The Interrogation of Abdallah Higazy

So far, press accounts have missed the point

Abdallah Higazy is the Egyptian student unlucky enough to stay the night of September 10, 2001, on the fifty-first floor of a hotel across the street from the World Trade Center.

Another guest had left something behind. Housekeeping must have missed it. It wasn’t a sock, a toothbrush, or a handful of change. It was something rather different: an aviation transceiver, used to communicate with planes in flight.

The hotel was evacuated on September 11. After the radio turned up, Higazy was detained by the FBI. Under lengthy interrogation, he confessed that the radio was his.

In January 2002, after Higazy had spent over a month in custody, an airline pilot stopped by the hotel to claim his belongings. When he asked where his transceiver was, someone knew they’d made a big mistake.

Higazy has filed suit—against the FBI, against the hotel—hoping to hold someone accountable for his ordeal. Last Thursday, the federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that his lawsuit against the FBI could proceed.

Here’s where the story gets interesting—and newsworthy. When the ruling was posted on the court’s Web site at 10:30 a.m., as they typically are, it included a detailed description of how the FBI had coerced Higazy’s false confession. According to the ruling, Higazy says his interrogator threatened to “make sure that Egyptian security gives [his] family hell.” The agent later acknowledged that he very well knew that the Egyptians operated under what he called “different” laws, especially in relation to torture and civil rights. Higazy says he knew exactly what this meant—that if he didn’t “co-operate” his family back in Egypt would be in danger, from both their government and their neighbors.

But a couple of hours after the decision was posted, the court pulled the document. Steve Bergstein, a partner in a Chester, New York firm specializing in civil rights cases, had already blogged about the ruling, and once the document disappeared he updated the post to let his readers know the link was dead. Howard Bashman, a Pennsylvania lawyer who maintains the widely read legal blog, “How Appealing,” also noted the withdrawal. After he posted a copy of the disappeared ruling sent in by a reader, Bashman says he got a call from the court’s head clerk—“who doesn’t usually get involved in little things”—asking that the opinion be taken down, since it inadvertently contained information that had been filed under a seal. Bashman declined, and told his readers about the call and the clerk’s promise that a redacted version would be forthcoming the next day.

On Friday, when the court put up its new version, about 400 words—which described the threats used to coerce the confession—were missing.

Bashman says he tipped Josh Gerstein, a reporter for The New York Sun about the redaction. Gerstein’s piece was published before the new decision was issued, and doesn’t (obviously) describe what was excised. The Sun, which doesn’t publish on weekends, has yet to follow up this week.

The full story seems primed to break—Bashman says that that he spoke with a Washington Post reporter about the story on Wednesday afternoon. But we’re five days out, and no one’s really explained what happened.

The New York Times and the AP’s initial pieces, both published on Saturday, barely mention the interrogator’s threats—the part that Bashman says “many people feel is the most relevant.” And in those write-ups, where’s any mention about the mistaken release, the redaction, or the clumsy—and legally groundless—attempt to suppress information that should be an embarrassment to the FBI?


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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.