A document mule in the Internet age

Commentary: How NSA scrutiny is forcing journalists to resort to old-school tactics

Abu Zubaydah in a recruitment video.

On an unbearably hot San Fernando Valley day in the first week of September, I meet journalist Jason Leopold at Toluca Lake's Sweetsalt Food Shop, an unassumingly jovial cafe where neither of us Californians had been before.

Just days earlier, after my editors at Al Jazeera America told me about Leopold, I promptly Googled him. That's when I realized I indeed knew him — but in a different sense. I'd been reading his work for well over a decade. We soon discover we have friends in common, among them Valerie Plame, whom he interviewed extensively years ago. When I asked her and her husband, Joe Wilson, about Leopold, the endorsement is immediate: He reported extensively and fearlessly on the Plame affair, in the face of fierce opposition from senior Bush administration officials under investigation. His aggressive use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has led him to some landmark investigations, ingeniously executed in plain sight. It has prompted him to continually sue the FBI and even forced the agency to change its policies. Leopold has been given and has now adopted the tag "FOIA terrorist." His subjects have not been kid stuff: Enron, Guantanamo, counterterrorism, national security and civil liberties and human-rights issues. If anyone were to attempt to discredit the man from a personal angle, he has already written his own expose too — a best-selling memoir, "News Junkie" (2006).

My editors told me that we could not discuss the story via phone or email, so we met in a conference room in Al Jazeera's downtown Manhattan offices. There, they made an unusual request. Would I be willing to act as a mule and go to LA to pick up a document? They asked me to fly out within the week, meet Leopold and bring back a thumb drive. If these precautions seem silly, one has to remember the recent news that the NSA had been spying on Al Jazeera. We had to presume it was monitoring Leopold. The question of surveillance, pushed into the news by NSA revelations, interested me more than the opportunity to smuggle a protected unclassified document. What also caught my interest was the way that, in our era of electronic and fiber-optic transmissions, past practices — in-person meetings to hand over documents — seemed to have returned to the present and the future. So I agreed.

Of course, I worried. The night I agreed to the trip, I stayed up till the early-morning hours researching Leopold as well as the document. What he had on his hands was huge. There was no doubt about it. For over a decade, Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah has been held as an enemy combatant in black sites and in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was originally thought to be a high-ranking Al-Qaeda operative and senior aide to Osama bin Laden, though the diaries say otherwise

As Leopold and I settled into our seats in the back of the cafe, before I could ask him anything, he pushed a silver thumb drive across the table. Good, I said, Thanks. Let's make sure it works. I pulled out my MacBook Air. We inserted the drive and opened up a PDF he had titled PepsiIsMyFavoriteDrink. This was an actual sentence and recurring sentiment in the document on the drive, the first volume of the diary of a man neither of us had ever met but would never forget: Abu Zubaydah.

Just carrying the thumb drive with Abu Zubaydah's diaries put me on edge. At the Charlotte airport, my connecting flight to New York was delayed a bit dramatically because of mechanical failure. A new airplane was called in, and an elderly woman picked up my Coach purse, right off the seat next to me. The thumb drive was in the purse pocket. I shouted, way too loudly — uncharacteristically poised to deck somebody's grandmother, no doubt — "What the f--- are you doing?" She looked flustered and a bit shocked and then profoundly apologetic: "My mistake, so sorry, I have a similar ..."

The week I returned, a friend of mine reported her website meter listed dozens of government email addresses that visited her site, which I somehow took personally. The day after I returned, on an old Village Voice wedged underneath my apartment door, was a message from some man whose name I don't recognize, that he was sorry he missed me, that he dropped by to say hello, that he was sorry he lost my card — and I don't even hand out cards anymore. 

From the moment I got back to New York, as I read all 113 pages of a document labeled "Unclassified/FOUO (for official use only) United States Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation verbatim translation," I felt deeply haunted. It was like reading a dead man's journal — or at least the words of a man who, while by no means innocent, has been suspended in the unthinkable for over a decade. In the warmth and comfort of that quaint cafe in Toluca Lake, where Leopold handed me the thumb drive, we agreed that Abu Zubaydah will die in Guantanamo. There can be no other ending to his story, and even he must know this as well. He continues to add more volumes to his diaries. 

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