Dear Mr. Weiser,
I am a third year law student at City University of New York School of Law, as well as a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism (’02). I have been following the Syed Fahad Hashmi case over the past few months, and I am writing because I found that your article, “Ex-Brooklyn College Student Admits Conspiring to Help Al Qaeda” omitted several crucial pieces of information that would have allowed a reader to understand Fahad Hashmi’s case in context.
First, your article does not make clear that Mr. Hashmi has been in solitary confinement for nearly three years, an extraordinary measure for the government to take pre-trial. Many American citizens would be shocked to hear that this kind of detention is being justified as an “administrative” measure. You also did not mention that Mr. Hashmi was unable to see classified information that the government had planned to use against him. The use of classified information continues to raise serious constitutional concerns about a defendant’s ability to adequately participate in his defense.
I am also curious why your article left out the news that you had reported the day before, the judge’s granting of the government’s last-minute motion for an anonymous jury under extra security measures. The judge’s decision and the speculative basis on which it was granted was an unprecedented extension of the case law proscribing the extremely limited occasion on which anonymous juries are to be granted. There is good reason to be concerned that these measures would have prejudiced the jury. These factors were all highly relevant to the circumstances under which Mr. Hashmi accepted the plea bargain.
As a side note, you may be concerned that the government argued in its brief that the security measures for the jury were warranted because Fahad’s supporters were willing to engage with the media: “One need only look at the website dedicated to this case – www.freefahad.com – to conclude that some are seeking as much media attention for this case as possible.” The government’s argument not only had a chilling effect on the organizing around his case, but it also potentially hindered your ability to interview his supporters. It seems alarming that the government would use the media’s potential interest in a case (which could hardly be called a “spectacle”) as an argument in favor of restricting the courtroom.
I also found it interesting that in your article you chose to quote at length the standard language of the colloquy that is commonly used in court during a plea bargain. There is nothing novel in Mr. Hashmi’s statements in the courtroom; this question and answer admission of the charges is the standard format for a plea bargain (See Benchbook of U.S. District Court Judges, March 2000 rev., http://www.almd.uscourts.gov/rulesproc/docs/Guilty_Plea_Colloquy.pdf ). A reader would not know this, but I would expect that a reporter would understand the limited value of such quotes. Combined with the omitted facts I mentioned previously, the emphasis on these statements seemingly delivers up to the government the plea as a victory in its “war on terror” when this prosecution was far from untainted.
To those of us who have spent the last few months following this case, it is clear that the plea was not the real story, nor did it do justice to the situation that Mr. Hashmi faced on the eve of his trial. Three years of solitary confinement, secret evidence, an inevitably frightened jury…I think under such circumstances the most “innocent” might have chosen to have take 15 years in prison over the possibility of 70 years. The question of innocence or guilt was very much beside the point. You may disagree with what extent the reader needs to have an empathetic understanding for Fahad’s decision. However, I think that it is uncritical to portray the plea as a simple admission of guilt. That interpretation fails to ask important questions about the government’s bizarre conduct in this case, i.e. the government’s willingness to drop three other supposedly severe charges in the blink of an eye, the fact that Fahad waited until the eve of the trial before accepting the plea bargain, and the numerous critiques of the breadth of the material support statute (whose constitutionality was challenged before the Supreme Court just last month).
Finally, I also want to bring to your attention to the page link to your article, which was titled, “Pakistani Immigrant Admits to Trying to Help Al-Qaeda.” If someone moved here at the age of three and subsequently naturalized, why would you highlight his or her early immigration history? It seems obvious to me that the “immigrant” story has much to do with the conscious choice of an individual to uproot, move to a new land, and adjust to its culture; at three years old, Fahad could hardly make that decision and for all intents and purposes he grew up here in New York. It doesn’t take much to see that the purpose of this characterization was to further alienate Fahad – to make him out to be something foreign. I understand that this complaint may be better directed to a web editor, and I hope you will forward this to the appropriate party as a “correction.”
For all the foregoing reasons, I found your coverage of the Fahad Hashmi case unhelpful to your readers. I hope you will consider Mr. Hashmi’s June 7th sentencing as an opportunity to tell the full story. So far, the public has been left in the dark by the press.
Very truly yours,