On or about Sept. 11, 2001, American character changed. What Americans had proudly flaunted as “our highest values” were now judged to be luxuries that in a new time of peril the country could ill afford. Justice, and its cardinal principle of innocent until proven guilty, became a risk, its indulgence a weakness. Asked recently about an innocent man who had been tortured to death in an American “black site” in Afghanistan, former Vice President Dick Cheney did not hesitate. “I’m more concerned,” he said, “with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent.” In this new era in which all would be sacrificed to protect the country, torture and even murder of the innocent must be counted simply “collateral damage.”
“Guantánamo Diary” is the most profound account yet written of what it is like to be that collateral damage. One fall day 13 years ago Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a 30-year-old electrical engineer and telecommunications specialist, received a visit at his house in Noakchott, Mauritania, from two officers summoning him to come answer questions at the country’s intelligence ministry. “Take your car,” one of the men told him, as Slahi stood in front of his house with his mother and his aunt. “We hope you can come back today.” Listening to these words, Slahi’s mother fixed her eyes on her son. “It is the taste of helplessness,” he writes, “when you see your beloved fading away like a dream and you cannot help him. . . . I would watch both my mom and my aunt praying in my rearview mirror until we took the first turn and I saw my beloved ones disappear.”
That was Nov. 20, 2001. Slahi’s mother has since died. Her son has never returned. He had begun, that fall day two months after 9/11, what he calls his “endless world tour,” courtesy of the various American national security bureaucracies, traveling, after a week of interrogation in Mauritania, via “extraordinary rendition” to a black site in Jordan, where he was interrogated, sometimes brutally, for eight months; thence he is flown, blindfolded, shackled and diapered, to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, for two weeks of interrogation; and finally, to Guantánamo, where he suffered months of strictest isolation, weeks of sleep deprivation, extremes of temperature and sound, and other elaborate tortures set out in a “special plan” approved personally by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — and where he remains to this day. He composed these memoirs in his isolation cell in the summer of 2005, and a six-year legal battle has finally brought them to us. Written in the colloquial if limited English he picked up during his captivity, its pages disfigured with thousands of pitch-black “redactions” courtesy of the American intelligence agents who play such major parts, the work is a kind of dark masterpiece, a sometimes unbearable epic of pain, anguish and bitter humor that the Dostoyevsky of “The House of the Dead” would have recognized and embraced.
At its root is a maddening ambiguity born of a system governed not by any recognizable rules of evidence or due process but by suspicion, paranoia and violence. Blindfolded, earmuffed and shackled, Slahi is rendered to a secret prison in Jordan (though he is supposed to have no idea where on the globe he is) and interviewed on arrival by two dim clerks straight out of a Beckett play:
“ ‘What have you done?’
“ ‘I’ve done nothing!’
“Both burst out in laughter. ‘Oh, very convenient! You have done nothing, but you are here!’ I thought, What crime should I say in order to satisfy them?”
What crime indeed? If guilt is assumed, how to prove innocence? And as with Kafka’s Joseph K., the third great literary spirit looming over these pages, the signs of Slahi’s guilt are everywhere: He fought in Afghanistan in the early 1990s with Al Qaeda (then indirectly supported by the United States); his distant cousin and sometime brother-in-law became a key bin Laden spiritual adviser; he had studied in Germany, like the 9/11 conspirators; had prayed at the same Montreal mosque as the “millennium” plotter; had known the 9/11 planner Ramzi bin al-Shibh. These signs and others meant he fit the profile, Slahi says, of “a high-level, smart-beyond-belief terrorist.” That will be the American interrogators’ premise, and nothing the Mauritanians and Jordanians will tell them, let alone what Slahi will say in the months of increasingly brutal interrogation, can alter their view. Slahi’s memoirs are filled with numbingly absurd exchanges that could have been lifted whole cloth from “The Trial”:
“ ‘The rules have changed. What was no crime is now considered a crime.’
“ ‘But I’ve done no crimes, and no matter how harsh you guys’ laws are, I have done nothing.’
“ ‘But what if I show you the evidence?’”
The interrogator shows him a list of the 15 “worst people” in Guantánamo, on which he is counted “No. 1.”
“ ‘You gotta be kidding me,’ I said.
“ ‘No, I’m not. Don’t you understand the seriousness of your case?’
“ ‘So, you kidnapped me from my house, in my country, and sent me to Jordan for torture, and then took me from Jordan to Bagram, and I’m still worse than the people you captured with guns in their hands?’
“ ‘Yes, you are. You’re very smart! To me, you meet all the criteria of a top terrorist. When I check the terrorist checklist, you pass with a very high score.’
“I was so scared, but I always tried to suppress my fear. ‘And what is your [redacted] checklist?’
“ ‘You’re Arab, you’re young, you went to jihad, you speak foreign languages, you’ve been in many countries, you’re a graduate in a technical discipline.’
“ ‘And what crime is that?’ I said.
“ ‘Look at the hijackers: They were the same way.’ ”
In a later session the interrogator greets Slahi with a video player, promising to show definitive proof. “Are you ready?” he asks dramatically, his finger poised on the play button. Slahi braces himself, “ready to jump when I saw myself blowing up some U.S. facility in Timbuktu.” Instead, the tape shows bin Laden discussing the 9/11 attacks. “You realize,” he asks his interrogator with typical acid humor, “I am not Osama bin Laden, don’t you?”
Slahi’s guilt remains certain, unquestioned and unquestionable, even as the claims of what precisely he did change. The Americans begin with the certainty that their prisoner had been the mastermind of the “millennium plot,” the 1999 attempt by Ahmed Ressam to smuggle explosives over the Canadian border to blow up the Los Angeles International Airport. There comes a point where Slahi would happily confess to it — there comes a point where he would confess to anything — but he is caught in an inescapable paradox: “If you don’t know somebody, you just don’t know him, and there is no changing it.” When the interrogators are ready to bow at last to evidence long since extracted by Mauritanian, Jordanian and Canadian interrogators that Ressam had left Montreal before Slahi arrived there, they grasp at a new theory, thanks to a confession extracted from Ramzi bin al-Shibh: Slahi had been the main “recruiter” for the “Big Wedding” itself — the 9/11 plot.
Bin al-Shibh, as we know from the recently released Senate Intelligence Committee report, was even then enduring brutal torture in a black site in Morocco. By now, Slahi is being pummeled by the myriad techniques in Rumsfeld’s “special plan”: strict isolation; constant freezing temperatures “to the point I was shaking all the time”; stress positions, including hours of standing painfully bent over with his hands shackled to the floor; periodic dousing with very cold water that left him “shaking like a Parkinson’s patient”; beatings about the face and ribs; repulsive sexual abuse; threats to kill him and to kidnap his mother and other family members; and unending interrogation without sleep. “For the next 70 days,” he writes, “I wouldn’t know the sweetness of sleeping: interrogation 24 hours a day, three and sometimes four shifts a day.” Periodically he is dragged into a lightless room, thrown onto the dirty floor:
“The room was as dark as ebony. [Redacted] started playing a track very loudly — I mean very loudly. The song was ‘Let the Bodies Hit the Floor.’ I might never forget that song. At the same time, [redacted] turned on some colored blinkers that hurt the eyes. ‘If you [expletive] fall asleep, I’m gonna hurt you,’ he said. I had to listen to the song over and over until next morning. I started praying.
“ ‘Stop the [expletive] praying,’ he said loudly.”
Slahi begins to hallucinate, hear voices: Friends and family “visit” him, attempt to console him; he fears he is losing his mind. Throughout, in interrogation after interrogation, he is confronted with the “evidence” from bin al-Shibh. “Why should he lie to us?” the interrogators demand.
The answer was before them, as it is before us starkly on the page. Bin al-Shibh lies for the same reason Slahi lies: It is the only way to stop the pain. Desperate to confess to plots the details of which he doesn’t know, Slahi begs his interrogators to tell him what he was supposed to have done:
“ ‘And what was my evil plan?’
“ ‘Maybe not exactly to harm the U.S., but to attack the CN Tower in Toronto?’ he said. I was thinking, Is this guy crazy? I’ve never heard of such a tower.
“ ‘You realize if I admit to such a thing I have to involve other people! What if it turns out I was lying?’ I said.
“ ‘So what? We know your friends are bad, so if they get arrested, even if you lie about [redacted] it doesn’t matter, because they’re bad.’ ”
And so Slahi, brutalized, exhausted, clinging to sanity, begins to name names, describe plots, provide incriminating information about anyone mentioned, “even if I didn’t know him. Whenever I thought about the words ‘I don’t know’ I got nauseous, because I remembered the words of [redacted]: ‘All you have to say is “I don’t know, I don’t remember,” and we’ll [expletive] you!’ ”
In this way the vast and brutal American interrogation mechanism, stretching around the globe in an archipelago of black sites housing hundreds of detainees at the mercy of untold numbers of interrogators, transformed itself into an intricate machine for generating self-reinforcing fiction. The process, which has never been described more intimately or more convincingly, resembles nothing so much as a postmodern globalized version of the Salem witch trials: zealous inquisitors, untroubled by doubt, applying a relentless violence to conjure up a fantasy world born of the collective terrors of their own imaginations.
They are our terrors, too, of course. There will be no author tour for this book. Mohamedou Ould Slahi remains in Guantánamo. We are keeping him there. It has been almost five years since United States District Court Judge James Robertson granted Slahi’s habeas corpus petition and ordered him released, but the government appealed and he remains imprisoned and incommunicado. In his absence, Larry Siems writes, Slahi’s book “has been edited twice: first by the United States government, which added more than 2,500 black-bar redactions censoring Mohamedou’s text, and then by me. Mohamedou was not able to participate in, or respond to, either one of these edits.” In these redactions, stubbornly absurd and carelessly stupid as many of them are, the dialogue of interrogator and prisoner goes on.
At Guantánamo, meantime, the charges of grand plots have one by one fallen away. What exactly is Slahi’s crime? Now, only that he joined Al Qaeda, which he never disputed, and remained a member, which he has always denied. At the end, as at the beginning, guilt is born of association: whom he knew, not what he can be shown to have done. “He reminded me,” Guantánamo’s former chief prosecutor, Morris D. Davis, told Siems in a 2013 interview, “of Forrest Gump.”
“There were a lot of noteworthy events in the history of Al Qaeda and terrorism,” Davis said, “and there was Slahi, lurking somewhere in the background. He was in Germany, Canada, different places that look suspicious, and that caused them to believe that he was a big fish, but then when they really invested the effort to look into it, that’s not where they came out. . . . Their conclusion was there’s a lot of smoke and no fire.”
How to distinguish smoke from fire when your hallowed premise is that your prisoner is a “smart-beyond-belief terrorist” and anything he says to the contrary is dismissed as lies? Rules of evidence, demands of due process: These are designed to separate justice — founded on real acts that can be proved — from suspicion and paranoia. When they are discarded, we plunge into Cheney’s world, where all is sacrificed to security, and suspicion and fear take the place of evidence of guilt. Our country tortured Slahi and thus made it impossible, as the prosecutor determined, to try him; fear and suspicion leave us unable still to follow the judge’s order and free him. It is easier on us to let him suffer indefinite detention. When the suffering of the untried and unconvicted becomes nothing more than collateral damage, America has crossed a gulf. The steps that took us there were largely secret, but thanks to this and other accounts we know about them now: We know where we came from, and we know where we are. We do not yet know how to get back.
By Mohamedou Ould Slahi
Edited by Larry Siems
379 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $29.