Ben Taub on “Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret”

Guantánamo Bay, the U.S. military prison, is often seen as the opposite of due process, where detainees in the War on Terror have been held without charge or trial since 2001. “The New Yorker” journalist Ben Taub’s latest piece is about one man who was held in Guantánamo Bay for more than a decade. Taub joins Alicia Menendez to discuss the piece “Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret.”

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CHRISTIANE 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 since 2001. “The 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: 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 mujahideen 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 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.

TAUB: Yes.

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 multiple continents.

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 were used.

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 isolation.

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 imaginary plots. 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 want.

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 collapses.

MENENDEZ: I mean to that point, there is a moment in your story where Wood [13:50:00] 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 sold, publicly. 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.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with broadcaster Waleed Aly about his reaction to the Christchurch terrorist attack; and playwright Heidi Schreck about her play “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Alicia Menendez speaks with writer Ben Taub about his latest piece, “Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret.”