For two detainees who told what they knew, Guantanamo becomes a gilded cage
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; 10:59 PM
By the time Tariq al-Sawah, a veteran of the wars in Bosnia and Afghanistan, reached Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in May 2002, there was no fight left in him. Injured by a cluster bomb in the mountains of Afghanistan, the middle-aged Egyptian was still recovering from wounds to his hands, back, thighs and buttocks when the Americans grabbed him.
Three months later, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who had moved in radical circles in Germany, turned up at the U.S. military prison. There, a masked interrogator threatened the Mauritanian with death while others deprived him of sleep and bombarded him with sound and light, pushing him to the brink of a mental breakdown.
When it came to their initial treatment at Guantanamo, Sawah and Slahi had little in common, according to military officials. Their paths would intersect only later, when they both made the same choice: to cooperate with the United States.
Sawah, now 52, and Slahi, now 39, have become two of the most significant informants ever to be held at Guantanamo. Today, they are housed in a little fenced-in compound at the military prison, where they live a life of relative privilege -- gardening, writing and painting -- separated from other detainees in a cocoon designed to reward and protect.
But as the Obama administration attempts to close the prison, Sawah and Slahi are trapped in a gilded cage. Their old jihadi comrades want them dead, revenge for the apostasy, now well known, of working with the United States. The U.S. government has rewarded them for their cooperation but has refused to countenance their release.
Some military officials believe the United States should let them go -- and put them into a witness protection program, in conjunction with allies, in a bid to cultivate more informants.
"I don't see why they aren't given asylum," said W. Patrick Lang, a retired senior military intelligence officer. "If we don't do this right, it will be that much harder to get other people to cooperate with us. And if I was still in the business, I'd want it known we protected them. It's good advertising."
A current military official at Guantanamo suggested that that argument was fair. Still, he said, it's "a hard-sell argument around here."
In the case of Slahi, the government might not have a choice. A federal judge, ruling on a habeas corpus petition this week, ordered Slahi released because the United States had failed to produce evidence to justify his continued detention. The government may appeal, and even if it doesn't, it could take months to arrange his repatriation or find a country willing to take him.
"After all the allegations, he's not obviously a bad guy; they couldn't prove anything," said Nancy Hollander, Slahi's attorney. "We have to see where it is safe for him to go, and I hope the U.S. will assist with that. I want him free, but I want him free and safe."
This chronicle of Sawah's and Slahi's sometimes improbable journeys is based on interviews with more than a dozen current and former military officials, some of whom spoke anonymously because much about the two detainees remains classified. It was supplemented by government reports, military documents and transcripts of hearings at Guantanamo Bay at which Sawah and Slahi spoke to a panel of military officers. The military does not allow reporters to interview detainees.
By all accounts, Guantanamo has become a surreal sort of home for Sawah and Slahi. Each has a modular unit outfitted with a television. Each has a well-stocked refrigerator. They share a garden, where they grow mint for tea.