Skeptical of Guantánamo Diary? Question the US Government Instead

It is sort of a cardinal rule for writers not to respond to negative reviews, and I can easily imagine that Mohamedou Ould Slahi would let the new review of his Guantánamo Diary on the Lawfare blog slide.

And in fact, from a literary standpoint, it’s far from a bad review. The reviewer clearly has a feel for the heart of the work, “one of the only first-hand accounts we have from Gitmo, and a highly engaging one at that,” she writes. She admires Slahi’s voice, “which is almost without fail thoughtful and funny.” She credits the way “he transitions easily from detailed accounts of his experience, to wry observations on his situation, to broad ruminations on justice and human nature,” observations that are “short, sharp, and devastatingly insightful.” She even notes, “I often found myself nodding along in rueful agreement with some of his keener observations.”

It is a review that recognizes the book’s emotional depth, finding Slahi’s descriptions of his often surprisingly complex and human relationships with his interrogators and guards “one of the most compelling parts of the book.” And it is a review that acknowledges the book’s essential place as a record “of American detention and interrogation operations from a particular and very controversial period following 9/11,” concluding that Slahi’s story “should be understood and internalized for Americans to begin to understand what the cost of the war on terror really is.”

It is, in short, a review that ought to drive Lawfare readers, if they have not already done so, to read the book—which in any normal situation is a happy thing for a writer.

But there is nothing normal about Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s situation. Take the simple fact that he may not even be able to read the Lawfare review. Or that, if he were somehow able to read it, he would likely not be allowed to respond to it even if he was so inclined.

And that makes much of the review read like a cheap shot—one that not so subtly uses the author’s inaccessibility and utter (and enforced) inability to answer questions about his account against him. “It’s impossible to forget, first, that you are reading one person’s version of his own story, and second that he is somewhat suspect (and that’s a generous assessment) as a reliable narrator,” the review writes. She calls Guantánamo Diary “vaguely hysterical” and “a sometimes confusing blend of fact and fiction,” and says that even for its “oddly touching” passages, “it’s not clear if these touching descriptions should be considered more or less reliable than any other part of the book. Sometimes they are even harder to believe.”

Ten years ago, as Slahi neared the end of his 466-page handwritten manuscript for Guantánamo Diary, he wrote, “I have only written what I experienced, what I saw, and what I learned first-hand. I have tried not to exaggerate, or to understate. I have tried to be as fair as possible, to the U.S. government, to my brothers, and to myself.” Had the manuscript reached the public then, a reviewer might well have had a hard time deciding whether an ordeal as extreme as the one Slahi recounted in its pages was fact or fiction. But by the time I received the manuscript in 2012, it was not so difficult at all to gauge Slahi’s credibility.

By then, nearly every aspect of the treatment he describes was a matter of public record. The sleep deprivation, the frigid rooms, the short-shackling, the blaring music for hours on end; a masked interrogator known as Mr. X, a female interrogator who sexually assaults Slahi, an interrogation chief who poses as a White House emissary and tells Slahi the US has captured his mother and is bringing her to GTMO; a staged “rendition” in which Slahi is driven in a speedboat out into the Caribbean, and then dumped into a blacked out isolation cell and abused to the point that he is hearing voices: the Pentagon’s own records and Senate and Justice Department and military investigations recounted these same stories well before Slahi’s manuscript was declassified and cleared for public release. Narratively, the most notable achievement of Guantánamo Diary is not that it exposes the grim premeditation and fanatical implementation of one of GTMO’s “special projects” interrogations. It is that, for the first time, readers get a sense of what this kind of treatment feels like, and what it means.

Since the publication of Guantánamo Diary in January, the US government has not denied the veracity of Slahi’s account; on the contrary, and strikingly, a Pentagon spokesman called the book “a part of this country’s history.” Nor has the government repeated any of the long discredited allegations against him—allegations the reviewer reflexively recycles to challenge Slahi’s credibility. “Slahi (though of course he maintains his own innocence) has been accused of recruiting the individuals responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks,” she writes. In fact, Slahi has been accused of nothing; no criminal and no terrorism-related charges have ever been filed against him. In an op-ed published in the Guardian the day after Guantánamo Diary was released, Col. Morris Davis, the former chief military prosecutor in the Guantánamo military commissions, explained why: in 2007, he wrote, “We attended a meeting where those who had spent years investigating Slahi briefed their findings. The end result was a consensus that, like Forrest Gump, Slahi popped up around significant events by coincidence, not design.”

This is the same story Slahi tells in Guantánamo Diary. He does so candidly, though his candor is obscured by the government’s redactions: tellingly, the book’s two longest, multi page censored blocks describe polygraph examinations. I quote here from my footnote to the second of those long redactions:

In The Terror Courts, Jess Bravin published details of a polygraph examination of [Mohamedou Ould Slahi] that he dates to October 31, 2004. Bravin reported that [Slahi] answered “No” to five questions about whether he know about or participated in the Millennium and 9/11 plots, and whether he was concealing any information about other al-Qaeda members and plots. The results, according to Bravin, were either “No Deception Indicated” or “No Opinion”—results that Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, the Military Commissions prosecutor assigned to [Slahi’s] case, considered potentially exculpatory information that would need to be shared with defense attorneys if [Slahi] was ever charged and prosecuted.

Lawfare’s review faults me for not including footnotes “telling us where we should take [Slahi’s] story with a grain of salt.” But if fault is to be assigned for failing to “give an alternate view of who Slahi is,” as the reviewer puts it, shouldn’t that fault be assigned to the US government?

Slahi was transported to GTMO 13 years ago next week. Our government still has not satisfactorily explained why that happened, or why he remains in US custody. We do know, from the government’s own investigations, that in Guantánamo Slahi was tortured, on the orders of senior US government officials. We know that torture is a crime under international, domestic, and military law, and that Slahi’s torture is a crime for which no one has been held accountable.

“I don’t expect people who don’t know me to believe me,” Slahi writes in the final pages of Guantánamo Diary,

but I expect them, at least, to give me the benefit of the doubt. And if Americans are willing to stand for what they believe in, I also expect public opinion to compel the U.S. government to open a torture and war crimes investigation. I am more than confident that I can prove every single thing I have written in this book if I am ever given the opportunity to call witnesses in a proper judicial procedure, and if military personnel are not given the advantage of straightening their lies and destroying evidence against them.

After years of suppression and rounds of last-ditch and often capricious censorship, we have Slahi’s story at last—one of the main takeaways of which, the Lawfare review notes, is its “vivid portrait of the interrogation techniques practiced at Guantánamo Bay.” Instead of letting our leaders and ourselves off the hook for those practices by questioning the credibility of Guantánamo Diary, I hope readers of this blog and of Lawfare will ask the US government why Slahi should not be able to make that case for accountability fully and publicly—and whether that has anything to do with why he’s still in prison. 

About the Author(s)

Larry Siems

Writer and Human Rights Activist, Editor of Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s "Guantánamo Diary"