The case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld resulted in one of the most important Supreme Court decisions of the last decade. Laura Poitra’s outstanding new documentary, The Oath (currently screening at the Shattuck Cinemas), examines the events that precipitated the decision, the people involved in the case, and the sometimes appalling, sometimes surprising aftermath.
Yemeni citizen Salim Hamdan was Osama bin Laden’s chauffeur. He never swore an oath to Al Qaeda, wasn’t entrusted with any military secrets, and didn’t engage in acts of terrorism. Nevertheless, after his November 2001 capture in Afghanistan and subsequent three-year detention in the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, the Department of Defense charged him with the crime of ‘conspiracy’.
In 2006, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5-3, ruled that military tribunals violated both the Geneva Convention and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. In response, Congress passed a shameful piece of legislation, the Military Commissions Act, which retro-actively created a law allowing Hamdan’s military trial to proceed (and at the same time removed the concept of habeas corpus from American jurisprudence, but that’s another story). After being found guilty of the ‘war crime’ of ‘providing material support for terrorism’, Hamdan was returned to Yemen in early 2009 to finish the five-and-a-half year term imposed by a jury of military officers.
Abu Jandal, on the other hand, did take The Oath. Born Nasser al-Bahri, Jandal is a cheery, telegenic fellow with a ready smile who fought on the front lines in Bosnia during the Yugoslavian civil wars. Once a dedicated jihadi known as bin Laden’s ‘Emir of Hospitality’, Jandal introduced Hamdan to the Sheik and later became Salim’s brother-in-law. Imprisoned in 2000 by Yemeni authorities at the request of the United States, he was interrogated by FBI agent Ali Soufan (who, instead of waterboarding Jandal, plied him with diabetic cookies) in the days following 9/11, and sang like a bird.
Jandal offered the FBI a wealth of information about al-Qaeda, bin Laden, and the 9/11 hijackers. His interrogation was so fruitful that the invasion of Afghanistan was postponed until the FBI finished their work (too bad he couldn’t have kept it up for another decade).
This information, however, also directly implicated his brother-in-law, who’d earned $200 a month pumping gas and changing oil for Osama. Jandal, meanwhile, spent less than two years in jail and was released upon completion of The Dialogue, a rehabilitation program for recovering jihadis. Now wracked by guilt for introducing Salim to Bin Laden, he teaches young men that violence is not the only way to achieve justice for Muslims, but remains openly devoted to his mentor.
Poitras’ film tells the sometimes parallel, sometimes divergent stories of Hamdan and Jandal, and does so using devices more commonly associated with fictional film-making. There is no narrative intervention: the story unfolds in non-linear fashion, but uses subtle inter-title ‘reveals’ to surprise and engage the audience.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises is how likable Abu Jandal is—especially once we learn how close he was to America’s biggest bogeyman. A well-spoken, intelligent fellow described by CIA analyst Michael Scheuer as “more valuable than anyone in Guantanamo”, Jandal (who praises American soft drinks and allows his son to watch Tom and Jerry) seems like he’d make a delightful guest at your next dinner party.
But there are other surprises: we see Salim’s military-appointed lawyer, Navy Lieutenant Commander Brian Mizer, refer to the “fundamental flaws” of the military commissions system and announce to a Yemeni audience that “the American government is terrified of exposing the coercive methods that it has used against some of the brothers in Guantanamo.” This is not language you expect to hear from a uniformed member of America’s armed forces.
The Oath is actually a film not of singular, but multiple, oaths and loyalties, some of which are at odds with each other. In addition to Jandal’s fealty to Osama bin Laden, there’s the allegiance he has sworn to The Dialogue: to fore-go violence and no longer promote jihad. There’s Hamdan’s infamous non-oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda, and there are the oaths taken by Mizer and Soufan (who read Jandal his Miranda rights every day) to defend the Constitution of the United States: oaths they clearly took more seriously than did their political overlords.
Laura Poitras was previously nominated for an Oscar in 2007 for her feature documentary My Country, My Country, but lost to the juggernaut known as An Inconvenient Truth. This time, if there’s any justice, she’ll win one.