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Guantanamo detainee’s diary describes interrogation that made him break

January 26, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: When President Obama took office in January 2009, he signed an executive order to close the detention facility for terror suspects at Guantanamo, Cuba.

Today, his outgoing secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, told National Public Radio that closing the facility was going to be very difficult. The 122 prisoners who are still there are among the most difficult to relocate.

One detainee’s story has just been published.

Hari Sreenivasan in our NewsHour Weekend studio has that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Some two weeks after 9/11, Mohamedou Slahi, a 30-year-old electrical engineer, was arrested at his home in the North African country of Mauritania. He was questioned by FBI agents and then released.

In November of that year, he was re-arrested for suspected connections in a plot to bomb the United States. What followed was a harrowing journey through the American national security apparatus post-9/11, from Mauritania to Jordan to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, finally to the U.S. prison site at Guantanamo Bay. He remains there today, 13 years later, with no charges filed against him.

In 2005, he began a journal, which was confiscated by prison guards and deemed classified. After a seven-year legal battle, a federal judge declassified the material, although some sections remain redacted.

Last week, Little, Brown and Company published “Guantanamo Diary,” in Slahi details those first years of imprisonment, including isolation, beatings, sexual abuse, and humiliation.

Joining me now are Slahi’s lawyer, Nancy Hollander, and the book’s editor, Larry Siems.

So, Larry, you say this book has been edited twice, once by the U.S. government, because there’s 2,500, 2,600 redactions in here, and then a second time by yourself. And unlike any other book, you haven’t been able to talk to the author, right?

LARRY SIEMS, Editor, “Guantanamo Diary”: Right.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So — and you haven’t really been working with Nancy here to confirm all these facts.

So, as a reader, how do I know what the author’s intent was?

LARRY SIEMS: Well, I think he says what his intent was.

He — he — by the time he gets going in telling the story, he clearly imagines that some day it will be read by us, and the us is particularly the American people. He at several points in the book says, what do you think, dear reader? He solicits our opinion.

This in a way is his appeal for justice, you know, just for the American people to know what’s going on in Guantanamo in the fullest sense and to encounter it, to reckon it, to read it, and to react to it, I think.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And, Nancy, the government’s case in different times against your client has been that he had sworn allegiance to al-Qaida back when they were fighting the Soviets, that he prayed at the same mosques as the man who was responsible for planning out the millennium bombing, that his cousin was in the inner circle of Osama bin Laden.

So, how do we know exactly what the facts are in his particular life and why he shouldn’t with in Gitmo today?

NANCY HOLLANDER, Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Lawyer: Well, the reasons we know he should been in Gitmo, first of all, is that the government has never charged him with any crime.

Secondly, the government admitted that they didn’t believe he even knew about 9/11. The government had decided that he had nothing to do with the plot to blow up LAX Airport in 1999, that he had nothing to do with him, the government came to that conclusion even before Mohamedou got to Guantanamo.

So — and his cousin, Abu Hafs al-Mauritania, is now a free man in Mauritania after having been interviewed by the United States. So if you click all of those off — plus, he did swear allegiance to whatever was al-Qaida in 1990, but, in essence, you could say the United States almost did the same thing. We supported that movement.

We — with millions of dollars of money and armaments, we encouraged people to go fight against the Soviets. That wasn’t the same al-Qaida that later turned on the United States. So the reason he shouldn’t be there is that he is not a terrorist; he’s an innocent man who should go home.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He says that there’s a point where he finally just breaks and he starts to admit, yes, I did this, yes, I did that.

What are the sorts of interrogations that got him to that breaking point?

LARRY SIEMS: Well, it’s — he calls it an endless world tour of detention and interrogation.

He arrived in Guantanamo in August of 2002. And from there until a year-and-a-half later, he’s subjected to this accelerating, intensifying, increasingly brutal interrogation. In fact, he sort of lands in the middle of this incredible institutional struggle going on over U.S. interrogation tactics writ large.

So you had the FBI and the criminal investigation task force interrogators in Guantanamo who are used to doing rapport-building interrogations. You had this new unit called the special projects team, which defense intelligence interrogators were setting out to sort of import and adapt the enhanced interrogation techniques that were being rolled out in the CIA black sites.

And Mohamedou finds himself in exactly the middle of that tug of war. And they actually struggle between those two agencies over who gets to control his interrogation until the spring of 2003. The FBI, much to their horror, loses control of the interrogation. DIA takes over.

And then he’s subjected to this — called special interrogation plan, which is written out ahead of time, step by step, signed off all the way up to Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of the defense. And it’s a year of harrowing abuse that begins with extreme isolation, sleep deprivation, subjecting him to extremes of temperature, strobe lights, loud music, stripping him, subjecting him to sexual abuse and assault.

HARI SREENIVASAN: His words paint a picture.

I just want to read out this author’s note at the end. And it says: “In a recent conversation with one of his lawyers, Mohamedou says that he holds no grudge against any of the people he mentions in this book, that he appeals to them to read it and correct it if they think it contains any errors, and that he dreams to dream to one day sit with all of them around a cup of tea after having learned so much from one another.”

Nancy, you’re one of the few people that actually gets to communicate with him on a semi-regular basis. I think he has two calls a year to his family. What’s he like?

NANCY HOLLANDER: He’s a very talkative person. He’s very curious.

But he’s humble, he’s compassionate, and he really does hold no grudge. He just wants to get out. He understands that there are good people and there’s good and evil really in all of us. And he talks in the book about how — I found it really interesting — you don’t get to choose your family. And this became his family. Whether he likes them or not, they’re his family, so he has to put up with them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, the book is called “Guantanamo Diary,” written by someone in Guantanamo today, edited by Larry Siems.

Nancy Hollander, thanks so much for joining us.

NANCY HOLLANDER: Thank you.

LARRY SIEMS: Thank you.

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