Reign of Terror: Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s ‘Guantanámo Diary’

April 15, 2015 | 2 books mentioned 5 min read


Last April, parts of the Senate Intelligence Committee Study on the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Report — “the Torture Report” — were declassified. (Melville House has issued it in accessible print and digital editions.) The Report unequivocally refutes the justifications and rationalizations of Bush-era CIA interrogation tactics. Committee Chairperson Dianne Feinstein’s foreword is characteristically candid:

Existing U.S. law and treaty obligations should have prevented many of the abuses and mistakes made during this program. While the Office of Legal Counsel found otherwise between 2002 and 2007, it is my personal conclusion that, under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured. I also believe that the conditions of confinement and the use of authorized and unauthorized interrogation and conditioning techniques were cruel, inhuman, and degrading. I believe the evidence of this is overwhelming and incontrovertible.

coverAccording to the Report, the CIA deceived policymakers in Congress and the White House, as well Justice Department investigators, about detention conditions and methods. Additionally, the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs released “inaccurate information concerning the effectiveness” of the program; contrary to its goals, the torture program “in some cases, impeded the national security missions of other Executive Branch agencies.” Many of the officers that were involved in the program “had serious documented personal and professional problems — including histories of violence and records of abusive treatment of others.” Though the CIA held around 100 detainees at a given time, the agency didn’t have accurate figures for the number of detainees in custody.

The campaign to defend the program was extensive. One section of the report is dedicated to debunking the eight most commonly cited examples of “success stories.” In each of them, the role that enhanced interrogations played in thwarting attacks was misrepresented and often fabricated. For instance, the CIA frequently suggested that information gained during interrogations prevented attacks on Heathrow Airport in 2003. But the Al-Qaeda members charged with carrying out the attack (Ammar Al-Baluchi, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and others) were already in detention as of early 2003. Even under torture, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed provided speculative and inaccurate answers to his interrogators about the Heathrow operation. Only “after being confronted by contradictory evidence” did he provide the name of a key accomplice.

The Report makes it clear that the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program was, in every sense, a moral and strategic catastrophe.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary provides an intimate glimpse into the early years of the program. Slahi has been in CIA detention for almost 14 years, from the earliest years of the War on Terror, but has never been tried for a crime. His story implicates a number of foreign governments and corroborates many of the findings of the Torture Report: improperly supervised and often sadistic officers, undisciplined interrogation tactics, and the obstruction of the International Red Cross and other watchdog groups.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi was born in Mauritania; he writes wryly about his home country: “In Mauritania, people fix everything. In Germany, they replace everything.” He describes wedding rituals and the sloppy work of mukhabarat, Arab-country secret police, who “are more well-known to the commoners” and “should think about a new nomenclature, something like ‘The Most Obvious Police.’” He describes a Mauritanian ritual in which the bride is “kidnapped” by her friends and the groom must go in search of her; it sometimes takes days but eventually the two spouses are joyously reunited.

In the early 1990s, he interrupted his studies in Germany to fight in Afghanistan. He swore allegiance to Al-Qaeda, which had not yet declared war on the United States. Over the next 12 years, Slahi worked in Germany and Canada, and distanced himself from militant Islam. At times, he came into contact with fellow mujahadeen, including fighters in transit to Chechnya. Slahi also had family connections to a high-level Al-Qaeda leader who opposed the 9/11 attacks and later defected; he wired money on his behalf to the leader’s family. (That leader lives unbothered in Mauritania.) In Canada, he attended the same mosque as attempted LAX bomber, Ahmed Ressam. Evidently, the interactions were at most brief and not incriminating; according to Canadian intelligence, Ressam and Slahi may never have met.

By 2000, he had settled in Nouakchott, Mauritania. After 9/11, he was detained by his own government. At the time of his arrest, “the Mauritanian President was hanging onto office by a spider’s thread,” which made him both reluctant to deny the U.S.’s request for Slahi and reluctant to hand over a Mauritanian citizen too readily. In mid-November 2001, Slahi was arrested and handed over to American authorities. He was flown to Amman, where he was tortured brutally by Jordanian intelligence, then Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and finally Guantanámo. He began writing the diary in 2005. His lawyers spent years attempting to get the diary declassified.

Slahi learned English during his detention. But his prose is shot through with moving pathos and beauty: “All I know is that one detainee sat on my right, and one on my left, and another against my back. It is always good to feel the warmth of your co-detainees, somehow it’s solacing.” Later, he writes, “I hate small planes. I always feel I’m on the wing of a demon when I travel in them.”

Slahi’s voice is complex, wry, perceptive. During an interrogation, Slahi said, “I even think his whole [9/11] story was a fake, to unlock the terrorism budget and hurt the Muslims.” He reflected on his statement later, “Back then I didn’t know a whole lot of things that I do now. I believed excessively in Conspiracy Theories — though maybe not as much as the U.S. government does.”

Slahi observes the changes in Guantanámo as tactics are introduced, changed, and discarded. Early in his detention, female CIA agents sexually molested him. One agent says, “I’ve always been successful. Having sex with someone is not considered torture.” (The use of these methods by CIA agents is confirmed in the Schmidt-Furlow report.)

Later, the interrogators craft forgeries — passports and letters from his family — but the forgeries are awkward, riddled with mistakes, and transparent. When Slahi points out that a fake U.S. passport with Slahi’s name on it doesn’t prove anything (since the U.S. government could easily create one), the interrogator never mentions it again.

To further illustrate how long-term detention fails to reach its goals, the detainees become more practiced in the techniques than their interrogators. Many of them begin to sign false confessions to earn basic rights. Slahi is awarded a DVD player and television for incriminating himself. Slahi observes that some of the interrogators are decent people following orders, and others are pathological sadists. He writes about an interrogator, “You could see that he had been doing this work for some time: there were no signs of humanity in his face. He hated himself more than anybody could hate him.”

The text is heavily redacted. Offering further testimony to the incompetence of his captors, the redactions are clumsy, tone-deaf, and poorly weighed. Details about a female interrogator and the pronoun “she” is deleted but it’s easy to infer from the rest of the text. “Gamal Abdel Nasser,” despite his death over 40 years ago, is obscured, presumably because the redactor didn’t recognize the name of the most seminal Arab leader of the 20th century.

The handwritten pages that are interspersed throughout the book have the chastening effect of authenticity. The pages are blotted with excisions that create a literal void, the names, details, and locations that are still classified. They also come to represent a more pervasive void: an incomplete reckoning with the unconscionable policies performed in the name of American citizens.

The first conclusion of the Torture Report is: “#1: The CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.” The report goes on to point out that torture often led to fabrications about “critical intelligence issues.”

In 2010, Judge James Robertson agreed:

The government had to adduce evidence — which is different from intelligence — showing that it was more likely than not that Salahi was a part of al-Qaida. To do so, it had to show that the support Salahi undoubtedly did provide from time to time was provided within al-Qaida’s command structure. The government has not done so. (sic)

He continues, “The government’s problem is that its proof that Salahi gave material support to terrorists is so attenuated, or so tainted by coercion and mistreatment, or so classified, that it cannot support a successful criminal prosecution.”

The writ has not been executed. In September 2010, a Circuit Court found that the court left “unresolved key factual questions necessary for us to determine as a matter of law whether Salahi was ‘part of’ al-Qaida when captured.” They vacated Robertson’s decision and “remanded [Slahi’s case] for further proceedings.”

is a writer and lecturer, based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Follow him @GiveUsThisNada.

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