Waiting at Guantánamo
July 6, 2016
Jul 6, 2016
21 Min read time
After fourteen years, Mohamedou Ould Slahi may finally have a chance at freedom.
Three U.S. Army officers run in front of Joint Task Force Guantánamo's Camp Delta. / Photo by the U.S. Army
When Mohamedou Ould Slahi first arrived at Guantánamo in August 2002, several of the prison’s present guards were not yet in grade school. It is remarkable to consider the scope of what he has endured and accomplished in the fourteen years he has been held there without charge.
U.S. military interrogators once considered Slahi their highest priority detainee and, with Donald Rumsfeld’s personal authorization, subjected him to the full panoply of coercive methods at their disposal. He suffered beatings, religious and sexual harassment, prolonged isolation, sleep and sensory deprivation, death threats, and more. Still, he has managed to learn three new languages, write a best-selling memoir, and befriend some of his guards.
A note appended to his memoir, Guantánamo Diary, emphasizes that Slahi “holds no grudge” against the people he mentions in the book and wishes to “one day sit with all of them around a cup of tea, having learned so much from one another.” One of his former guards—in a letter of support to the government panel tasked with granting the release and transfer of detainees who pose no threat to U.S. security—welcomed a reunion with Slahi. “Before my assignment to Guantánamo, I had heard that the men I would be guarding were the worst of the worst. . . . I expected to find angry and brutal men,” he wrote. “In no way did I experience that with Mohamedou. . . . I found Mr. Slahi to be polite, friendly, and respectful. . . . I would be pleased to welcome him into my home. . . . I would like the opportunity to eventually see him again.”
Whether that opportunity becomes a reality hinges on the forthcoming ruling of the Periodic Review Board (PRB), a body administered by the Department of Defense and comprised of senior officials from various government agencies that reviews the detention of Guantánamo detainees. On June 2, at a hearing that was both long overdue and Slahi’s most credible hope yet to secure his freedom, the six-member PRB considered his case for release. During the twenty minutes of the hearing open to journalists and activists watching on simulcast from the Pentagon, two people spoke on Slahi’s behalf as he looked on in silence. A personal representative from the military read a brief statement, calling Slahi an “advocate for peace,” “good for his word,” who “plans to pursue a small business and write books to support himself and other family members.” His lawyer, Theresa Duncan, reminded the PRB of what a former chief prosecutor for the Guantánamo military commissions concluded about her client: “There is absolutely no evidence that Mr. Slahi ever engaged in any acts of hostility towards the United States.” Nancy Hollander, chief of Slahi’s legal team, says they feel cautiously optimistic about the result, which they expect to be announced sometime this month.
• • •
On an autumn afternoon in 2001, as his aunt and sister slept and his mother fed the family goats, Slahi shed his work clothes for a bathrobe. An electrical engineer at a small telecommunications firm in Nouakchott, Mauritania, he had spent the day assessing the phone and computer networks of the presidential palace. He was freshening up for a family friend’s Ramadan party when the national police arrived. They intercepted him on his way to the shower and summoned him for questioning.
One of the dispatched officers—an acquaintance who had bemoaned his meager police wage to Slahi and asked him for help finding work—knew his house well. Slahi had hired him the night before to install a satellite television antenna on his roof. “I didn’t bring you to my house to arrest me,” he joked, agreeing to accompany the officers back to police headquarters. He showered and dressed while they waited outside. “Take your car,” one of them said when he reemerged, his frantic aunt and mother in tow. “We hope you can come back home today.”
But instead of celebrating Ramadan with friends and family that evening, Slahi broke the fast with Mauritanian prison guards. For the third time in less than a year, he found himself detained at the behest of the United States. He had recently returned to Mauritania after twelve years abroad, first pursuing engineering in Germany, then seeking work for a few months in Montreal. During his brief stint in Canada, he frequented the same mosque as an Algerian al Qaeda operative named Ahmed Ressam, mastermind of the so-called Millennium Plot, a thwarted attempt to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve 1999. FBI agents believed Slahi was a co-conspirator.
Slahi was subjected to a ‘special interrogation plan’—particularly brutal torture approved by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself.
A week after Slahi’s arrest—on Mauritanian Independence Day, ironically—the CIA rendered him to a prison in Amman, Jordan. After eight months of interrogation he was spirited away to Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, then to Guantánamo, where he remains.
When Slahi arrived in Cuba, the FBI agents responsible for his early interrogation sessions told him he ranked as the facility’s highest-priority detainee.
What they knew of him fit their caricature of a high-profile terrorist: brown-skinned, technically trained, young, multilingual, cosmopolitan.
A constellation of events and associations from Slahi’s past fed investigators’ suspicions. In late 1990 and again in early 1992 he went to Khost, Afghanistan, to train with the mujahideen. He swore an oath to al Qaeda in solidarity against the Soviet-backed regime of Mohammad Najibullah. It was toppled before his unit saw combat, due in no small part to the hundreds of millions of dollars the United States funneled to the mujahideen each year.
Slahi claims he disaffiliated from al Qaeda and returned to Germany to resume his studies after the Najibullah government fell and the conflict devolved into factional strife. But U.S. authorities insisted that his proximity thereafter to several known members of al Qaeda proved his allegiance was ongoing. Most incriminating, they maintained, was Slahi’s sporadic contact with his distant cousin, Abu Hafs al Mauritani, one of Osama Bin Laden’s chief theological advisors. Slahi twice facilitated money transfers from al Mauritani to his family in Mauritania, leading American intelligence to mistake him for an al Qaeda financier. Al Mauritani reportedly broke with al Qaeda in August 2001, voicing his opposition to the 9/11 attacks in a letter to Bin Laden. He fled Afghanistan for Iran, where he lived under house arrest until April 2012.
Once considered al Qaeda’s foremost ideologue, al Mauritani walked free later that summer. His distant cousin, never proven to be even a rank-and-file operative, remains captive.
• • •
In 2005, from the squalor of his isolation cell, Slahi handwrote a 466-page memoir. Sheathed in Guantánamo’s ironclad military censorship—which automatically renders all materials produced by detainees classified—it seemed the manuscript might never reach the public eye. It was moved to a secure facility just outside of Washington, D.C., occluded from all those without a top security clearance. Hollander, head of Slahi’s legal team, spent more than six years shepherding the manuscript through a labyrinth of litigation and negotiation to get it declassified and cleared for public release. Still, editor Larry Siems, author of The Torture Report (2012), had to make sense of a text scarred by black bar redactions that erased everything from small details to full pages of the story.
The Guantánamo Joint Task Force denied Siems a confidential meeting with Slahi, ironically citing a clause in the Geneva Conventions protecting detainees from “public curiosity.” Siems took Guantánamo Diary to print as best he could, hoping to introduce readers to what he calls “a voice from the void.” He never doubted the veracity of Slahi’s story, which hewed to the official accounts Siems had spent years scrutinizing.
“By 2012, I knew his story would be remarkable, an epic journey through America’s post-9/11 national security gulag,” he told me. “What I didn’t know until I got the manuscript was what an incredible writer and what a humane and eloquent conveyor of experience Mohamedou is.”
Published in January 2015, Guantánamo Diary introduced a human voice into a discourse otherwise co-opted by the rhetoric of “actionable intelligence.” Few documents present that rhetoric more ably than the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s torture report. Declassified and released a month before Slahi’s memoir was published, the report describes the interrogation practices of the CIA under the Bush administration. It details episodes of waterboarding, rectal force feeding, and forms of torture exacted upon Slahi, including sleep deprivation, prolonged subjection to physical stress, and exposure to the sensory extremes of light, noise, and temperature.
Like the Senate report, Guantánamo Diary lays bare episodes of moral turpitude in post-9/11 American history, even against the encumbrances of official censorship. Slahi’s clear-eyed chronicle of his time in Guantánamo, however, bears neither the report’s stiff, bureaucratic prose, nor its objective of showing enhanced interrogation’s ineffectiveness.
Disproving the efficacy of torture interests Slahi far less than registering its emotional and psychological effects. He does not belabor the truths that torture is wrong and produces bad intelligence. Instead he tells us something the Senate intelligence committee never could: what it means to live through that torture.
Slahi was one of two detainees subjected to a “special interrogation plan”—bureaucratic euphemism for a particularly brutal and unrelenting torture regimen approved by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself.
In December 2002 Rumsfeld sent specialists from the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program to Guantánamo to provide prison personnel with “enhanced interrogation” training. Perhaps unbeknownst to Rumsfeld, the enhanced interrogation techniques from which he sought valuable intelligence were originally used by the Chinese to extract false confessions from Americans taken captive during the Korean War. In the 1950s sociologist A. D. Biderman interviewed returnees who had been tortured by the Chinese in Korean prison camps. He published a list of coercive methods compiled from their testimony, which the military then adopted as the basis of the SERE curriculum. “Probably no other aspect of communism reveals more thoroughly its disrespect for truth and the individual than its resort to these techniques,” Biderman wrote.
SERE was established to train servicemen to endure enemy captivity. Originally a defense against regimes that practice torture, it became the design for one under the Bush administration.
In 2002 the CIA commissioned James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, retired military psychologists who worked for SERE in the 1980s and ’90s, to develop the “enhanced interrogation” program. SERE had become a laboratory for human experimentation. According to Jane Mayer’s reporting, SERE scientists took regular blood and saliva samples from trainees and kept meticulous records of the fluctuations in their cortisol levels “to understand what inspire[d] maximum anxiety.”
The enhanced interrogation framework Mitchell and Jessen sold to the CIA for $81 million became the basis of the terror Slahi endured beginning in July 2003. “For the next seventy days I wouldn’t know the sweetness of sleeping,” he wrote. “Interrogation 24 hours a day, three and sometimes four shifts a day.”
He was transferred to a segregated cellblock where “the recipe started.” The interrogation team lowered the temperature of his windowless solitary confinement “box” and doused him with ice water, leaving him “shaking like a Parkinson’s patient.” For hours at a time, he was forced to stand with his hands shackled to a bolt on the floor, suffering “every-inch-of-my-body pain” from the pressure this position put on his sciatic nerve. Female interrogators, instructed to engage in “close physical contact” to “exploit religious taboos,” sexually assaulted him.
Slahi later received a letter written by his chief interrogator, a man he knew as Captain Collins, claiming his mother had been detained and risked transfer to Guantánamo, where “she would be the only female at ‘this previously all-male prison.’”
The details of Slahi’s manufactured confessions didn’t much matter; faulty intelligence was fine if it put more of his ‘friends’ in U.S. custody.
A Senate investigation identified “Captain Collins” as Lieutenant Richard Zuley, a veteran Chicago detective assigned to oversee Slahi’s interrogation because of his reputation for eliciting confessions from suspects in high-profile murder cases. Zuley allegedly shackled suspects to police station walls for up to twenty-four hours and threatened to take away their children or seek the death penalty if they refused to cooperate. A 2015 investigation by journalist Spencer Ackerman unearthed a string of accusations by five black Chicagoans who maintain that Zuley coerced them into false confessions that led to erroneous convictions. All but Lathierial Boyd—exonerated by the Illinois state attorney’s criminal convictions bureau in 2013 after serving twenty-three years of a murder sentence—remain behind bars.
The continuum between domestic police brutality and wartime interrogation abuses is magnified in Slahi’s telling of his “birthday party,” organized by Captain Collins. One afternoon in August 2003, two masked soldiers forcibly removed Slahi from an interrogation session, punching him in the face and stomach while a third guard threatened him at the door with a German shepherd. He was outfitted with blackout goggles and earmuffs, his face shrouded with a small bag, the chains constraining his ankles and wrists tightened until he bled. The guards lugged him outside, deposited him in a truck, and escorted him to a team waiting in a high-speed boat. “One of the guys hit me so hard,” Slahi writes, “that my breath stopped and I was choking.” Medical records show he suffered seven or eight fractured ribs and a lower lip edema. He was led to believe by staged conversations in Arabic that he was being rendered to a secret prison in Egypt. The “goal of such a trip,” he suggests, “was, first, to torture the detainee and claim that the ‘detainee hurt himself during transport.’” This resembles the “retaliatory prisoner transportation practices” that Baltimore prosecutors have floated as a possible explanation for the fatal spinal cord injury sustained by Freddie Gray in a police van in April 2015.
Gray’s is not the only watershed American police brutality case called to mind in Slahi’s mock rendition. He describes himself bound so tightly by a straitjacket to his seat on the boat that he nearly suffocates. “I c . . . a . . . a . . . n’t br . . . e . . . a . . . the!” he writes, echoing the last words of Eric Garner, strangled to death by a Staten Island policeman in July 2014.
Slahi’s birthday party marked the nadir of his ordeal. It left him in a psychological “semi-coma,” damaged irreversibly: “It wasn’t me anymore, and I would never be the same as before.” His interrogation intensified when he returned. He was transferred to a new isolation cell designed to minimize his exposure to outside stimuli. Under the duress of prolonged sensory and sleep deprivation, he cracked. Insisting on his innocence had done nothing to stay the pain.
His interrogators accused him of recruiting two of the 9/11 hijackers and the coordinator of the attacks, Ramzi Bin al Shibh, whom a Pakistani intelligence team captured and transferred to CIA custody in late 2002. At one of the CIA’s black sites, where he too was tortured, Bin al Shibh recalled spending a night at Slahi’s house in Germany in 1999. At the time, he and two friends were planning to wage jihad in Chechnya. Slahi advised them against traveling through Georgia, which was hostile to the mujahideen, and suggested transit through Afghanistan instead. He never denied hosting these men, who were referred to him by an acquaintance, only that he encouraged them to train under Bin Laden. In one of the book’s more revealing exchanges, Slahi presses an interrogator on this point:
Excerpt from Guantánamo Diary
No passage better encapsulates the absurdity of Slahi’s detention and the futility of his claims of innocence. His resolve to beat back this “cul-de-sac” logic, as he calls it, wore thin.
He was driven to manufacture confessions. To what exactly—beyond a plot to blow up the CN Tower in Toronto—remains unspecific. That the details didn’t much matter was evident from the disposition of one interrogator for whom faulty intelligence was just fine so long as it put more of Slahi’s “friends” in U.S. custody:
“You realize if I admit to such a thing I have to involve other people! What if turns out I was lying?” I said.
“So what? We know your friends are bad, so if they get arrested, even if you lie about [redacted] it doesn't matter, because they're bad.”
Far from the pursuit of actionable intelligence, what he encountered in Guantánamo were the bumbling improvisations of a national security state looking for any answer that confirmed its paranoid suspicions.
• • •
The farce of “enhanced interrogation” that Slahi describes—which takes the absence of evidence as evidence of crime and meets a detainee’s admission of his own unreliability with “so what?”—has invited comparisons to the imagined horrors of fiction. Readers have found literary parallels for the memoir’s prison-scape in Kafka’s penal colony, Dostoyevsky’s house of the dead, Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole, and Beckett’s tragicomedy. Theodore McCombs takes up the particularly incisive comparison to Carroll’s Alice, whose “simple insistence on logic in the face of absurdity” Slahi shares.
For me, though, Primo Levi is the literary spirit Slahi most embodies. None would have blamed Slahi for penning unbridled invective. He chose instead to “simply set down the facts, more devastating than any jeremiad,” as James Marcus wrote of Levi’s last work, the Auschwitz memoir The Drowned and the Saved (1986). “I have only written what I experienced, what I saw, and what I learned firsthand,” Slahi writes in the book’s final pages. “I have tried not to exaggerate, nor to understate. I have tried to be as fair as possible.” Many memoirists profess as much. Few achieve it.
Like Levi, Slahi writes with remarkable equanimity, allowing himself neither the howling of lament nor the detachment of reportage. “Even when the events he recounts are at their most extreme,” Siems remarks in his introduction, “his narration is tempered and direct.” He spares us none of Guantánamo’s sadism, but nor does he amplify its depravity unduly by muffling its humane moments.
Slahi accomplishes all this in his fourth language, one he never studied formally and barely knew before his rendition to Guantánamo. English instructional books are banned, so he picked up the language from his guards and interrogators. Some of Guantánamo Diary’s most engaging passages detail the small epiphanies and vexations of learning English. Slahi recalls arriving in Cuba after a brutal rendition flight. Afraid and in pain, he still has the presence of mind to puzzle over the language choices of the two guards barking orders at him and his fellow detainees: “I was completely annoyed by the American way of talking. . . . I was thinking about how they gave the same order two different ways: ‘Do not talk’ and ‘No talking.’ That was interesting.”
When Slahi’s torture ends and his guards adopt a less aggressive posture toward him, he recalls “getting books in English that I enjoyed reading . . . one book called The Catcher in the Rye that made me laugh until my stomach hurt. . . . It was my first unofficial laughter in the ocean of tears.”
Before Guantánamo he never enjoyed fiction. He had trouble suspending disbelief. “But in prison, I’m different,” he writes, “I appreciate everything that shows regular human beings wearing casual clothes and talking about something besides terrorism and interrogation. I just want to see some mammals I can relate to.” These scenes are the surest evidence of his oppressors’ failure to erode his curiosity, comic spirit, and compassion.
Guantánamo Diary is further distinguished by Slahi’s portrayal of those oppressors, whom he aims not to caricature but to understand.
One of his female interrogators helps him plant a garden of sunflowers and herbs. They grow fond of one another, but black-box redactions muddle his feelings for her, which could be merely playful but often seem romantic. Their conversations usually center on their cultural differences, which they negotiate by exchanging poetry:
Excerpt from Guantánamo Diary
Of the 2,600 redactions pockmarking the pages of Guantánamo Diary like a perverse Mad Libs story, this is perhaps the most ruinous, erasing the intimacy of a poem passed between detainee and interrogator.
Military censors further undercut Slahi’s portrayal of his guards and interrogators by blacking out their names and other markers used to differentiate one character from the next. The censors’ narrative tug of war with Slahi reminds us page by page that while his voice may have ruptured the void, it left him behind in Cuba.
• • •
Were it not for the resistance of the Department of Justice and the torpor of the Department of Defense, Slahi might have been a free man years ago. The story of the Obama presidency’s failure to address Guantánamo is one not only of Republican obstructionism, but also of tepid administration and bureaucratic inertia.
On March 22, 2010, a federal district court issued a ruling granting Slahi’s habeas corpus petition—handwritten in 2005—and ordering his release. “The government’s problem,” Judge James Robertson wrote, “is that its proof that Slahi gave material support to terrorists is so attenuated . . . that it cannot support a successful criminal prosecution.”
The Justice Department appealed four days later. The appellate court vacated the initial ruling, remanding the case to the district courts for a rehearing that still, more than six years later, has yet to materialize. Judge Robertson’s approach, according to the appellate judge, was not holistic enough. “Even if Slahi’s connections to these individuals fail independently to prove that he was ‘part of’ al Qaeda,” he wrote, “those connections make it more likely.”
But what, really, do these connections amount to? Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor for the Guantánamo military commissions, told Siems in 2013, Slahi “was in Germany, Canada, different places that look suspicious, and that caused them to believe he was a big fish, but then when they really invested the effort to look into it . . . their conclusion was there’s a lot of smoke and no fire.”
Even as his habeas case stalled, Slahi might have seen his mother before she died in 2013 if the periodic review board process had not been obstructed by bureaucratic delay.
President Obama signed an executive order in March 2011 promising all remaining Guantánamo detainees a hearing “to determine whether [they] represent a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States such that their continued detention is warranted.” The president said it would take no longer than a year for a board composed of representatives from his administration to conduct all initial reviews, but the first such hearing was held in November 2013.
While the tepid pace of the administration’s review process remains inexcusable, the PRB has now finally heard Slahi’s case and might soon authorize his release.
President Obama deserves credit, to be sure, for the detainee transfers his administration has managed so far: 159 since his first day in office, shrinking the prisoner population to 79. But as the end of his second term approaches, the urgency of the review process mounts. Anyone left in Guantánamo after January 20, 2017, may find his future in the hands of an unapologetic Islamophobe thirsting to reprise America’s history of torture rather than reckon with it.
At a Republican presidential primary debate in New Hampshire, presumptive nominee Donald Trump promised to bring back “much worse” than waterboarding. After the recent attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport, Trump, speaking at a rally in Ohio, reaffirmed his support for waterboarding while simultaneously downplaying its seriousness. “I like it a lot,” he said, to thunderous applause, “I don’t think it’s tough enough.” With his trademark groping delivery and muddled belligerence, he went on to call it “peanuts” and said terrorist organizations that “chop off heads” “probably think we’re weak.”
In America, torture is a fringe issue that seeps into the electoral sphere as politicians claim either toughness or the moral high ground. Trump’s willingness to torture is a grotesque yardstick of machismo. His supporters interpret such truculence as a projection of strength.
Slahi, in one of Guantánamo Diary’s most trenchant lines, seems to appreciate this, though he doesn’t hold that strength in high regard. He tells his captors, “You’re holding me because your country is strong enough to be unjust.” One is hard pressed to imagine a geopolitical landscape in which Mauritanian officials could do to an American what U.S. agents have done to him.
Slahi’s memoir shows us just how easily national strength can undergird moral weakness. Fifteen years ago, as President Bush assured Americans that their country remained strong in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Susan Sontag dared them to aspire to more than just strength. “Who doubts that America is strong?” she wrote. “But that’s not all America has to be.”
In its post-9/11 pursuit of security, America has proven itself insecure. It grows more difficult, though more necessary, to imagine an America secure enough in its ideals to confront its history of torture and hold itself accountable. Listening to Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s voice, and freeing him from the void where he has spent the past fourteen years, is a small but valuable step on the path to accountability.
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July 06, 2016
21 Min read time