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Opinion Book review: ‘Guantanamo Diary,’ by Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Deborah Pearlstein is an associate professor of law at Cardozo Law School in New York. She was on the first team of independent military commission monitors to visit Guantanamo in 2004.

Guantanamo Diary

By Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Edited by Larry Siems

Little, Brown. 379 pp. $29

Now entering its 13th year, public discussion about the future of detention operations at Guantanamo Bay has become a perverse fixture of America’s national security policy debate. On one side is a bipartisan array of authorities from Henry Kissinger to Hillary Rodham Clinton, two U.S. presidents (George W. Bush and Barack Obama), and dozens of retired U.S. field and flag officers (including the general first tasked with establishing the prison and the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) — all urging that the prison be shuttered. Their reasons are concrete. The prison is a recruitment boon for our enemies, a profound hurdle to counterterrorism cooperation for our allies, and an obstacle to our efforts to advance the cause of democracy and human dignity worldwide.

On the other side sit a handful of vocal leaders in Congress and, according to Gallup’s consistent polling since 2009, two-thirds of the American public. Notwithstanding the unanimous agreement by the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice and State; the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the director of national intelligence that nearly half of the detainees pose no risk that warrants continued detention, the belief apparently persists that the Guantanamo prisoners are, to a man, the worst of the worst.

Enter the handwritten diary of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Guantanamo detainee since 2002; a fluent, engaging and at times eloquent writer, even in his fourth language, English; and the undisputed victim of, as one federal judge put it, “extensive and severe mistreatment.” Drafted in longhand by Slahi in the summer and fall of 2005, the diary was finally declassified after a long effort by his lawyers and is being published worldwide this month, subject to a relatively modest set of government redactions.

For those already convinced by the grim details contained in the recent Senate Intelligence Committee report about the CIA’s treatment of detainees, it is important to emphasize that Slahi’s book adds materially to what that report revealed. He describes the conduct not of the CIA but of members of the U.S. military, regarding treatment carried out not only in remote foreign facilities but also at a U.S. military base in a country 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Most important, and unlike the Senate report, Slahi’s book offers a first-person account of the experience of torture. For that reason alone, the book is necessary reading for those seeking to understand the dangers that Guantanamo’s continued existence poses to Americans in the world.

At the same time, all diary readers must grapple with the claustrophobic nature of the genre. One can see only what the author sees and chooses to describe, a limited perspective here narrowed further by edits made by the government in the first instance, as well as edits by human rights advocate Larry Siems to correct grammatical errors and to “consolidate or reorder” text in the interest of clarity. Slahi did not have an opportunity to review the edited work.

The truth of his identity is likewise obscured by competing public accounts. The government has alleged in legal filings that Slahi was part of and helped recruit new members to al-Qaeda. Slahi has said that while he was once part of al-Qaeda — in the early 1990s, when al-Qaeda and the United States were working in parallel to dislodge communists from Afghanistan — he ended his participation long before 2001, severing his connection to the group in 1992, the same year Osama bin Laden issued his call for violence against the United States. It is natural to wonder about the accuracy of both stories. It is not possible to tell from the text which is closer to true.

The public record, such as it is, lends weight to Slahi’s version of events. Through the course of his habeas litigation challenging the legality of his detention in federal court, the government has steadily retreated from its most damning allegations, first claiming that Slahi actually aided the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, then that he materially supported forces associated with al-Qaeda and now solely that he was “part of” al-Qaeda at the time of his arrest (by Mauritanian officials in Mauritania). Declining to rely on any of Slahi’s statements made under the interrogation it carried out, the government failed to convince U.S. District Judge James Robertson of even that much; in 2010, Robertson granted Slahi’s habeas petition and ordered his release. (The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit later held that Robertson applied the wrong standard in evaluating the government’s evidence and ordered that the case be reconsidered on remand to the lower court, where the petition still sits.) It has been years since there has been any prospect of criminal prosecution. In 2004, then-Guantanamo prosecutor Lt. Col. Stuart Couch dramatically refused to bring charges against Slahi after determining that his incriminating statements were made only as a result of torture.

Slahi’s descriptions of that torture are the book’s most compelling, and difficult, passages. They unfortunately have the substantial ring of truth, closely consistent with descriptions in official investigations of the treatment of other U.S.-held detainees — including sexual assault and humiliation, and the threat of what the Senate Intelligence Committee report called “rectal rehydration,” a procedure involving feeding through the rectum and once used in rare cases of medical need — a need not apparent in Slahi’s case. At its nadir, the treatment he describes included hour upon hour of brutal beating, after which his interrogators stuffed his clothes with ice cubes, which were replaced as they melted, adding to the excruciating pain. At one point during the beatings, no longer able to hold himself upright, he was restrained with a bag over his head and tied to a chair so tightly that he describes pleading with his captors in now disturbingly familiar terms: “I c . . . a . . . a . . . n’t br . . . e . . . a . . . the!”

Yet however familiar some of the treatment now seems, the diary is also leavened with vivid, idiosyncratic detail that makes it impossible to discount. As the weeks of physical torture came to an end — after Slahi began confessing to things apparently not even the government believes he did — his captors gave him a pillow: the first item of any kind he was allowed to have after a prolonged period of deprivation and isolation. Slahi, who holds a degree in electrical engineering, describes himself alone in his cell, reading the pillow’s tag over and over.

The kind of treatment he endured may no longer be found at Guantanamo. But it is inescapably part of Guantanamo’s history, and therefore part of what the prison represents to the world. The United States has held hundreds of thousands of prisoners in wartime detention operations in the past century. In none of those conflicts did Congress impose anything like the present restrictions on the executive branch’s ability to transfer wartime detainees. Instead, we eventually charged, transferred or released our detainees, many of them after hostilities concluded, others during the conflicts themselves. We found the resolve to return prisoners to homelands suffering violent political instability, we sent home prisoners who still harbored violent intentions toward the United States, and we released prisoners who had ideological allies with whom they could reaffiliate post-detention.

Slahi’s story offers none of this bigger picture and no guarantees about his individual future. But it does offer a reminder. We have held men like him before. And with a steadier eye on what we say we want our unique role in the world to be, we have always found the national courage to let them go.