Guantánamo Diary: How GITMO Institutionalized State Secrecy

Larry Siems is the editor of the national bestseller Guantánamo Diary, authored by GITMO detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi. He has balanced writing and activism over the course of his career, publishing scores of articles on human rights and a variety of cross-cultural themes. He has also served for many years as director of the Freedom to Write programs offered by the writers’ advocacy organization PEN. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Slate, The Nation, LA Weekly, Ironwood, Epoch, and Southern Poetry Review. Alongside Guantánamo Diary he has authored two other books: Between the Lines: Letters Between Undocumented Mexican and Central American Immigrants and Their Families and The Torture Report: What the Documents Say About America’s Post 9/11 Torture Program.

Larry Siems is the editor of the national bestseller Guantánamo Diary, authored by GITMO detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi. He has balanced writing and activism over the course of his career, publishing scores of articles on human rights and a variety of cross-cultural themes. He has also served for many years as director of the Freedom to Write programs offered by the writers’ advocacy organization PEN. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Slate, The Nation, LA Weekly, Ironwood, Epoch, and Southern Poetry Review. Alongside Guantánamo Diary he has authored two other books: Between the Lines: Letters Between Undocumented Mexican and Central American Immigrants and Their Families and The Torture Report: What the Documents Say About America’s Post 9/11 Torture Program.

Telling stories is rarely an easy task, but telling a story from inside a covert military detention facility is another matter—one that Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a 45-year-old Guantánamo Bay detainee, has managed to tell evocatively in Guantánamo Diary. After a lengthy legal battle to declassify Slahi’s memoir and approximately 2,000 black bar redactions, the manuscript was edited by Siems and made available to the public. Eight years after President Obama vowed to close Guantánamo Bay, where roughly 780 people had been detained and 76 now remain, the facility remains open amidst partisan gridlock. As of June 2016, Slahi has been cleared for public release and transfer by the Periodic Board Review (PRB). As Siems describes, the Obama’s creation of the PRB hearings by way of an executive order began “inauspiciously” but have begun to show signs of progress, particularly with respect to Slahi, who has been subjected to some of the harshest, most brutal interrogation tactics even by GITMO standards. In the following interview, Siems explains how Slahi’s memoir opens the door to greater public awareness of institutionalized state secrecy in America. 


Who is Mohamedou Ould Slahi?

Mohamedou is a 45-year-old Mauritanian citizen who has been at GITMO since 2002. He is the eighth of twelve children from a quite poor family. As a child, he was extremely talented. He was so talented that he became the first person in Mauritania to win a scholarship to study electrical engineering in Germany. After living in Germany for most of the early 1990s, he did what many young men of his background did: he traveled twice, and briefly, to Afghanistan to train Mujahideen units that were fighting against the Communist-backed government in Kabul. In 1991, in order to complete this task, he attended an Al-Qaeda camp. The objective was specifically to support the Mujahideen in Afghanistan’s civil war.

When the communist government fell, that is when Mohamedou left [Afghanistan] and said he was done working with Al Qaeda. He returned to Germany, living and working as a computer engineer. When he tried to move to Canada, he could not get permanent residency and [instead] returned home to Mauritania. Mohamedou was living and working as an engineer in Nouakchott, [Mauritania] when 9/11 happened. Three months after 9/11, he was called in for questioning. At the clear behest of the US government, the Mauritanian government arranged a flight with the Jordanian government to pick up Mohamedou and send him to Amman, [Jordan]. There, he was interrogated in an intelligence prison for eight months. The CIA [later] sent him to Bagram and then, ultimately, to GITMO, where he has been since August 2002. He remains there without charge of any crime.

You have previously described this experience as the privilege of telling a story when thoughts and memories are classified. Can you explain what that means and why you wanted to tell Mohamedou’s story?

Everybody who works in a human rights field understands the central importance of storytelling and the importance of human testimonies in building not only a historical record but also in communicating this record in a powerful way to the public. With awareness that this process is a key part of human rights advocacy, the system around GITMO was set up specifically to inhibit storytelling of that kind and to deny that human testimony. There is an extremely rigid censorship regime around GITMO, and anyone other than lawyers who have a security clearance — such as a journalist — has limited, if any, access to speaking with prisoners. The effect of this [censorship regime] is obvious: it imposes a blanket silence on the men and women that are held there. There is also extreme censorship imposed on American service men and women who work in GITMO. You very rarely get to hear the stories of the guards, interrogators, or the [other] people who work inside the facilities [at Guantanamo Bay].

With the CIA Torture Report and, ultimately, Guantánamo Diary, I have been extremely interested in how to overcome those barriers of censorship and bring forth the experiences of not only the prisoners but the captors in GITMO. Mohamedou wrote the manuscript of Guantánamo Diary in 2005 from an isolation cell in Camp Echo. This is the same place he was dragged into two or three years prior as part of a special projects interrogation, which today we all know as essentially torture. Like all materials generated by Guantanamo prisoners, it was labeled classified, taken to a facility outside D.C. — where all such materials are stored — and held inaccessible to the public for almost seven years. His attorney had access to those materials and obviously knew how important his story was. They brought a really remarkable battle inside Guantanamo to have the manuscript declassified and cleared for public release. In the spring of 2012, they succeeded and [they] called me because I had done a good deal of working with declassified documents.

How did you overcome some of the internal challenges of making this manuscript into a book? Was it mostly a legal battle?

Yes. It was mostly a legal battle and I didn’t really have anything to do with that aspect of it. Nobody was even allowed to know that the manuscript existed or that this battle was going on. It had to be conducted under the secrecy of a GITMO protective order. Honestly, the reason the manuscript was released in 2012 is quite likely because the US government itself had released a multitude of declassified documents by that time. I was told almost the same story that Mohamedou discusses in the book: that there were two major government reports that looked at detainee abuses in GITMO. The first by the Senate Armed Services Committee and another by the Department of Justice. Both of these reports had multiple pages on Mohamedou’s torture. That is why, by 2012, it was impossible for the US government to claim that Mohamedou’s account was classified. Parts of it had already been publicly revealed.

At that point, the government released [Mohamedou’s] 466-page handwritten manuscript that was written in 2005. It underwent two levels of censorship, or redaction, the result of which is what I received. This version included upwards of 2,000 black-bar redactions. The fight for [declassification] was carried out quite effectively by [Mohamedou’s] attorneys, and completely out of the spotlight. I benefited from that because I received the declassified manuscript and was subsequently given permission by the government to distribute it. My challenge was editing and preparing a manuscript for publication on behalf of a living writer who was completely inaccessible to me.

Is it true that Mohamedou has not read the actual published book?

Just to show you how intense the censorship regime is, the publisher of the book produced a copy [for Mohamedou] that eliminates all of my footnotes, introductory commentary, and concluding commentary. Mohamedou has a copy of just the body manuscript text in book form, but the material that I included to introduce the book and the footnotes — which provide a running commentary on how his story corresponds to the documented record — are prohibited reading for him. The argument is that there are some materials the government has not yet declassified, even though they are widely available to the public. Mohamedou is not allowed to read such information, even though it is about him and his case. It is a real Alice in Wonderland world when it comes to Mohamedou having access to information about his own case.

Ethical considerations aside for a moment, isn’t the data clear that the detention program is not only ineffective in extracting information but that it is also counterproductive?

There seems to be a deep consensus between the international security community, the Pentagon and the intelligence community that supports the President’s position that GITMO should be closed. It is not producing intelligence. The principal national security threat facing the US in the [Middle East] is ISIL, a threat that did not even exist when most of the GITMO prisoners were spirited away. At one point or another 778 men were held at GITMO, and now GITMO is down to [approximately] 80 prisoners. Many of those who have been released should not have been in GITMO to begin with.

On the flipside, even the handful of men who allegedly participated in some serious terrorist attacks, like 9/11 and the USS Cole bombing, have been through a perennially failing [Guantanamo Military Commission’s trial] process. The trials that are currently underway are estimated to not be completed for another 10 years. From another vantage point, this process hasn’t delivered justice in any recognizable form for the families of 9/11 [victims]. It serves no strategic purpose and serves as a propaganda tool for our enemies. It is a huge black eye with our allies, who have no patience for an indefinite detention regime that clearly violates international norms. You add all that up, and then you ask ‘why is it still open?’

It has been 15 years since GITMO first opened its doors and eight years since President Obama vowed to close it. Can you explain the political dynamics that have allowed GITMO to remain in use?

There are two explanations and the obvious one is that GITMO has become a political football and there is a lot of political expediency that has gone into trying to block the President’s efforts [to close it]. It is part of a more general posture of many in Congress who loathe to give Obama any successes or victories. GITMO is easily used for fear mongering, with the argument that these [detainees] are extremely dangerous men. The security community has already disagreed with this [argument] and [acknowledged] that there are other means to preserving security.

Beyond that, it is also a failure on the part of the American people who have failed to communicate with their elected officials about closing GITMO. Elected officials fear that if GITMO prisoners are released and a terrorist attack then follows, they will face an election where [the closure of GITMO] becomes a campaign issue against them. The American people must be much more forceful when talking to elected officials. They must communicate that they will not hold elected officials responsible if they make a mistake with one person [currently] in GITMO doing something wrong, but rather [they will] hold [elected officials] accountable for not closing GITMO at all. [An open GITMO] is a much more detrimental issue to US security.

What tactics does GITMO utilize to control what information leaves its walls?

The one thing that GITMO does very well is that it protects some very embarrassing secrets. This is part of the institutional DNA of GITMO. It gives GITMO an inertia that makes it very difficult to close. An example of this is that it houses 14 high-value detainees who were transferred from CIA black sites. These are 14 men who were subjected to the most brutal of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques and torture program. While they are held there, some of them are going through the military commission’s trial process. One reason they are going through this process is because it is easier to control public access to their testimony and [details of] how they were treated at the CIA black sites. They literally have CIA officials sitting in a room somewhere with an audio feed that censors the testimony of these men when they start to talk about their treatment. There are not that many other places in the world where that can happen.

Likewise, in a case like Mohamedou’s, a considerable amount of violence and abuse happened inside GITMO. There is no better or more graphic example than Mohamedou. He is still there, and they managed to suppress his own account of what happened to him for seven years. They dragged their feet in giving him his Periodic Review Board hearing. You can find the transcript for this online and, in it, when Mohamedou starts to talk about the abuse and torture, there is a footnote in bold in the transcript that says, “at this point the recording equipment malfunctioned.”

President Obama made two declarations when coming into office. First, he said that he would close GITMO within a year. Next, he said that he was not going to undertake an organized accountability process — that he would look forward and not back. I think he made exactly the wrong choice and flipped those things around. What [President Obama] should have said was that we’re going to [create] an accountability process, which does not have to involve prosecution but should involve letting the truth out about the abuses. If he had done that and not made the declaration about GITMO, GITMO would, paradoxically, be closed. The major purpose of housing secrets that GITMO serves would be eliminated and then we could have made the rational choice on what the clear, consensus position is for next steps.

What role has GITMO played U.S. Government secrecy since 9/11? What does its existence say more broadly about rights being contingent upon political atmosphere in this country?

Like I said, secrecy is part of GITMO’s DNA and is instrumental to GITMO’s [continued existence]. It specifically allows the US to circumvent clear domestic and international guidelines about prisoner treatment and due process. An even more extreme form of secrecy are CIA black sites, where secret prisons are set up. These prisons and GITMO are cousins in the interrogation process that played out in Mohamedou’s case. Those kind of interrogation techniques can only happen in an environment shrouded in secrecy.

Mohamedou was repeatedly hidden from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The Guantanamo commander provided a list of prisoners that were off limits for military purposes, which really meant people they were torturing. These things can only happen in secret. The reason ICRC has access to prisoners all around the world is specifically in order to prevent torture and abuse. The secrecy [at GITMO] is purposeful to begin with in order to create a space for torture.

Since 2004, a combination of really heroic dissent from inside the military and the CIA helped turn the tide against torture. For instance, the public exposure of Abu Ghraib, the existence of these programs and general public concern were all part of the unveiling. The actual detention practices have become much more closely in line with the Geneva Conventions and general protections on prisoner treatment.

[Nevertheless], from that point on until now, the secrecy regime is just as severe as it was in its opening days. Why? I think it is now an instrument for covering up, forestalling accountability and delaying an inevitable outing of some very hard and embarrassing truths. That is the way [the secrecy regime] has worked. There are arguments [to be] made for battlefield secrecy of course, but this secrecy has a much more sinister purpose. We have yet to grapple with what the legacy of this secrecy has brought us and will bring us.

What is the way forward for the American people? What can regular citizens do?

It is more a question of what the American people are doing right now. Right now, we are in a moment of starting to think about and grapple with the questions that GITMO raises. One really graphic example of this is the way in which the torture debate has played out in this presidential campaign. You have candidates who proclaim loudly and proudly that they would reinstitute water boarding and even worse tactics.

The most adamant and strenuous objections to this sort of language come from [officials at] the Pentagon and the CIA, who have [effectively] said, ‘No, we are not doing those things again and you are not ordering us to do those things because they are illegal.’ Frankly, these tactics damage people — not just those who suffer the torture, but those who are forced into the position of torturing others. There is some level of institutional soul searching occurring. The responses by the CIA and Pentagon to the [renewed] call to waterboarding and worse clearly suggest that these institutions are at least thinking about what has transpired and are reluctant to make the same mistakes again.

This article is part of the Alumni Spotlight series, featuring Salwa Shameem, Class of 2016.

Featured photo: cc/(zudin, photo ID: 85436545, from iStock by Getty Images)

Salwa Shameem
Salwa is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is interested in international development, peace and conflict, and national security. She is currently a producer at Seftel Productions and a media consultant.

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