An inmate's riveting account of life in Guantanamo Bay raises serious questions about why America is comfortable in failing to live up to its constitutional idealsby Mark Mazower / February 19, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
US Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, hit the headlines on 5th February when he sandbagged a Pentagon official sent by President Barack Obama to make the case for further releases from Guantanamo Bay. “The only problem with Guantanamo Bay is there are too many empty beds and cells there right now,” said Cotton. “We should be sending more terrorists there for further interrogation to keep this country safe.” The Senator, an ex-serviceman, continued: “As far as I’m concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell, but as long as they don’t do that, then they can rot in Guantanamo Bay.”
After the attacks of 11th September 2001, the United States extended greatly its archipelago of jails and camps. Some of these were secret black sites run by the CIA, which also outsourced prisoners to foreign intelligence agencies, especially in Africa and the Middle East. There was a network of military prisons, including Bagram in Afghanistan and Abu Ghraib in Iraq. And then there was Guantanamo, a camp on a US naval base on Cuba’s southeastern flank, which had been mostly lying idle since housing refugees from Haiti a decade earlier.
Earmarked as a place to hold “high-value detainees” (the highest were kept mostly hidden by the CIA), a place that was conveniently close to the US yet beyond its jurisdiction, Guantanamo received its first inmates on 11th January 2002. Its prisoner population peaked 18 months later. At that point, there were more than 680 detainees under guard. Drawn from 48 countries, the majority hailed from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan. So far as we can tell, all were Muslims. Today 122 are left, among them a Mauritanian, Mohamedou Ould Slahi.
When Slahi arrived in Guantanamo in the summer of 2002, he was regarded as a prime suspect in the planning of the 9/11 attacks; but after a gruelling period of interrogation, his captors concluded that he had nothing more to tell them and allowed him to write about his experiences. They did not, to be sure, encourage him to publish his thoughts but thanks to his lawyers, the manuscript has been retrieved from the bowels of the Pentagon. The result, complete with redactions, is Guantanamo Diary, a riveting account of what Amnesty International has called “the gulag of our times.” It provides a devastating insight into an unusual and intense form of incarceration in which America grapples with its view of the enemy, and its constitutional values. Slahi, despite his release having been ordered by a US federal judge, remains in prison, pending a government appeal. He has now been incarcerated for more than 12 years.
Mohamedou Slahi comes across as intelligent, wry and forbearing. But he also has a knack for associating with the wrong people—at least so far as US intelligence is concerned. In 1991, having studied engineering in Germany, he travelled to fight with the mujahideen in Afghanistan, where he swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden and joined al Qaeda. This alone, according to the Bush administration’s post-9/11 attitude, constituted grounds for holding him even though in 1991 the CIA was bankrolling the mujahideen in their fight against the pro-Soviet Afghan regime. Slahi’s brother-in-law was a senior figure in al Qaeda, who in 2001, according to the testimony of three terrorist suspects, opposed Bin Laden’s plan to attack America. Slahi played no such prominent role: apart from having once or twice helped his brother-in-law transfer money to his family in Mauritania, and later giving a night’s lodging to three other members of al Qaeda on their way from Germany to Afghanistan, he seems to have had little to do with his former comrades.
Tired of being under surveillance from German intelligence, Slahi moved to Montreal in late 1999. One month later, a member of the mosque where he led prayers was caught with explosives while trying to cross the border into the US. His name was Ahmed Ressam and he was convicted in 2001 for his role in attempting to bomb Los Angeles airport on New Year’s Eve 1999—the so-called “millennium attack plot.” Slahi was put under surveillance, but neither Canadian nor German intelligence found any evidence that he knew Ressam. Even so, on his way home to Mauritania, Slahi was arrested in Senegal at the request of the US authorities and interrogated about his supposed part in the plot. He was grilled by Senegalese and Mauritanian intelligence agents, as well as the FBI, but they found no indication of his involvement and he was released. Back in Mauritania, he rejoined his family and began working for a computer company. Then came 9/11 and more questioning. The first time he was allowed home. But in November 2001, after the Mauritanians and the FBI had a further go, he was handed over to the CIA and flown to Jordan for further interrogation. The following July he was sent to Bagram and then, in August, to Guantanamo. Months of questioning followed, most harshly by military intelligence operatives following the “enhanced interrogation techniques” approved by Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld.
One of Guantanamo’s most striking features has been its cost: between 2002 and 2014, the US spent $5bn on the camp. Yet there has been little to show for the money. Defining the inmates as enemy combatants rather than prisoners of war allowed the Bush administration to ignore the Geneva Convention as it drove its interrogators to increasingly extreme levels of brutality, but the result was neither reliable intelligence nor prosecutable cases. In early 2005, a senior prosecutor concluded that of the 500 prisoners held at that time in Guantanamo, no more than 30 had “real prosecutorial value”; all the rest relied on evidence that virtually any court would regard as tainted by coercion.
Yet the US does not lack experienced interrogators. There were dozens if not hundreds in the police and the FBI, who had been used in earlier terrorist cases. But inter-agency rivalry was as intense as ever after 9/11, and poisoned the outcome as much as it did the original failure to stop the attack. Anxious not to play second fiddle to the CIA, Rumsfeld took procedures devised to help servicemen withstand torture if captured and reverse-engineered them so that techniques of ill-treatment ascribed during the Cold War to the North Koreans and others now formed the basis for Gitmo interrogations. Other techniques used were forcing prisoners to stand in shackles for hours, exposed to extreme cold, prevented from sleeping for days, stripped naked, humiliated and threatened, or assailed by heavy metal music played repeatedly at top volume. (Bodies, a 2001 hit by the Texan band Drowning Pool with the repeated refrain “Let the bodies hit the floor”, was a Guantanamo favourite.) This strategy ignored the evidence, accumulated by analysts, that these techniques had not worked very well in making captured servicemen divulge sensitive information.
Rumsfeld and his colleagues established military commission courts outside the regular systems of civilian and military justice that they believed, wrongly as it transpired, would allow for speedy convictions. In fact, a series of adverse Supreme Court rulings and, most recently, the publication of the Senate report into CIA torture, has turned these military commission courts into an expensive legal nightmare. On 9th February a hearing at Guantanamo Bay for five alleged 9/11 plotters was halted by the military judge when one of the accused, Ramzi bin al Shibh, claimed that his translator was a CIA operative who had tortured him at a black site.
As a result, the US has suffered immense damage to its reputation as a state bound by the laws and principles of its constitution. The nature of the law is at the heart of the problem. (The sixth amendment to the US Constitution guarantees “the right to a speedy and public trial.”) The Supreme Court has determined the applicability of US law to the detainees, but many still face indefinite detention.
During the Dreyfus affair, the incarceration of one innocent man become a cause célèbre. There has been no comparable response within the US. On the contrary, a majority of the American public opposes the idea of closing Guantanamo and since 2007 this opposition has grown from about half to two thirds. Obama won the 2008 election pledging to close the prison but wouldn’t spend the political capital required so early in his presidency. Now it may be too late.
The truth is that America is unusually comfortable with incarceration as a means of tackling its ills. Not only does it lock up more people per capita than almost any other country in the world, but it keeps them inside for longer and is more likely to use solitary confinement. The punitive impulse runs deep: according to US Bureau of Justice statistics America locks up between three and four times more people proportionately than Adolf Hitler’s Germany did on the eve of the war. From this perspective what Guantanamo encapsulates is not so much America’s problem with torture as its attitude to prisons. Can one expect voters to object to indefinite detention without trial when they acquiesce so easily in sentences that condemn people—particularly those from a certain ethnicity—to decades in solitary confinement or sentences that run into hundreds of years?
Senator Tom Cotton appears to be closer to the nation’s pulse than the President. Slahi’s account, with its Kafkaesque dialogue and its extraordinary ability to humanise this deliberately dehumanised environment is a devastating indictment of this complacency. If Cotton thinks hell is somewhere else, Mohamedou Slahi’s achievement is to have shown us the one America has already made here.