FEBRUARY 15, 2015
MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI’S Guantánamo Diary is a page-turner. Unlike the Senate’s 500-page Senate Select Intelligence Committee Study, also known as the “torture report,” this one will keep you up at night. And it has something for everyone. For opponents of the use of the harsh interrogation practices that were approved after 9/11, it provides insight into why those techniques lead only to false confessions. For human rights advocates, it provides a dramatic firsthand account of the myriad reasons why civilized nations banned torture as set forth in the Convention Against Torture, adopted by the UN in 1984 and ratified by the United States in 1994. For prosecutors, it provides a nagging reminder that, when you torture, you lose not only your moral high ground but also your ability to prosecute, because you can’t prove whether the “confessions” are true. And for diplomats and politicians, it demonstrates just how much standing the United States has lost in the international community and how long it will take to rebuild our reputation as a leader of democratic ideals. We gave away much, in these dark holes of rendered suspects. Was it worth it?
Mohamedou Ould Slahi was a 30-year-old Mauritanian when Mauritanian authorities called him in, at the behest of the US government, in November 2001. He had fought with al-Qaeda in 1991 and again in 1992 against the communist-led government in Afghanistan, a cause supported by the West and the United States in particular. He eventually returned home to Mauritania and later spent time in Germany and Canada. He maintains that after 1992 he had no more commitment to al-Qaeda, although he remained in contact with some of his companions from Afghanistan. So it was that he was linked to known al-Qaeda fighters and leaders.
At times he was accused of masterminding the so-called Millennium Plot to blow up the Los Angeles airport. The Senegalese, Mauritanian, and American authorities questioned him in 2000 in connection with the Millennium Plot, but concluded there was no basis to believe he was involved. After September 11, 2001, FBI agents again detained and questioned him about the Millennium Plot. Once again, he was released.
But in November 2001, Mauritanian police came to his door and asked him to accompany them for further questioning. Thus launched Slahi’s 13-year continuing odyssey, from Mauritania to an interrogation chamber in Jordan, on to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and finally to Guantánamo Bay, where he remains to this day. He has no charges pending against him. The District Court judge who heard his petition for habeas corpus ordered him to be released in 2010, but the Court of Appeals sent the case back for rehearing, and it is still pending.
At each step Slahi was subjected to torture. At Bagram, he was stripped naked, shackled, hooded, kept in cages made of barbed wire, threatened with death and rape, and forced to kneel for prolonged periods in pain. In Guantánamo, the torture ramped up when he refused to provide the answers interrogators wanted to hear. He was kept in a freezing cold room (he once saw the temperature control at 49 degrees, as low as it would go) for days on end, wearing a thin cotton shirt. He was taken for “reservations” in the middle of the night, kept from sleeping, had music played at loud decibels for hours.
When Slahi insisted he had nothing to tell his interrogators, he was told things were going to get much worse. He was kept in solitary confinement and kept from seeing the outside. Guards banged on his cell to prevent him from sleeping. He was sexually molested by female guards. Every day for 70 days he was forced to stand bent over in excruciating pain. Then, the torture ramped up again. He was taken on a high-speed boat ride to make him believe he was going to a remote island and was beaten and punched, sometimes while blindfolded, forced to drink salt water, kept in continued solitary confinement, not allowed to sleep, and given food only occasionally and at unpredictable intervals for an unknown period of time. Slahi says the physical and psychological suffering was at its worst in that “secret place.” Finally, in order to end the torture, he started to tell his interrogators what they wanted to hear.
The diary is a remarkable historical and literary document. Written by a man the government originally refused even to admit it was holding, it is a haunting, personal account of an experience that has too often been discussed with generalities. Slahi wrote this diary in English, his fourth language, mostly learned in custody. Yet his facility with language reveals an engaging human subject on the other end of our crude sticks of punishment. He is often surprising, as when he quotes Ben Franklin (“They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”), and funny (as when he states that the “Secret Police” in Arab countries are so well known that they should be renamed the “Most Obvious Police”).
Shocking as it is to read, it is more shocking that this diary was written in 2005, nearly 10 years ago, and yet Slahi is still at Guantánamo Bay. Slahi’s determined legal team, headed by Nancy Hollander, had to spend seven years litigating the government’s opposition to the publication of the document. Even after it was declassified in 2012, extensive redactions remain in the document, a fitting visual reminder of the government’s attempts to hide its misconduct. His editor, Larry Siems, is the Director of the Freedom to Write Programs for PEN USA in Los Angeles and the PEN American Center in New York. He has done a masterful job of both maintaining Slahi’s voice, while making grammatical edits and consolidating and reordering text where necessary. The Diary reads as a lived experience, heartbreakingly rendered in plain English and directed clearly to us.
Some may ask whether Slahi’s account is truthful, or whether, as the US contended in its seven-year effort to keep the diary from being published, it is a deliberate lie to gain sympathy for the detainees in Guantánamo Bay. It seems unlikely he could have provided such detailed descriptions of conduct that has since been corroborated by the voluminous public documentation that has emerged as to the practices of the US in Bagram and Guantánamo Bay, as well as by first-person accounts of guards who have publicly condemned what they were asked to do. Moreover, there is a certain moderation in his description of some events that suggests he genuinely is trying to be accurate. For example, Slahi goes out of his way to note the differences in attitudes of the various handlers he had over his captivity, including a few guards he got to know and came genuinely to care for, despite himself. These are some of the book’s most poignant moments, in which the fundamental beacon of humanity appears to briefly shine.
There is no other word for what Slahi suffered than torture, despite the Orwellian, sanitized phrase, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” adopted by the Bush administration. The Convention Against Torture defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession […]” The leaked “torture memos,” penned by the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel, aimed to get around this definition by characterizing the post-9/11 suspects as “unlawful combatants,” not protected by the Geneva Convention, and by contending that for an act to constitute torture under the United States Code, it must “be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” For mental pain to amount to torture, it must result from “threats of imminent death, threats of infliction of the kind of pain that would amount to physical torture; [or] infliction of such physical pain as a means of psychological torture […]” As for the Convention Against Torture, attorneys at OLC argued that the president was authorized as commander in chief to approve any technique needed to protect the nation’s security.
One can, of course, understand the temptation to torture. After 9/11, the vast majority of Americans were willing to suspend any law if the purpose was to get a terrorist to provide information that could lead to the prevention of another attack. The famed “ticking time bomb” scenario was invoked repeatedly to justify the hypothetical torture of a known terrorist who could provide information about an imminent terrorist attack. Defense attorney Alan Dershowitz famously even proposed a “warrant to torture,” which he believed would actually lessen the amount of torture practiced on terrorist suspects, and shift responsibility to the leaders, rather than the rank and file.
As time has gone on, however, the flaws in this hypothetical have been exposed. Has there ever been such a scenario and could there ever be? How can you know that the person is in fact a terrorist or that the person has the intelligence that would in fact prevent a crime? How can you know that the intelligence that person will provide you is truthful and not just a deliberate lie to throw you off the track? The 2014 Torture Report has now concluded, after sifting through thousands of pages of intelligence reports, that such techniques are not effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining detainees’ cooperation.
Our country is still coming to terms with the gravity of its enormous mistake. This diary is yet one more part of that reconciliation. We owe a debt of gratitude to Slahi, and his legal team and editor, for bringing us a narrative we had not yet heard. And we owe an even bigger apology to the world, and these men and their families in particular, for losing our way. It is not easy to admit you were wrong, but it is the only way to begin to make amends.
 For an overview of the various rationales used to justify torture during this time, see http://www.nytimes.com/ref/international/24MEMO-GUIDE.html