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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Hello, everyone, and welcome to “Amanpour and Company.” Here’s what’s coming up.
Upcoming elections in Australia could reshape the political narrative. I speak to a leading voice there about how xenophobia and intolerance are on
the back foot after an Australian mowed down Muslims at two mosques in New Zealand.
Then, “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Playwright and actress, Heidi Schreck, on her Broadway hit and on how America’s foundational document
marginalizes women under the law.
Plus, Guantanamo’s darkest secret. New Yorker journalist, Ben Taub, speaks to our Alicia Menendez about the infamous detention center.
Welcome to the program, everyone. I’m Christiane Amanpour in London.
Extreme acts of violence can change the fabric of a nation. Think 9/11 in the United States and New Zealand since the March massacre at two mosques
in Christchurch, that caused an immediate change to tighten up gun laws there. And in neighboring Australia, where the shooter came from, a new
dialogue has emerged about how race baiting and xenophobia have hijacked political discourse.
As Australia gears up for elections, the public appears to be pushing back, calling for far-right politicians to be expelled from the nation’s
Waleed Aly is one of the country’s most prominent commentator’s and his powerful monologue following the Christchurch massacres captured the hearts
and minds of millions of people.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WALEED ALY, CO-HOST, “THE PROJECT”: Now, we understand this is not a game. Terrorism doesn’t choose its victims selectively, that we are one
community, and that everything we say to try to tear people apart, demonize particular groups, set them against each other, that all has consequences
even if we are not the ones with our fingers on the trigger.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: And I have been speaking to him about tolerance and about how this moment could change Australia’s political landscape when elections are
held next weekend.
Waleed Aly, welcome to the program.
ALY: Thanks for having me.
AMANPOUR: Listen, we’ve played this amazing clip of you right in the aftermath of the massacre in New Zealand. Put yourself back in that moment
and recall what made you do such an impassioned speech then.
ALY: It was a situation where I had to make a decision really quickly about whether or not I was going to say something. And in the end, I felt
this almost inarticulable sense of responsibility to say something. I guess it might be that my position in relation to the news story was a
unique one or that somehow I had something to say on it that would be meaningful to people and that if I didn’t do that, I was somehow, I don’t
know, betraying my audience or something.
And you might recall at the start of that, I said that that feeling of responsibility may well have been misguided and I’m still not sure. It
still might have been. But ultimately, I had to make a decision and I went and did it.
And in a way, it was really just about — I think moments like these are moments where people need to share what’s in their hearts. And as long as
people do so with goodwill, then that’s probably, in most circumstances, a useful contribution. So, I guess I just went from that.
AMANPOUR: Well, here’s the thing. I’m just going to put myself right out there and say it wasn’t misguided and it looks like the prime minister of
Australia sort of moderated a tone. And I wonder whether you think the visceral nature of the anti-immigrant tone in so much of Australian
politics has been moderated since Christchurch and whether you think that’s having an effect in the run-up to the current elections.
ALY: Yes, I think there’s no doubt about that. I don’t know if international viewers will be familiar with the phrase, a tamper election,
but it’s something that comes up quite a lot in Australia. It refers to an episode in 2001 to do with a boat load of asylum seekers who wanted to come
to Australia that were picked up in a Norwegian ship called the Tampa and Australia refused to let them in, even sent forces on board the ship to
repel them and there were 400 asylum seekers in that situation, and that became the Tampa incident.
And so, when we talk about Tampa politics or a Tampa election, we talk about that thing that pops up in Australian politics every now and again
where a kind of xenophobic strain will occur as part of political campaigning and particularly anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, sorts of
discourse, sovereign borders, all that sort of language.
And before Christchurch happened, there was very much a feeling in the commentariat bases on some things that had happened in Australian politics
that we were gearing up for a Tampa election. And that hasn’t been the case and we haven’t had an election campaign that has veered into
those waters. And I think ultimately, it’s because the intervention of that horrible event in Christchurch has meant the political leaders have
probably thought more about their discourse in these sorts of areas.
But also, that I think the political calculations in that — in those areas, the idea that you could profit from prosecuting that kind of
politics, I think those calculations changed in the aftermath. And so, we’ve seen a very different — that’s quite a dull election campaign but I
would say, in some ways, a thankfully dull election campaign.
AMANPOUR: So, then, let me run through with some actual sound and vision about what you’re actually talking about. First, I want to play a
soundbite from your prime minister, as you describe, before the Christchurch mosque massacres in which he was using the kind of language
that you have been describing.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SCOTT MORRISON, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: It doesn’t provide for the usual arrangements which would enable us to reject someone coming on to
Australia because they have a criminal history, they may be a pedophile, they may be a rapist, they may be a murderer. And this bill would mean
that we would just have to take them.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, Waleed, that’s the kind of language that you’re talking about, that seems to have been moderated. And particularly, we can see a
little bit of the veering towards moderating by the prime minister when you actually interviewed him right after the Christchurch massacre.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ALY: Does Australia have an Islamaphobia problem?
MORRISON: I don’t know if Australians understand Islam very well and that can often lead to fear of things you don’t understand. So, by definition,
that’s what it leads to. But that doesn’t always translate into extremism, just like any view doesn’t necessarily flow into extremism.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, I mean, there you have it, Waleed, really a case study of how the language has moderated.
ALY: Yes, and it’s interesting that first clip that you played, that was the moment that a lot of the Australian commentariat started talking about
a Tampa election. I don’t want to go into the details of the bill but it basically allowed asylum seekers who are offshore in places like Nauru to
come to Australia for medical treatment that they need and couldn’t get on Nauru.
And for it to be dressed up in that sort of quasi-Trumpian language signaled, I think, to lot of people that that’s what we were in for and
there was an opinion poll that came out hot on the heels of that that showed a bounce for the government, and I think it turned out to be a bit
of a rogue poll but it showed — or at least it suggested to a lot of people that this was going to be a profitable strategy.
And then you do see the moderation. I think there was something about the shocking nature of Christchurch, particularly, that gave a lot of people
pause. And here, I don’t mean just to talk about politicians. I think there were media practitioners who expressed that it gave them pause. I
think just everyday people just thought, “OK, we’re being thrown something here which it changes the script in a way. It’s like it changes the rules
of our discourse a little bit. We have to think about things in a way we haven’t been thinking about before.
Of course, there would have been people in minority communities who have been thinking about it in that way for a long time, but for the broad sweep
of people, I think something did change. And so, that moderating effect, maybe it’s short-term, maybe, particularly in the world of political
discourse, maybe it’s something that is only for a moment. It just so happens that that moment has coincided with our federal election campaign
and so, we’re witnessing something different as a result.
AMANPOUR: And that could, in fact, be a game changing moment because of the fact that this tone change is happening, as you say, at this particular
time. But the polling in the aftermath of Christchurch found that really a whopping 63 percent of Australians agreed that, “White extremism is every
bit as dangerous as Muslim fundamentalism,” while 42 percent agree that politicians have deliberately stirred up anti-Islamic sentiment as a way of
getting votes. And what was once a benefit has now become a liability.
When you see the polls and the needle moving, it must give you some hope and all sort of right-minded, empathetic minded, tolerant people some hope.
ALY: Yes. I think that’s a way to choose to read it and I think I do choose to read it that way. I’m alive to the potential naivete of that,
that these are polls that are taken in the immediate aftermath of a seismic event. And when that happens, people’s attitudes do sometimes swing in a
way or the needle moves, as you put it, in a way that isn’t necessarily sustainable or isn’t long-term.
But maybe it is. They shift our paradigms. They change the way in which we look at the world and they may even do so in quite a lasting way. So,
because of that, you do get a paradigmatic shift that may last and it may soften over time and people may — you may not get the poll numbers that
you have just read out, they may not be exactly the same if you take it in a year or two or five or 10 years, but they might be different
to what they otherwise would be.
And so, all you can really do in the aftermath of tragedy is try to make the best of the — of what you have left of the debris, as it were, and
maybe, maybe, that’s what we’re seeing.
AMANPOUR: Yes. And I wonder, just briefly, before I carry on in this line, just what you felt, for instance, when you heard about the terrible
massacre of Christians, Roman Catholics, in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday and then yet another synagogue, you know, shooting with at least one person
dead in the United States. That’s the second time in six months that there’s been a synagogue shooting.
ALY: Yes, I think what we’ve seen in the aftermath of Christchurch and I’m not necessarily sure I buy that the attacks in Sri Lanka are directly
related to Christchurch or anything like that, which I know the Sri Lankan government has kind of gestured in that direction. I’m not convinced about
that link. But nonetheless, this sort of act of massacring people at worship, we’re starting to see, actually, occur more and more, and it’s an
I mean, the synagogue example that you mentioned just recently, the most recent of those, is another instance of that. And it shows, I think, that
one of the things that happens with terrorism is that you get a kind of osmosis, you get, in a sense, like a fashion trend within terrorism.
So, not very long ago, the very common method that people would use and the targets that would follow from that were the use of vehicles to drive
through crowds of pedestrians, for example, and that becomes appropriated. It might be that most of the time that happens, it’s an ISIS attack but
then you started seeing, for example, the Finsbury Park mosque attack in London where exactly that method was used.
And you’re seeing a similar sort of thing here, I fear, where ISIS have been slaughtering Christians in churches, they’ve done it in Egypt, they’ve
done it in the Philippines, then Christchurch appropriates that method and now you see the method adopted yet again in Sri Lanka.
And the problem of this is that, I mean, I think attacking people at worship is obviously almost a new level of depravity because of the special
vulnerability people have in those sort of moments where they’re kind of detached from the world in the way that worshippers are, but that that
could become a fashion within terrorism, that particularly then becomes focused on minorities. We’re looking at something really, really dark and
AMANPOUR: Let me get back again to the election in Australia. I think you’re all waiting to see where the One Nation Party is positioned in the
ballot paper. I just want to play what the leader of One Nation said just about a year ago about Muslims.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PAULINE HANSON, LEADER, ONE NATION: Let me put it in this analogy. We have a disease, we vaccinate ourselves against it. Islam is a disease. We
need to vaccinate ourselves against that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, where do you think One Nation will end up being in this upcoming election?
ALY: Well, that is an intriguing question for a number of reasons. I mean, what you refer to on the ballot papers is a result of the fact that
Australia has a preferential voting system. So, voters actually have to list in order of preference, from 1 through to 10 or however many
candidates they are, who they’re voting for. You don’t just fill in one box, you fill in the whole thing.
The question that the incumbent Australian government has been facing is where exactly are you prepared to place the One Nation Party on your how to
vote card? What’s tricky about this is that the Australian government is actually two parties at the moment. It’s the Liberal Party and the
National Party and they exist in coalition and they have done for decades. That’s — they are a coalition. It’s not cobbled together. They’re a
coalition in opposition or in government.
But on this issue, those two parties seem to have split. The Liberal Party has said they will put One Nation below the Labor Party. The National
Party is now talking up its similarities to One Nation, which I think is quite a concerning development, particularly in this political moment where
you would have thought that some kind of political and moral imperative came together and we’re united on this point, that there was a kind of
clarity on it.
In the background to this, though, is that the One Nation Party seems to be in somewhat of a decline at the moment, not just in the aftermath of the
Christchurch attacks but because of some revelations that came out really by surprise to everybody in Australia to do with them seeking support from
the gun lobby in the United States, like financial support, in return for attempting to water down Australia’s gun laws. And in Australia, there is
just about nothing that is more sacred than the gun laws that we have in place here. And so, that seems to have hurt their fortunes tremendously.
AMANPOUR: So, finally, Waleed Aly, how impressed have you been by Prime Minister Ardern in her political and human reaction to this really
grotesque challenge to New Zealand’s values.
ALY: Well, I mean, in a sense, my response to it’s irrelevant. It was more or less unanimous. I think that everyone from leaders that I
spoke to publicly and privately through to citizens around the world, I think, were pretty much unanimous in expressing their admiration for the
way that Jacinda Ardern responded to that.
I think what’s fascinating for us to contemplate internationally, in Australia, in places like the U.K. and the U.S. I think as well, is whether
there’s something actually about New Zealand, specifically, that makes it possible for a prime minister to behave in that kind of way, whether it’s
something about the smallness of the country and the way that political communication works in a place like that, which is completely different to
the way it works in a place like the United States where it’s a very fragmented media landscape and a very polarized political climate.
Can you be a unifying figure anymore in some of these bigger countries? And I would not exclude Australia from this. Could an Australian prime
minister, even the same person, if you took Jacinda Ardern herself and made her the prime minister of Australia, could she respond in that way or would
it be somehow dragged down by the trench warfare of politics, the kind of tribal muck of the way in which our public discourse works? I think that’s
a really important question for us to ponder.
AMANPOUR: And of course, it is people, though, who govern all the elements that you were talking about and it is a choice of leadership. So, it was
fascinating to see her demonstrate that leadership. Waleed Aly, thank you so much indeed for joining me.
ALY: Thank you for having me.
AMANPOUR: So, what does it mean to care about your constitution, your rights and protections, to be a civic minded citizen? In the United
States, the actress and playwright, Heidi Schreck, has been thinking about that for decades. She’s written a play about it now that’s a hit on
Broadway. And here, she’s explaining how she came to write “What the Constitution Means to Me.”
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HEIDI SCHRECK, WRITER AND ACTOR, “WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME”: When I was 15 years old, I would travel the country, giving speeches about the
constitution at American legion halls for prize money. This was a scheme invented by my mom to help me pay for college.
I would travel to big cities like Denver and Fresno. I would give a speech, win a whole bunch of money, and then bring it back to put in my
little safety deposit box for later. I was actually able to pay for my entire college education this way.
Thank you. Thank you. It was 30 years ago and it was a state school, but thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: The play mostly deals with the rights and protections or rather the lack thereof for women under America’s founding document. “The New
York Times” says it perfectly “chronicles” the legal subjugation of women by men and the injustices of living while female.
Heidi Schreck is nominated for best play and actress at the Tony Award and she tells me how her family and personal experiences inspired her work of
comedy, tragedy, and ultimately protest.
Heidi Schreck, welcome to the program.
SCHRECK: Thank you for having me.
AMANPOUR: So, who would have thought that a play like that would be such a hit and that it would really, really fit the zeitgeist of the moment.
Explain again why you came to it, because some people might think it’s about broader society and the broader politics of the moment. You hear
this — I don’t know whether it’s a cliche or it’s real, but constitutional crisis is being used a lot in the United States today. I wonder whether
that went through your mind at all.
SCHRECK: Certainly, 10 years ago, I was not thinking about a constitutional crisis or confrontation as some people are saying today. I
was really thinking about how this document impacted and shaped my own life. So, the prompt for the contest when I was 15 years old was to draw a
personal connection between your own life and the document. And of course, at 15, that was not easy for me to do. I didn’t know enough about myself
or really about the country or the document itself or the history of our country to do that in any meaningful way.
And so, I thought it would be interesting to go back as an adult woman and say what would it mean to take the prompt of this contest seriously, like,
how has this document actually shaped and impacted my life. And while I was doing that, while I was researching it and diving back into, you know,
personal stories from my own life, I discovered the way that it had sort of changed and shaped and circumscribed the lives of four generations of women
in my family.
SCHRECK: And I really delved into the stories of my great-great- grandmother, my great-grandmother, my grandmother and realized how deeply connected their lives were to this constitution.
AMANPOUR: You focused on two particular amendments. So, let us know, tell us why you chose these two particular amendments.
SCHRECK: Sure. I chose the Ninth Amendment because — well, honestly, I chose the Ninth Amendment at first because as a teenager, it was my
favorite amendment. I think it might be the amendment that appeals most to a teenager, because it’s quite mysterious, quite poetic.
So, the Ninth Amendment says, “The enumeration in the constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained
by the people,” which is just a — it’s a little amendment sitting right there in the Bill of Rights that says, you know, we couldn’t specifically
list all the rights that you have here but we want to make sure that you understand that just because a right is not listed here, it doesn’t mean
you don’t have that right. It doesn’t mean your state can’t pass a law, for example, granting you a certain right. It doesn’t mean that we’ve only
— that the rights that we have written down are the only rights you have.
And I think as a teenager, I found this incredibly appealing, mysterious. And then when I revisited the amendment as an adult woman, I realized how
powerful the amendment was and how deeply it had affected the rights of women in this country. When it came to addressing laws, making laws,
testing laws that had to do with women’s bodies, there wasn’t a lot of room in the constitution for that, because we just had not been considered, our
bodies had been left out of this document from the beginning.
So, this Ninth Amendment, in a way, allowed the justices to say, “Oh, the constitution does provide for the things that are unnamed, unenumerated,
not written down,” and one of those things is the right to privacy. And that this allows a woman, for example, to use an IUD. Privacy, of course,
later was part of the foundation of Roe v. Wade in 1973 saying that a woman’s right to choose abortion was a decision she and her doctor can
make. It was a private decision.
Then, I discovered that, of course, these decisions were also made using the 14th Amendment, which has to do with equal protection under the law,
which has to do with due process, the right of the individual to not be infringed upon by the government.
AMANPOUR: OK. Well, to that end, let us play this soundbite from the play, which is the story of Justice William O. Douglas.
SCHRECK: Oh, wonderful.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SCHRECK: This is a very scary moment for William O. Douglas because nobody understands the Ninth Amendment, nobody, except for me, at 15. Justice
Scalia said he didn’t even remember studying it in law school but they had to dig up this amendment that nobody understands because there was no other
way to deal with a female body, because our bodies, our bodies — our bodies had just been left out of this document from the beginning. They
were just, like, like, “We don’t know what to do with this body.”
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, Heidi, look, parts of it are hilarious and the way you frame it is very accessible, obviously, but parts of it are really scary and
actually shocking. I mean, the fact that you say that nowhere in the constitution is specifically a woman’s right protected is just a remarkable
thing. And I’m really fascinated by how you describe this journey almost from the very beginning of your own family’s experience when your great-
great-grandparents, I think, you know, were living in Seattle.
Explain to me, there was a trade, almost like a cattle trade, in women in order to furnish, you know, marriage to men who needed them.
SCHRECK: Yes. Well, in the — yes. In the late 19th century, or the mid, actually, to late 19th century, the male to female ratio of White men to
White women was 9 to 1. At some points during that time period, it was like 17 to 1, 17 men for every 1 woman. And so, there were a lot of
schemes to basically ship women in to Washington State so that the men could have marriageable partners.
And one of the most famous was led by this man named Asa Mercer, who convinced a bunch of women in Lowell, Massachusetts, to hop on a
boat and come to Seattle, to go around Cape Horn and come to Seattle.
And he deceived them. He told them that he did not make them aware that they were coming as brides. He told them that this was a place they could
start new lives. Most of these women were factory workers, that they could essentially have a more free and independent existence in the West. And
then in Seattle, he told the men that if they gave him $300, he could guarantee them a bride.
So, when the women arrived, they were met by this crowd of men who were expecting brides. Yes, there was a lot of this that happened, obviously,
in the West. So, for example, in Washington State at this time, they just — they wanted White women. So, any White woman at that point was
considered a good immigrant, which is how my great-great-grandmother ended up coming to this country from Germany.
AMANPOUR: It’s an amazing story because then you go on and there’s a really dramatic moment where you — first of all, you say something that I
had never heard but is so stark, that in the United States of America, in the last year or so, more American women have been killed by violent male
partners in the last century than Americans have been killed in wars, including 9/11. And you go on to say, that’s not the number of American
women who have been killed in this century, only the number who have been killed by men who supposedly love them. It’s unbelievable.
SCHRECK: It is unbelievable, and I didn’t know the statistic until I started making the play. I learned it from an article by Rebecca Solnit,
who has written deeply about violence against women in this country and has written, you know, her work on this has been incredible.
I also — something deserving happened when I was performing the play. A year ago, when I started performing downtown, I listed this statistic that
three women in this country are murdered every day by a male partner. And then recently, new statistics were published and it has gone up to four.
So, today, in this country, in America, four women are murdered every day by a male partner. And I find that — just the fact that it’s gone up
while I’ve been performing this play is deeply disturbing to me.
AMANPOUR: And particularly because you point out, over and again, that this document has actually never protected women. Women are not protected.
SCHRECK: They are not. And I also learned over the course of making this that 179 constitutions have explicit gender protections written into them.
The United States constitution is not one of them. We’ve been trying to pass an equal rights amendment for a hundred years. We haven’t been able
to do it. We are actually one state away from ratification.
But I found it curious and upsetting that of all the countries in the world, ours is the only — one of the only sort of more developed nations
without an amendment or a statute in the constitution that explicitly provides gender protection or explicitly says that there cannot be
discrimination on the basis of sex or gender.
AMANPOUR: So, I want to play another moment from the show, because it’s sort of shows your journey from revering the constitution as a 15-year-old
to your more questioning, if I might put it that way, or cynical view of this document right now. Let’s just play this little moment.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SCHRECK: As a kid, I believed this document was a tool of justice. I knew it was created by slave holders, by people who did not consider most of us
fully human. But I believed in its genius and in its ability to transform over time.
Today, however, I don’t actually think it’s failing. I think it’s working perfectly. I think it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do from the
beginning, which is to protect the interests of a small number of rich White men.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: You know, again, you’re very clear and you’re putting it all out there. But one thing I think is really quite stunning is that this turns
into a little bit of, I don’t know, a civics lesson, a little bit of activism, because after a good hour or more, you bring on stage a young
woman, a real person, not an actress, and you debate the constitution.
And I believe the proposition is should it be abolished or should it — you know, should it not be abolished or whatever. And explain that, because
you’ve gone through all your complaints with the constitution and then you say, well, actually, you know, is this a document worth keeping or not?
Explain how you make that turn.
SCHRECK: Sure. I mean let me be clear. We have a real coin toss in the play. So some nights, I debate, I argue to keep the constitution.
It’s a real debate. So I — like the clip you just played, I don’t argue that every night. Sometimes I debate against those arguments I just made.
And I thought given the fact that I had spent an hour really delving into my own criticisms about this document, that it would be interesting to
bring in a champion debater and debate, essentially, whether this document is still serving us.
And I would like to make clear, I don’t actually believe, especially right now, that we should abolish the United States Constitution. The debate is
about raising questions. It’s about interrogating the ways this document might be failing us, interrogating the ways we might improve it.
We haven’t passed an amendment, I believe, since 1992. It was designed to evolve, to change, to be amended, and we haven’t done that in a long time.
And it feels impossible right now to do something like that.
So, the debate serves as a way to really ask the question, what do we want our country to look like in 2019 and how can this document better reflect
the — what the country is today, what the country looks like today? How can it include those of us that it left out in the beginning or include
those of us it treated as property in the beginning?
AMANPOUR: One thing you don’t bring up is the Second Amendment. Obviously, the one that’s very controversial about the right to bear arms.
AMANPOUR: And yet you’ve spoken about how when you were a kid, you did have to debate those issues, gun control, and others, in a room full of men
who, many of them were greatly, you know, had great affection for their guns.
AMANPOUR: How did that go?
SCHRECK: Yes. It actually surprisingly went quite well. So, I had to give a speech about the Second Amendment one year as part of the contest.
And I gave a speech about how we needed stricter gun regulations.
This was in 1989, I believe. There had just been a mass shooting at a McDonald’s in California and I talked about that and the importance of gun
regulations in front of a group of men, many of whom belonged to the NRA. And I won that contest.
And I really got the sense from my audience, my audience of older white men, that they cared about my First Amendment rights. And also, at that
time, I felt, though I was a teenage girl, they wanted to hear my ideas. They wanted to hear what I was thinking.
I don’t know — sometimes I think about what it would be like to do that today and I feel like we are so polarized. I don’t know if I gave that
speech today in front of that same audience if I would win.
AMANPOUR: And I think that’s so important what you say, that this play also shows how to have a debate about civics and how to get other people to
listen to you and have this debate on these issues in a very, very inclusive way.
Anyway, Heidi Schreck, great play. Thank you so much for joining me.
SCHRECK: Thank you so much. It was wonderful to talk to you. Thank you.
AMANPOUR: The rule of law and the protections afforded by the constitution are a matter of national pride. But Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. military
prison in Southeastern Cuba, is often seen as the opposite of due process where detainees in the war on terror have been held without charge or trial
“New Yorker” journalist Ben Taub’s latest piece is about one man who was held in the prison for more than a decade and he spoke to Alicia Menendez
about the detainee’s account of incarceration, torture, and eventual freedom.
ALICIA MENENDEZ, CONTRIBUTOR: Ben, thank you so much for being here.
BEN TAUB, STAFF WRITER, THE NEW YORKER: Thanks for having me on.
MENENDEZ: Who is Mohamedou Slahi.?
TAUB: So Mohamedou Slahi is a Mauritanian. He grew up in — he was a son of a camel herder, ninth child, and he grew up in very poor circumstances
but in a family that really focused on education, devoted everything they had, to pushing through his studies.
And he grew up in a context that in West Africa in the 1980s, he was — it’s Mauritania is an Islamic Republic. He and his younger cousin used to
go to the cafes, as teenagers during the 80s, and watch these videotapes coming back from Afghanistan of the Afghan Jihad. And they became smitten
with this narrative of the mujahidin fighting against a superpower in defense of the Muslims, groups that were backed by the CIA at the time, of
course, against Soviet expansion into Afghanistan.
And so in the — in 1991, when he was 20-years-old, he had set off for Afghanistan to join the jihad and he joined Al Qaeda and pledged allegiance
to the leadership and very quickly realized that it wasn’t something he wanted to be a part of. Because at that time, he was fighting against the
communist-backed Afghan government.
And then the moment that the communist-backed government fell, the conflict took on different overtones. It was Islamist groups vying for power and it
wasn’t something he wanted to be a part of and so he left.
MENENDEZ: What does it mean to leave Al Qaeda?
TAUB: Well, that’s a very — that became the question that haunted the rest of his life, really, because his younger cousin also traveled to
Afghanistan and became very, very close to Bin Laden. He became an advisor on the — to Bin Laden on sharia law and he was on the Al Qaeda Shura
Council, its leadership.
So when Slahi leaves Al Qaeda, this is to say that he doesn’t consider himself to have any sort of affiliation, he doesn’t really do anything for
the group, but he is operating in these Islamist circles in Europe. He’s preaching in mosques.
And from time to time, people who are peripherally connected to other Jihadi groups show up in his orbit in ways that he can’t really control and
he doesn’t really know about. A judge who later reviewed all the classified evidence against him assessed that essentially what Slahi did
for the rest of the ’90s was distance himself from Al Qaeda but try to do so in ways that didn’t make himself an enemy of the group because to fully
disavow it could potentially put himself in serious danger.
But given his familial ties to this cousin, Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, who became an Al Qaeda leader and who knew about 9/11 before it happened, he
caught the attention of the United States really in 1998 after Abu Hafs called him from Bin Laden’s satellite phone and wired him money. And it
really looks like Al Qaeda leadership is sending money to an operative in Europe to carry out some sort of operation. Then Slahi transfers the money
to people traveling to West Africa.
MENENDEZ: And is that knowingly, that he transfers the money? I mean did he understand the purpose of that money?
TAUB: He did because it wasn’t for Al Qaeda at all. Like the actual transfer was Abu Hafs’ father was sick. There was no way of transferring
money efficiently from Sudan where he was living to Mauritania back home.
And so he sent it to Slahi in Germany who then transferred the money to deliver it to his parents, but it appears, you know, all the data points
suggest a very nefarious plot.
MENENDEZ: I want to ask you a question about that because that ends up being one of the most revealing parts of the article is the way in which
the FBI and CIA is working with other intelligence agencies in Jordan and Mauritania, as you say. What did you learn in researching about the way
that those organizations work in concert?
TAUB: In Slahi’s case, it was a very particular example. I met with the former head of Mauritania Intelligence. His name is Dedahi Abdulahi. Now,
he was — he had been investigating Slahi and his group for years and he interrogated him and held him in his custody for months before Slahi was
sent to Guantanamo or anywhere else.
And he told me, “I came to the conclusion, I knew Slahi was innocent. He was guilty of nothing. I had done all my investigations. But it was after
9/11, the Americans had questions. And I know that Slahi is in these circles. He knows a lot. Even though he’s not guilty of anything, he’s
sufficiently intelligent and well-informed that he could be of use to an intelligence operation and I thought they’d have some questions for him and
then send him back here.”
He thought he would be gone for two days. He ended up being gone for 17 years.
MENENDEZ: The Mauritanians assessed that he is not a risk.
MENENDEZ: Jordanians assessed that he’s not a risk. You suggest the CIA doesn’t even believe that he’s a risk at which point he gets handed over to
U.S. military. What does he do that makes the U.S. military believe that he is worthy of being transferred to Guantanamo?
TAUB: Well, the question of who’s worthy to be transferred is, at its core, a really, really important one. Slahi was someone who had joined Al
Qaeda in 1991 and ’92, but he was — and he was, you know, a highly intelligent electrical engineer who spoke four languages and had lived on
He wasn’t an Afghan villager who got picked up by mistake. He was renditioned in a very purposeful investigation. And so when he gets
sent to Guantanamo, it’s because they think he is the highest value detainee. They think that this is a guy who has incredible knowledge of Al
Qaeda’s inner workings.
He seems to — they’ve concluded that he is the Al Qaeda leader of an Al Qaeda cell in Germany. They’ve concluded that he was probably the leader
of an Al Qaeda cell in Montreal, that he was somehow linked to this plot to blow up LAX, that he’s taking instructions from Bin Laden’s key operative,
Abu Hafs, his cousin. They’ve concluded all of these things.
And so they are trying desperately to prevent future attacks and this terror running through Washington that Al Qaeda might be able to pull off
another miraculous attack as it had for 9/11 results in people really making poor judgment calls, and ultimately deciding that the only way to
extract the intelligence out of him and others is through extremely abusive torture techniques.
MENENDEZ: Slahi was tortured during his time at Guantanamo. We know this for two reasons, both because he writes about it in his book, “Guantanamo
Diary”, and also because he’s one of the few prisoners that the U.S. government admits to torturing. Remind people what are the mechanisms that
TAUB: The enhanced interrogation program was inspired by a psychology student’s Ph.D. work in the 1960s. And the task in this Martin Seligman’s
experiment was to electrocute dogs in various forms of restraint. And in doing so, see if you could induce in them what he called “learned
helplessness” where after you’ve removed the restraints, they don’t even try to escape as you continue to abuse them.
And so James Mitchell who’s a CIA contract psychologist took this as inspiration for devising the CIA’s torture program which then transferred –
– the same methodology was used by the military in Guantanamo and elsewhere.
Some of the techniques that were approved by the military command, including Rumsfeld were for waterboarding, which is essentially forced
drowning, undergo a staged kidnapping where he would be taken out to sea and where he was force-fed sea water and beaten until medical records show
seven or eight of his ribs were broken to try to disorient him and make him not know where he was when they returned him to land and put him in
They kept him in total isolation in a black cell for months. They put him through 20-hour interrogations, kept him completely sleep deprived. So
under these conditions, Slahi confessed to all kinds of things, none of which were true. And he started implicating other people in his various
And to just point to how completely unreliable this information is when you break a person down to this point, his interrogators started — sent an e-
mail after Slahi kind of completely broke down to a military psychologist saying, Slahi told me he is hearing voices now, the interrogator wrote, is
this something that happens to people who have little external stimulus such as daylight, human interaction, et cetera? Seems a little creepy.
And the military psychologist in question, Diane Zierhoffer replied, sensory deprivation can cause hallucinations, usually visual rather than
auditory but you never know. In the dark, you create things out of what little you have.
You’re not going to get reliable intelligence at that point. A person’s brain has completely been destroyed.
MENENDEZ: Was Slahi useful to U.S. authorities?
TAUB: Essentially, no. During this period, he became what they thought of as an incredibly valuable font of intelligence. He was giving information
on Al Qaeda communications networks, satellite links to laptops.
You know, he’s an electrical engineer so he knows how all this stuff works and he’s describing elaborate networks in Europe and the United States and
in Germany. All this turned out to be complete [bleep] but they didn’t know this at the time.
And so, for several months, they started reducing — the torture would sort of wind down, first by just no more hitting, no more — but still daily
interrogations. And they would become more polite and start to gradually give him, you know, a Koran and allow him to pray after several months of
not allowing him to pray and force feeding him during Ramadan.
His conditions improved dramatically. And at this point, a guard named Steve Wood arrives and Wood doesn’t know of anything that happened before
him. He just sees here’s a man who learned English in Guantanamo, who’s very gariless (ph) and friendly and forthcoming and wants to befriend his guards
and who’s very devout and quiet and talks with this provocative, intelligent humor about the world but won’t really say why, for
example, he can’t sleep at night.
And Wood comes into his cell at night and finds Slahi, you know, he hears the silence of what he thinks is a child having a nightmare and he finds
his prisoner, you know, convulsing in the night, looking more pathetic, and broken than any adult he’s ever seen.
MENENDEZ: How far into Slahi’s time at Guantanamo did Steve Wood enter the picture?
TAUB: It was a little bit less than two years after Slahi arrived in Guantanamo and about five or six months after the most brutal torture had
stopped. Wood sees these interrogations as, you know, the young, blonde interrogator comes in and wants to talk to him and everything’s very polite
and cordial and they’re showing him videos from the Jihadi battlefield and asking him to identify people and locations.
And Slahi’s telling them everything he can, telling them everything, “Oh, yes, this is that guy, this is that location”, giving them whatever they
And then after they leave, Slahi sort of breaks down and starts to confess to Wood, I actually have no idea what they’re showing me. How could I?
These videos were taken while I’ve been in custody. But he was so eager to cooperate because he was so afraid of the torture beginning.
MENENDEZ: Steve Wood, who is he? Why has he joined this effort?
TAUB: Steve Wood grew up in rural Oregon in a lumber town called Molalla. His father died in a plane crash when he was very young. His mother dated
a string of alcoholics and addicts and took him to an evangelical church.
And he grew up not having any particular animosity towards Muslims but also having never met one. He joins the Oregon National Guard shortly after
high school and then 9/11 happens. And all of a sudden, he becomes incredibly patriotic.
And he becomes very excited when a couple of years later he gets called up and told, you’re going to be deployed to Guantanamo Bay where you’re going
to defend the United States against our high-value terrorists.
So he does a couple of weeks on the regular cell blocks and then he gets called in for a special interview and he’s told you’re going to be looking
after a guy who is known by his detainee number only, 760. He is in a special black site within Guantanamo called Echo Special. It was built
especially for him, completely blackout inside, no windows, no exposure to light. Initially, there’s an eye bolt to shackle him to the floor.
He’s told always put electrical tape over your uniform so that if he manages to sneak a message out of the camp, he can’t harm you or your
family. And he goes in there thinking, OK, I’m part of a really serious national security operation.
And by the end of his deployment a year later, he is convinced entirely that what he is actually guarding in Guantanamo is not — he’s not guarding
America from a high-value terrorist. He’s guarding the American public from one of the military’s dirtiest secrets, which is that its highest
value detainee was captured essentially by mistake and is being kept in isolation because of the hell that has been inflicted upon him.
You can’t let him go because it would reveal everything about what we’ve done, which is not just embarrassing but, like, you know, has been
certainly legally called into question in the years since.
MENENDEZ: How does he become convinced?
TAUB: The image of the terrorist in the classified dossier just doesn’t match on to the man he’s talking to every single day. And because he’s in
echo special, the guard force lives in there with the prisoner 24/7.
So Wood is there 12 hours on, 12 hours off. He’s interacting with him constantly.
At the same time, it’s spring of 2004, the Abu Ghraib scandal is breaking in the news. So inside the cell, nothing fits his world view and what he
is being told. And then outside the cell, his whole world view is being undermined by the news cycle every day.
And so he starts to wonder, is the evidence against Slahi as flimsy as it was for the invasion of Iraq, for example? Is the reason that Slahi is
crying and sobbing and broken at night, is it somehow linked to the photos he’s seen from Abu Ghraib of prisoners being tortured and sexually
humiliated and, you know, hooked up to electrical wires?
And in time, he starts reading about Guantanamo Bay through activist websites and he starts reading about world affairs because Slahi is telling
him you think that America’s foreign policy efforts have been the delivery of freedom to press people all over, look into the 1953 operation to
orchestrate a coup in Iran and where that led.
And so Steve has never heard any of this stuff. He grew up very much believing what he came to see as a kind of like a myth taught through his
schools of American exceptionalism and superiority. And all of a sudden that starts to collapse as the wall between prisoner and guard also
MENENDEZ: I mean to that point, there is a moment in your story where Wood shares a photo of his daughter with Slahi, which is breaking
protocol, to say, I’m doing this as an act of intimacy to show that we’re actually friends.
TAUB: His first big transformation internally was that he started to feel guilty for liking someone who he thought was a terrorist initially. And
then, he thinks, no, this guy is actually a good person, he’s actually my friend.
But the only way to actually show that I trust him is to break protocol and show him a photo of my 9-month-old daughter and say, “Listen, I trust you,
man. This is my daughter. She is everything to me.” And that was where things really transformed for him.
MENENDEZ: And that’s not the only secret that Wood ends up keeping. I mean he undergoes this conversion to Islam which he keeps a big secret.
TAUB: Wood converted to Islam in 2006 about a year after he left Guantanamo. He was searching for some sort of anchor because his
interactions with Slahi had so unmoored him and his time at Guantanamo had so shaken his belief in everything else.
But he lived in an environment where that was not, you know, encouraged and in a time when there was a great deal of Islamophobia in the political
scene and locally in his hometown and in his own family. And so he kept it a secret for the next 10 years.
MENENDEZ: Walk us through Slahi’s release.
TAUB: So while Wood was there, a prosecutor was assigned to Slahi’s case and ultimately dropped it entirely because he figured everything that Slahi
had confessed to had been a confession through torture and it was also ultimately not true.
So the case is dropped. No one pursues the criminal case anymore. But Guantanamo prisoners can be held indefinitely, according to the U.S.
government. So Slahi sues for habeas corpus. The judge refused Slahi’s case in 2009 and ’10 and ultimately comes to the conclusion that he must be
released and he orders Slahi’s released.
But the government appeals, his diary is released publicly in 2015 and published. And soon afterwards, the administration relents and releases
him from Guantanamo Bay and sends him back to Mauritania.
MENENDEZ: So now you have Wood in the United States, you have Slahi in Mauritania. What happens to each of them?
TAUB: So, in October 2016, Wood gets a phone call while he’s in a safe way in Portland, and on the other end of the line is Mohamedou Slahi. He
hasn’t heard his voice in 11 years and they catch each other up on their lives since then. Slahi explains that his mother has died, one of his
brothers has died, but there’s new nieces and nephews who are now teenagers and who have been attending school on the proceeds of his book.
And Wood catches Slahi up on his own life, how he converted to Islam, how his whole conception of the war on terror had collapsed, how he was now
working in construction and then found a lot of solace in the work because it was the kind of job where unlike in Guantanamo, there was a moral
clarity. He was leaving things better than when he arrived.
When Slahi’s diary had come out, it was full of redactions. But now that he’s free, they published a restored edition of the book. And in it, Slahi
writes an invitation to any of his guards or interrogators, saying I forgive all of you for what you have done, you are welcome in my home.
This is an invitation.
So, Wood went. I accompanied him in January of this year. He set off from Portland, took about three days to get to Mauritania through New York and
Casa Blanca. They spent four days catching up on all that they had missed.
MENENDEZ: This is a very specific story but it’s about a much larger question, which is what do Slahi and Wood tell you about the state of the
war on terror?
TAUB: It carries a long shadow, not just for the people on the receiving end of it. This is something that Wood has said in a lot of military
police officers and soldiers have come forward to speak about in recent years.
They’re haunted by what they had to do. They’re haunted by the fact that, not just the practitioners of torture, but the people who were standing by
watching or the people who arrived, like Wood, after it had happened but had been a part of the myth of Guantanamo being this place, as it’s been
It’s a fundamental truth and an uncomfortable one that people on the receiving end of classified security operations know about the state of
secret American national security laws and practices years before the American public does. And that’s why people like Slahi can’t get let go.
MENENDEZ: Ben, thank you so much.
TAUB: Thank you for having me.
AMANPOUR: It’s a troubling account of how justice works there.
That’s it for our program tonight.
Thanks for watching Amanpour and Company on PBS and join us again tomorrow.