Latif Nasser and Carol Rosenberg Discuss Guantanamo Bay

Radiolab host Latif Nasser was shocked to discover he shared his name with someone else, but mostly because of whom he shared it with: detainee 244 at Guantanamo Bay. He joins Hari in the studio to discuss his new podcast series about this amazing story, alongside Carol Rosenberg, who’s been reporting on Guantanamo Bay since 2002.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And we’re turning now to a truly incredible story in real life, the radio host Latif Nasser who one day made the shock discovery that not only did he share his name with someone else; he shared it with Detainee 244 at Guantanamo Bay prison. Abdul Latif Nasir is suspected of being one of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted advisers. His lawyers say that he was never even in al Qaeda. Now, the other Latif joins our Hari Sreenivasan in the studio to discuss his search for the truth in his podcast called, yes, “The Other Latif.” Also joining them is the award-winning “New York Times” journalist Carol Rosenberg in Miami, who’s been reporting on Guantanamo Bay since 2002.


HARI SREENIVASAN: First, I want to start with you here, Latif. Who is the other Latif?

LATIF NASSER, OTHER, “THE OTHER LATIF”: Yes, well, thanks for having me. This whole story about the other Latif, it started — I was on Twitter. I saw a tweet that I thought was about me, but it wasn’t. It was about a guy who had my same name, and it turned out that guy was Detainee 244 at Guantanamo Bay.

SREENIVASAN: And what is he accused of?

NASSER: He — there is a pretty heinous laundry list of things that the U.S. government has claimed in either these leaked or declassified documents that he has done, everything from being a top explosives experts for al Qaeda, blowing up the famed World Cultural Heritage sites, the Bamiyan Buddhas, fighting on the front lines of the Battle of Tora Bora, the one where Osama bin Laden got away, and we wouldn’t catch him for another 10 years. There’s a pretty long and damning list.

SREENIVASAN: And he’s been there for how long now?

NASSER: He’s been there since May 2002, without charges, without a trial, just being there.

SREENIVASAN: And he is technically, what, a free man, I mean, allowed to leave, or what?

NASSER: So this — and this was the detail that really hooked me into this story, which was that I found that there was — well, first of all, his lawyer claims that much of that laundry list of charges against him are totally specious and false.


NASSER: But the thing that hooked me was that, in 2016, he had this parole board-type hearing called a PRB hearing, where six different representatives of top agencies of the U.S. government came together and unanimously decided to — that the U.S. didn’t need him any — need to keep him anymore, that he wasn’t a continuing threat, and that he should go back home to Morocco, where he’s from. So he was cleared to go back home.


NASSER: But what happened was, there was some kind of bureaucratic logjam. Something happened that made it that the paperwork didn’t get finalized until right — right — the moment when all the Obama people were going out, the Trump people were coming in. Trump had tweeted that he didn’t want to let anybody out of Guantanamo. And so this guy got sort of stuck right in that crack.

SREENIVASAN: Carol, we forget, I think, a lot of times that there are still prisoners in Guantanamo. Abdul Latif is not the only one there. He’s got, what, 39 other people also?

CAROL ROSENBERG, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”: There’s a total of 40 detainees at Guantanamo, Hari, that’s true. And he’s one of them. He’s also one of five men who are in a similar situation, where they have been approved for release with security attachments. So, technical, they should note be or could not be there, but did not get out at the end of the Obama administration, which is when all transfers out of Guantanamo but one stopped.

SREENIVASAN: And, Carol, this is also happening at a time when right now in the news is witness testimony from some of the psychologists who helped the CIA use what is known as enhanced interrogation techniques and could also be called torture. Even the very word, whether it’s torture or not, is kind of being debated, but this is what happened to some of these men before they even got to Guantanamo.

ROSENBERG: Yes. What’s happening is that over in the court portion of Guantanamo, not the prison, there are pretrial hearings in the case of the five men accused of plotting the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And before they can get to trial, they have to deal with the legacy of torture. And so they have been looking at what happened to those men in the three and four years they spent in the CIA black sites before they got to Guantanamo.

SREENIVASAN: So, Latif, tell me, did this man admit to something? What — does he have remorse? Does he have guilt? Did he say something that would justify having kept him there for as long as he’s been so far?

NASSER: So, according to his lawyer, and that’s — I’m not allowed to talk to him, so I can only talk to his lawyer — he didn’t do anything wrong. He maybe did — maybe he acted in a way that was suggestively or he maybe he was mixed up with some people who did some things wrong, but, as far as what he did, he did not do anything wrong, but especially didn’t do the kinds of things that he’s being charged with. Whether he is he — and it’s a tricky question of whether he expressed remorse, because you obviously can’t express remorse for something you didn’t do.

SREENIVASAN: Right. And he hasn’t been charged.

NASSER: And he hasn’t been charged. But, that said, that parole type hearing where he would have expressed remorse, if he did have remorse, those transcripts are unavailable to me. So it’s very — it’s — parsing out the logic of, what did this guy do, what did he say he did, what do his lawyers say he did, what did the government say he did, parsing out that logic is — it gets very complicated very quickly.

SREENIVASAN: Latif, you went to Morocco, and you looked into information from other countries to find more about the other Latif.

NASSER: What I did find in all these places is that the story I went in expecting, in part primed by this Department of Defense document, also, though, in part primed by his lawyer, those stories just got flipped upside down and inside out, the stories that I expected. So, for instance, I will tell you that the — in this DOD document, there’s this one group in Morocco that is said to be sort of almost his like on-ramp in the world of extremism.

SREENIVASAN: This is what radicalized him.

NASSER: What radicalized him. It’s this — it was a picture painted of this group in Morocco as a group that wanted to overthrow the government, a group that wanted to usher in an Islamic state. I’m reading these, and I’m thinking, oh, God, this is the group that this guy joined in college? When I start to look into it further, when I started to talk to experts on the group, I mean, it was an anti-monarchy group. It was a pacifist group. It was a group that had soup kitchens that would give out — would do vaccination drives. This was a group that wanted elections. That’s why they were anti-monarchy. They wanted elections. It was a time when Morocco was a much more oppressive place than it is today. So, this group — all of a sudden, I was going in thinking I was looking at ISIS, and then, all of a sudden, wait a second, they look kind of like the founding fathers, actually, when you look at them that way. And so — and that sort of surprise just sort of kept happening more and more sort throughout this guy’s like story. And, in a way, it’s interesting. Like, tracing his story, he almost felt like this, like, Forrest Gump of the war on terror. Like, you were just seeing him in these different places. And you’re like, oh, wow, that totally reshapes the way I think at that moment.

SREENIVASAN: Carol, in one of your stories, you literally went out and did the math on how this costs the United States. I mean, so, I guess, in one term, we could look at the cash. And that’s what you looked at, but, also, this continuing kind of extrajudicial process, what does it do to our legal and, dare I say, kind of moral leadership standing in the world, too? So how much does it cost to keep people in Guantanamo?

ROSENBERG: So, we studied the public figures, what we know is spent on the prison and the court, not the base, not anything associated with Guantanamo Navy Base, which would be there even if the prison and court went away. We took the total sum of what was spent in, I think it would be 2018, and divided it by the number of detainees, and came up with over $13 million a year per detainee to be there. Now, I had a commander once who said to me: You know, Carol, if you want to make it cheaper, we could add more prisoners, and you would bring the per prisoner cost down. But the reality is that the planning has conceived of, if more prisoners come, they will need more military police, which is surprising, because, right now, there are 1,800, 1,800 U.S. military, Army, a bit of Navy, maybe a chunk of Air Force, assigned to that detention center. And so that’s what makes it so expensive. These troops come and go in six- and nine-month rotations. They need to be fed, they need to be amused, they need to have health care, they need to have housing, they need to have whatever is the uniform of choice of the war on terror. And they’re very expensive to maintain there, those soldiers. But the soldiers wouldn’t be there if the prison wasn’t there. So the math is per prisoner to maintain the operation.

SREENIVASAN: Now, you went on one of the last trips where they allowed reporters. And did you get a chance, Latif, to meet him?

NASSER: So, it is a strange — Carol is used to this by this point. I was not. I put in a request to meet this guy. I was denied on the grounds of, it’s – – goes counter to the Geneva Conventions. The — I wasn’t allowed to talk to him, but they do, do this thing where you can kind of go and look into each of the — the reporters can go and look into each of the cell blocks through this sort of two-way mirror. So the detainees can’t see that you can see them. It almost feels — it’s very eerie. It feels like you’re at the zoo. And you go there, and it felt like — because I was looking for this particular detainee, it felt like I was looking from the animal I wanted to see at the zoo, which just a — such a strange experience. But then I did — I think — I can’t be sure, but I think I saw him. And he was just sitting there. He was sitting in a chair. He had headphones on, was listening to something, and was eating — it was nuts or something like that. But there was this shadow that was just cut across his body. So, like, I could see part of his beard, but not his face. And it — to be obsessed with this man for three years, and to get that close to him, I just wanted to scream out both his name and my name, but I couldn’t do it. And we had, I don’t know what, Carol will remember, like 45 seconds to just look at this guy. And then we were sort of ushered out.

SREENIVASAN: And while you’re doing all this reporting, you are studying to be a citizen of the United States.

NASSER: Yes, which made all of this just all the more ironic that I was cramming for my citizenship test. I’m learning about things like the rule of law and due process. And, meanwhile, I’m getting all these news alerts on my phone about everything that’s going on, but then particularly focused, trained on this institution, and how this institution really does seem to be antithetical to cornerstone values that I, as an aspiring citizen, am signing up for.

SREENIVASAN: Yes. Carol, you have been reporting on this. You were at “The Miami Herald” when you were. Now you’re at “The New York Times.” You have been doing this for years. How hard has this been to keep covering this, considering the kinds of constraints that Latif here is talking about just in the basic acts of reporting, when you can’t talk to the people you’re covering, when you can’t have all the documents you need, when everybody’s not necessarily cooperative? They’re taking you on these sort of visits, but it’s not like even going to a normal prison.

ROSENBERG: The reality is, it’s not that unlike writing about other prisoners who have to speak through their lawyers. But, certainly, the fact that we no longer even can engage with anyone from the prison, that the — we are at the 18th prison commander. The admiral who’s running the prison no longer even takes questions from reporters. This is the first time in the — my entire coverage of Gitmo that the prison has gone dark and doesn’t even allow us to do what Latif did, which is go to the prison for the cooperative captives who are living in a communal cell. And it is a uncomfortable thing to look through one-way glass and see prisoners in their environment, as it were, in a communal cell. But it gave you a sense — it always gave me a sense of what was going on. When there was a hunger strike, you could see that there was a hunger strike. When there were protests, they put up signs, not always. Sometimes, you didn’t know. But there was a certain amount of access and a certain amount of ability to look around the prison. That is over. The last time media were allowed to visit inside the prison zone, the detention center zone, was April. And I wrote a story about how they were preparing to think about the detainees growing old and dying at Guantanamo Bay, about talking about planning for hospice care, geriatric treatment, how to take care of elderly men who are going to not just age out, but become even more wards of the Department of Defense, sickly old men. And that was the last report I was able to do from inside the wire.

SREENIVASAN: But what does the government have as an endgame? Do they see that as the most likely scenario, where these 40 detainees will be in their care for the rest of their lives? Or do they see other countries stepping up to take some off their hands?

ROSENBERG: So, at this moment, there’s nobody in the U.S. government, as far as I know, trying to find countries to resettle these men. I think I said earlier that there are five people there who are cleared who are — it’s Abdul Latif and four other men. Two of them have been cleared since the Bush administration. Now, cleared doesn’t mean that they can walk out the door. What they need is somebody at the Department of Defense or the Department of State to negotiate with other countries a program, a plan to receive these men. The Bush administration picked up people wholesale, put them on airplanes in dozens to — 14 to 16, 18 at a time, flew them back to Saudi Arabia, and the rehabilitation program failed. People returned to the fight, is the terminology of the Department of Defense. So, the Obama administration plan was to find and arrange resettlement or repatriation programs. There is nobody, as far as I know, negotiating on behalf of the government to find a way, for example, to send Abdul Latif back to Morocco. So, as long as this administration has a policy, which was started in a tweet that said, nobody’s leaving Guantanamo, nobody will leave Guantanamo — so, based on that policy, the assumption is that these men will be there for the rest of time.

SREENIVASAN: Latif, did the other Latif say that he has lived through any enhanced interrogation techniques? What has his life been like inside?

NASSER: According to his lawyer, according to his previous lawyers, he was — and you can parse the definition here — he was tortured. He was not water-boarded, but he was subject to sort of sensory overload, loud noises, loud music, extremes of temperature, sleep deprivation, very extended periods of solitary confinement. There’s a longer list than that.


NASSER: But he certainly was — I would say that that’s torture.

SREENIVASAN: Carol, in the conversations that are happening in the courts right now, in some of that testimony, it’s interesting that the psychologists — there’s — at times that there seems like there’s some empathy towards what they’re doing. And then, at other times, they’re really by the book and not that remorseful about the techniques that they help devised.

ROSENBERG: The psychologists are very interesting, because they are not remorseful about what they did. They believed they needed to do it at the time. But in the four years that they came to control the guard force and control the black sites, came to see these men as people under their, for lack of a better word, care, they came to know them and believe — certainly, the psychologists believed that they were their friends. It is clear that the detainees who were water-boarded and otherwise abused in the black sites do not see the psychologists this way.


ROSENBERG: But the psychologists have — one of them said, my, they have all grown up. I don’t recognize them anymore. It’s a very — it was a very strange relationship. Some people say it’s Stockholm syndrome, but it’s almost like reverse Stockholm syndrome. The people who they put through this violent, brutal treatment or who were put through this violent, brutal treatment by other interrogators using techniques that they designed came to believe that their captives were their friends. And it’s a strange scenario that’s playing out in the 9/11 trial.

SREENIVASAN: While this particular case might draw sympathy from your listener, there are legitimately bad people that are in this mix. Now, whether or not the level of the crimes of Abdul Latif rise to the punishment of what he’s already endured is a valid question, but the five men who will perhaps one day be on trial, in your reporting, was there sufficient evidence presented or did you see that this — there’s still something to be said for the actions that the government is trying to take and prosecute?

NASSER: In Abdul Latif’s case, the evidence, at least the declassified evidence, which is all I can speak to, evidence that I have seen, does not feel like it reaches that threshold of, oh, this merits a trial. It’s a very low, low, low standard of evidence. But I entirely agree with you. There are men at Guantanamo who need to be put on trial. But even these five men, this isn’t — they haven’t had their trial yet. We’re still in pretrial proceedings. That’s the — that’s one of the promises of America, of every modern country, is, people get trials. That’s how this all should work. The idea of just locking someone up and not charging them, not trying them for decades, that’s not how things are supposed to work.

SREENIVASAN: All right, you can catch more of Carol’s reporting at “The New York Times,” and go further back in the archives in “The Miami Herald,” if you want to see it. And “The Other Latif” is a story by Radiolab that you can find online anywhere. Latif Nasser, Carol Rosenberg, thank you both.

NASSER: Thanks for having us.

ROSENBERG: Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Jan Egeland joins Christiane Amanpour to give an update on the situation in Syria as Bashar al-Assad’s regime tries to crush the last rebel-held territory in Idlib. Film critics A. O. Scott and Karen Han join Christiane to discuss “Parasite’s” historic win at the Oscars. Latif Nasser and Carol Rosenberg join Hari Sreenivasan to tell the story of Abdul Latif Nasir, detainee 244 at Guantanamo Bay.