generous to the procedures that are going on there.

Brancaccio: I'd like to get your reaction, I was watching the film, and the chief prosecutor... Colonel Lawrence Morris, he says that the procedures in place for the military tribunals were in his view much "more robust, much more friendly to the defense, much more advanced, considerably more due process" than even Nuremberg, the famous Nuremberg Trials. What's your reaction to that contention?

Mizer: Well, I think actually there is some truth to that, that these trials are more fair than the trials that took place in 1949. But remember what has happened since 1949. I mean I've always liked that analogy that has been made by the government. If they were to come and pass off a 1949 automobile that meets all the safety standards of 1949, I don't think anyone would take them seriously.

But many things have happened in international law, the Geneva Conventions being chief among them. In American domestic law, our constitutional law, jurisprudence has evolved greatly since that time. And there can be no doubt that these tribunals that are taking place at Guantánamo Bay are now far deficient from 2010 standards, regardless of what happened at Nuremberg.

You remember that the defendants at Nuremberg were executed immediately after the trials and had no appeal in capital cases, and I don't think that most Americans would believe that that's a fair process in 2010.

Brancaccio: Now, under this new-ish system set up in '06, they don't allow cameras in the courtroom. They don't allow cameras, but there's a jury, right?

Mizer: A panel of military officers, that's correct. And if I had to say -- that's one benefit of the military system that has been copied and transported into the military commissions system.

Brancaccio: So what happened to Hamdan? I mean he got convicted under the new system, right?

Mizer: That's correct. And the Perkins Coie lawyers that I mentioned before are continuing with his case. It's currently before the Court of Military Commissions review on direct appeal. He's challenging his conviction for the war crime of material support for terrorism.

In the meantime he's gone back and has reunited with his family in Yemen.

Brancaccio: Because he didn't get much of a sentence. I mean I guess it depends on your point of view, but it wasn't many years, it was months.

Mizer: Yes, it was five additional months. And that, getting back to what I said earlier --

Brancaccio: Five additional months on top of time served, of course.

Mizer: That's correct.

Brancaccio: Right.

Mizer: It was five additional months. He ended up being released seven years to the day that he was captured, on November 24, 2001. He was released that same date in 2008.

And I think that one of the benefits of the system, and I would say the only benefit of the system, is you had military officers who were highly educated, looked at Mr. Hamdan -- many of them were combat veterans. They know what members of Al Qaeda look like, and they simply said that this wasn't an individual that needed to be incarcerated. He hasn't returned to the battlefield. He's living quietly in Yemen, unlike Abu Jandal, as you can see.

Brancaccio: Listening patiently has been the director of the film The Oath, Laura Poitras. Welcome back.

Poitras: Thanks.

Brancaccio: Now Laura, you and Brian go way back. You've been sticking a camera in his face for a long time, right? [laughs]

Poitras: Yes. I met Brian in Yemen in, I think it was January 2008. And, you know, I just think it should be said that the work that he's done, and Charlie Swift -- I mean the defense lawyers in the military have really put a lot at stake in terms of defending people like Salim Hamdan. I show the film all over the place, and that's the thing that people often say to me is how impressed they are by the defense he received, and by the work of Brian and Charlie Swift and the other defense lawyers.

And I'm actually curious Brian, when were you first tasked to come on board the military commissions, what did you think of the process, and as you sort of uncovered this case, what was your sort of progression of your initial impressions and how they changed over time?

Mizer: I joined the case in the summer of 2007, immediately following the Supreme Court victory. The chief defense counsel asked me to come participate in the process, because it would appear that they were going to pass the Military Commissions Act -- they did that.

And I guess I have seen it evolve -- I guess what has evolved is the Congress and the president, through the Manual for Military Commissions, has put what I would call 'window dressing' on the commissions process. But that's really the only change that I've seen take place.

Brancaccio: But what about you yourself, Brian? In other words, you were some bleeding heart liberal just itching to defend Osama bin Laden's driver -- I mean that's not a fair description of where your head would have been at.

Mizer: No, not at all. I spent almost ten years on active duty in the United States Navy. I was in the Gulf on an aircraft carrier on March 19, 2003, when we began the Iraq War. I don't think that could accurately describe where I was. But when I went down to Guantánamo I expected to see what the government told me would be there, the worst of the worst, and I found Salim Hamdan, who was anything but.

Brancaccio: So interesting. What's the state of the commissions now? Have you been following it at all?

Mizer: I have. Of course I have many friends -- you spend a few years down there, I have many friends that are continuing with that process. And President Obama has authorized the commissions to continue, as I said, in a modified form from that process that Mr. Hamdan was tried under. But even this new form, as I said before, provides merely widow dressing to the original Military Commissions Act. They're fundamentally unfair, these trials. They do not comply with international law, they do not comply with American constitutional principles, that the Supreme Court has said, in the Boumediene Case, do in fact apply at Guantánamo Bay.

So, really what's going on at Guantánamo Bay is an exercise in futility until the appellate courts ultimately determine the process is illegitimate.

Brancaccio: Brian, I just heard something that I wanted to ask you about. I didn't know this: apparently when you were preparing Hamdan's defense you got to meet with one of the most notorious of the Al Qaeda people, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?

Mizer: I did. I was also involved in another case down there, one of the five defendants charged with the 9/11 crimes --

Brancaccio: I mean, setting aside for the moment, you know, without fully discussing the idea of this -- that he has as the mastermind of 9/11, what was it like to meet that guy?

Mizer: I mean he's a fascinating individual, and I think from the public coverage that has taken place down there, very much in charge of that courtroom, and it was a fascinating experience. The entire time at Guantánamo was fascinating, but meeting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was unique in that experience.

Brancaccio: What do you think about the chances that the administration will move ahead on closing down Guantánamo? I mean the promise was last January. It's still here.

Mizer: I think I saw in the news recently, it reported that it costs $600,000, or in excess of $600,000 per detainee to operate the prison, versus anywhere from $5,000-20,000 in federal prison here in the States. There simply is no reason to continue operating the prison. It was set up to avoid due process and American law, and the Supreme Court has said that those avenues are no longer available to the government. There's no reason to keep the prison open.

As for prospects that the prison is going to be closed, I can't venture a guess. I don't know why it's still open. There's no legal reason for it to exist, and it's costing America and the American taxpayers quite a bit of money.

Brancaccio: How has your role in defending Hamdan affected you, let's just say socially? Do your friends question your decision to participate in this case, or do people get it?

Mizer: I think that most people understand it. I think particularly those familiar with military lawyers -- we're charged with defending individuals charged with crimes. It's not personal. And I would say my chain of command in the Navy and my friends have all been very supportive of what we did down there.

Brancaccio: Laura Poitras, you spent all that time in the editing room, all that time in the field. You must have some sort of thought in the back of your head of what you hoped the film would achieve. If all goes well with this film, what do you hope people will see differently?

Poitras: I think that unfortunately, we're living in a time of narrowing -- journalism is becoming sound bites. We're trying to make huge decisions based on political, polemical arguments that have a lot more to do with people's reelections, and not really serving the country in terms of understanding the world better. And that's what I try to do with my work. I spend a lot of time on the ground and try to bring back complicated stories, in a time where there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of patience for complications.

But the way that I try to do that is to ground these stories within the lives of individuals and try to understand how these issues look differently when they're embodied. And I think that this story is an example of that. So, you know, that's ultimately the goal, and to provide a window to the world so that Americans can have a better understanding of the dangers out there, and to make better decisions. Because I don't think the United States has actually made very intelligent decisions in terms of how it's dealt with -- its reactions to 9/11.

Brancaccio: Now, I asked Brian a personal question. I want to ask you a personal question. You've been having some trouble at the U.S. border?

Poitras: Well, yes. When we talked --

Brancaccio: Mild-mannered filmmaker like you? Now, what's been happening?

Poitras: Well, when we talked in 2006, when I'd finished the film in Iraq, that's when I was first put on a list, where I started getting stopped --

Brancaccio: Like the watch list -- what's it called?

Poitras: Well, yes. They don't really tell you that you're on a watch list --

Brancaccio: There's some list, you're on a list --

Poitras: So I know I'm on a list. I've done a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act request), but they don't tell you what the list is. So I started getting stopped at airports in 2006, and that was before I even uttered the word 'Yemen' or 'Al Qaeda' or 'Guantánamo.' I hadn't even started that project.

So I started getting held up at borders and questioned, and there would usually be when I landed in the airport a couple of guys from border protection waiting for me, and I'd be escorted and questioned. And that obviously didn't get any easier when I started traveling to Yemen.

We're talking about 25 times maybe I've been held up at airports. But what happened that was quite disconcerting on August 1, 2010 is that I landed at JFK, I was met there by border agents, which is usual, but this time they took my computer and my cell phone and my camera.

Brancaccio: They seized your equipment?

Poitras: They did. They did. And of course I claimed, you know, that I'm a journalist, and that these are things that are protected, the sources and information that I work with is protected information. And so what happened was that the equipment was held for 40 days. It was returned to me on Monday, with an email saying, "We've copied everything and we're continuing the review process." And they're taking very seriously my claim that this is protected by journalistic privilege, because I think that they know that they are on very shaky ground legally, and that there are protections, there are journalistic protections -- both national protections and then [in] New York State particularly.

So, we're fighting it. I have a lawyer who's fighting it. The ACLU just filed a case -- there was a similar case -- and they're filing that now in the court system. And it's a little frightening, because I think we need a free press. I mean, what would we be without people who are looking into things? And so I feel like I'm doing a service by telling these kinds of stories, and then to encounter this level of harassment, scrutiny, I mean it's hard -- I don't know quite what motivates it, but it's distressing.

Brancaccio: It's also fair to say that you take the results of your investigations and don't keep it private. You make a film, and you can just turn on the television set and watch the thing on PBS. There it is, the essence of what you've been working on is there for all to see.

Poitras: Right. When I picked up my computer and my cell phone on Monday at JFK, I told them that it's going to be on television on Tuesday and that they should tune in, and that I hope they get to see the film.

Brancaccio: And just so we have this for editing purposes, as you've just said, Monday, so about a month and a half later you get your stuff back --

Poitras: They held my equipment for over 40 days. And then copied everything, and they're continuing to review it.

Brancaccio: Interesting. All right, well Brian, you may have to help Laura using your legal skills here. [laughter] But you already know each other and have each other's contact information presumably.

Poitras: I have a question actually for Brian. Do you think there's any chance that the 9/11 trials will find their way into federal court?

Mizer: I think that there's a good chance that they're going to come to the federal court. I guess -- I just don't know the answer as to when. It's hung up on this November election --

Poitras: Right.

Mizer: -- has been hung up for almost a year now. And I think, I suspect that the government was waiting to see what happened in the Ghailani case up in New York, which several months ago the district court judge there said that he hadn't been denied a speedy trial, having been held in CIA custody at Guantánamo for a number of years. And so I think that that paved the way for the 9/11 cases to take place in federal court.

Poitras: Okay. And if -- is it something that, if you were asked to would you get involved?

Mizer: I don't know. We have a number of ethical rules. I have a former client in that case, Abdulaziz Ali, who is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's nephew, I represented at Guantánamo.

And so potentially, yes. The problem that my office has also represented Zacarias Moussaoui, so there may be conflict issues there.

Poitras: And let me ask you another question. There's a lot of talk that at Guantánamo there's a lot of documentation of what happened there. Do you hear that this is information that'll ever be made available to the public? Do we think we'll ever know what goes on behind the scenes?

Mizer: What goes on in the prison?

Poitras: Yes.

Mizer: Well, I can tell you there was a lot of classified information in Mr. Hamdan's case, including his interrogation techniques. A lot of the interrogation techniques to my knowledge are still classified, and we weren't allowed to present [that] at his trials.

So I think the answer to your question is I hope that someday we're going to learn, and the American public will learn everything that happened at Guantánamo, but I imagine that's going to be decades off, once Al Qaeda has vanished and the American public's no longer afraid.

Brancaccio: All right. Brian Mizer, former military lawyer who represented Salim Hamdan, is now a federal public defender. Laura Poitras' documentary is called The Oath. Laura, Brian, thank you.

Mizer: Thank you.

Poitras: Thanks David.


David Brancaccio is special correspondent for Marketplace/American Public Media. He hosts a PBS television special called "Fixing the Future" November 18.