[Pnews] At the Mercy of Fools: Mohamedou Slahi’s Sojurn in Guantanamo

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Sep 24 10:47:08 EDT 2015

September 24, 2015

  At the Mercy of Fools: Mohamedou Slahi’s Sojurn in Guantanamo

by Akshay Ahuja <http://www.counterpunch.org/author/ashahu5793/>


Mohamedou Ould Slahi first appeared on the radar of American 
intelligence in 2000. Slahi, a Mauritanian, was then living in Montreal, 
and attended the same mosque as Ahmed Ressam, who tried in 2000 to bomb 
the Los Angeles International Airport.

A number of things made Slahi suspicious. First, he had fought with Al 
Qaeda in 1991 and 1992, when the organization—with American support—was 
trying to overthrow the communist-led government of Afghanistan. Before 
moving to Canada, Slahi had lived in Germany, and a few encounters there 
set off intelligence alerts. Abu Hafs, one of Bin Laden’s advisers, was 
married to Slahi’s wife’s sister, and Slahi had twice helped his 
brother-in-law transfer money back to his family during the Ramadan 
holidays. Also, it was later discovered that Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, who was 
involved in planning 9/11, had spent a night in Slahi’s house in Duisberg.

For these associations, Slahi has, for the last fourteen years, lived 
under the control of America’s shadow government—by this I mean all of 
the parts of our military and intelligence agencies that operate outside 
of public scrutiny, and to a significant extent outside of democratic 

Slahi left Canada in 2000, partly out of terror at the surveillance that 
began there, and returned home to Mauritania. After turning himself in 
for further questioning after September 11^th , he was kidnapped and 
taken to Jordan, then to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and finally to 
Guantanamo Bay. At every stop, he has been subjected to torture: extreme 
temperatures, beatings, sexual humiliation, borderline starvation, sleep 
deprivation, threats to his family and life, and extended periods of 
total isolation.

After one such period of torture in Guantanamo, Slahi told his 
interrogators he was ready to confess. “If you’re ready to buy,” Slahi 
said, to quote his account in /Guantanamo Diary 
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN0316328685/counterpunchmaga>/, “I 
am selling.” He then penned a confession indicating that he planned to 
blow up the CN Tower in Canada. His interrogators, pleased, asked for 
some corroborating details. When they became frustrated with his 
responses, Slahi said, “Just tell me the right answer. Is it good to say 
yes or to say no?”

Apparently some particularly odd elements of his confession—such as 
Slahi’s claim that he planned to mix sugar with the explosives—prompted 
his interrogators to give him a polygraph. On October 31, 2004, after 
years of torture and confinement, the polygraph registered “No Deception 
Indicated” or “No Opinion” when Slahi asserted that he knew nothing 
about any terrorist plots.

After this point, his treatment seems to have improved. In 2005, Slahi 
handwrote a writ of habeas corpus, and also the pages of this book. A 
U.S. District Court judge ordered him released in 2010, but he still 
remains in Guantanamo pending the government’s appeal. It is unclear 
what, if anything, he can be charged with.


I picked up /Guantanamo Diary/ purely out of a sense of guilt and 
obligation as an American. Very quickly, though, I began to read, to my 
astonishment, with delight. Written in a slangy American English that 
the author has picked up from his captors, the pages are filled with 
such liveliness and insight that you forget the circumstances in which 
they were written—on sheets of unlined paper in a segregation cell, with 
no end in sight and no guarantee that any of it would be read. In his 
curiosity about virtually everything, his extraordinary fairness to his 
persecutors, and the warmth of his humor, Slahi reminds me a great deal 
of Primo Levi. Like Levi’s great memoirs, Slahi /Diary/ is a work of 
witness, a catalog of brutal torments and occasional joys, and a guide 
to survival and sanity under obscene conditions. It is also—and in this 
way Slahi is unique—a firsthand tour of the shadow government under 
which all of us, in some form, live.

Fantasies about this government are difficult to avoid. Mine, I will 
admit, are particularly incoherent. A repressive surveillance state is 
about to descend on us, so we need to be vigilant; but we can also 
ignore them entirely, because they will soon wither away like sick 
flowers and leave us to dig our cabbages in peace.

Never, though, in all my rumination and reading and watching of spy 
movies did I imagine a scene like the following. Here, in Slahi’s own 
words, is the American intelligence community’s attempt to forge a 
letter from his brother:

    …the forgery was so clumsy and unprofessional that no fool would
    fall for it. First, I have no brother with that name. Second, my
    name was misspelled. Third, my family doesn’t live where the
    correspondent mentioned, though it was close. Fourth, I know not
    only the handwriting of every single member of my family, but also
    the way each one phrases his ideas. The letter was kind of a sermon,
    “Be patient like your ancestors, and have faith that Allah is going
    to reward you.”

Perhaps naively, I was stunned by this. I went into this book expecting 
evil, and evil, for me, has always been bound up with the concept of 
intelligence. The dark power behind the throne—from the scheming 
minister to the angel Lucifer to our shadow gitmodiary2 
government—is supposed to be /good/ at what it does. Remember that these 
are a few hundred of the highest value detainees the Americans possess. 
Surely the best people have been sent to interrogate them. Could 
something else be going on with this amateurish letter? Slowly, though, 
the evidence in the book piles up: these /are/ their best people. The 
letter is an entirely representative sample of their abilities.

So, when the interrogators attempt to disorient Slahi in terms of time, 
their plan fails because their wristwatches are clearly visible. Their 
printouts, which they show to Slahi, contain date and timestamps, and 
they are then flummoxed when he knows the time and date. One white 
interrogator, who Slahi describes as “very silly,” threatens him with 
the prospect of a black colleague. Slahi is confused about why this 
should scare him, since he points out that “half of my country is black 

Other interrogators tell Slahi that they have an incriminating videotape 
of him planning terrorist attacks. When he is almost convinced that he 
did plan such an attack, they show him Bin Laden speaking to an unknown 
operative. Slahi can only respond, “You realize that I am not Usama bin 
Laden, don’t you?” Another interrogator, Slahi writes, “is one of the 
laziest people I ever knew. He didn’t take time to read reports, and so 
he always mistook me for other suspects.” I’m not sure what sort of 
information you can get when fiercely interrogating a suspect you think 
is another person.

One can go on and on. It is hard to imagine a less competent 
interrogation than the one depicted in the pages of this book. For every 
reasonably intelligent guard or interrogator, there are six or seven 
like the ones above. And the stupidity clearly rises all the way up the 
ranks. There are over two thousand black-bar redactions in /Guantanamo 
Diary/. These people have high-level security clearance and the 
responsibility to guard America’s national secrets; presumably many 
people work under them; and on every page of this book they display some 
mixture of sloth and ignorance.

Names are redacted on one page and revealed on the next; some of the 
redacted names are historical figures, like Gamal Nasser, who the censor 
seems not to have recognized; female pronouns are the only ones 
blacked-out, and it has occurred to no one that this makes it pretty 
obvious which officers are female. Larry Siems, the /Diary/’s editor, 
has done a fine job making educated guesses, but much of the censorship 
is so careless that he doesn’t even have to work hard.

“Orwellian”—this word has great currency in our society. Politicians use 
it almost reflexively when criticizing the overreach of various 
intelligence agencies. There is, though—and Orwell would have 
appreciated this irony—a compliment hidden in the word. “Orwellian” 
indicates not just fearsome technological capacities of surveillance and 
repression, but the accompanying skill and insight to use them to 
achieve desired ends. Remember, when Winston is being tortured by 
O’Brien, how he is almost grateful to be at last so profoundly /understood./

I would like to coin a new word in honor of the author of this book: 
Slahian. A Slahian situation is where an entity possesses those same 
fearsome resources, but can only wield them bumblingly, because there is 
insufficient intelligence left in the system to use them in any other way.

This is the truth that Orwell missed in /1984/, or perhaps hinted at in 
his sly appendix: tyrannies—and there is no question that America is 
field-testing tyranny in Guantanamo Bay—have a built-in limiting agent, 
because the mature fruit of tyranny is idiocy. This fruit has clearly 
been ripening for some time in America; it is very soft right now, and 
quite possibly about to fall on all of us.

There seem to be two processes at work in this decay of intelligence: 
first, the driving out of capable people, and second, a belief that 
human capacity is not important anyway, because it can simply be 
replaced by more sophisticated technology.

One can see the first process at work in the account of Slahi’s 
detention that Siems provides in his introduction. Lieutenant Colonel 
Stuart Couch was the first prosecutor in the case. After realizing that 
Slahi’s confessions were produced under torture, and in any case highly 
implausible, he had a crisis of conscience. Couch describes being at a 
baptism one Sunday, and hearing words spoken about human dignity:

    And when we spoke those words that morning, there were a lot of
    people in that church, but I could have been the only one there. I
    just felt this incredible, alright, there it is. You can’t come in
    here on Sunday, and as a Christian, subscribe to the belief of
    dignity of every human being and say I will seek justice and peace
    on the earth, and continue to go with the prosecution using that
    kind of evidence.

In an earlier era, this evidently decent man, with intelligence enough 
to connect his faith and his conduct, would have gone to his superiors 
and worked to get Slahi released. In today’s military, all he can do is 
free himself from the contagion. Couch withdrew from the case, Slahi’s 
life remained unchanged, and the military became a little less capable 
than it was before.

Couch is not an isolated instance. Throughout this book, the dumb and 
the brutal stick around; everyone else leaves or gets transferred. The 
commander of Guantanamo’s detention operations in August 2002, for 
example, told journalists that he and his uniformed officers were 
questioning the “enemy combatant” designation that denied the detainees 
Geneva Convention protections. Apparently little was being accomplished 
by mistreating the low-level operatives—along with the totally 
innocent—who were imprisoned there. “The Pentagon’s solution,” Siems 
writes, “was to replace that commander and ratchet up the camp’s 
intelligence operations.” I have some guesses about the character and 
abilities of the person he was replaced with.

As smart people leave, higher-order responsibilities are simply 
transferred to computers. The motto for today’s shadow government might 
as well be, “Thinking? Our machines will do that for us.” Slahi’s only 
crime, as noted above, is suspicious associations. These are the kind of 
things—phone call records, money transfers—that a computer can spot. 
After the computer finds its connections, though, you still need some 
sort of human discrimination to recognize which patterns are 
consequential, and this is precisely what is in short supply.

Notice that the Americans interrogators, who spend countless hours with 
Slahi, never consider that he might be innocent based on their own 
observations; it is only the polygraph/, an extremely unreliable 
mechanical device, /that changes his fortunes. So when SKYNET, a 
tracking system named—my God, consciously?—after the mainframe which 
enslaves mankind in the /Terminator/ films, analyzes phone call data to 
flag a man as Al Qaeda, there is inadequate human judgment behind the 
computer to spot that this is because he is a journalist 

A computer tells another computer to drop a bomb; it kills a grandmother 
picking okra in Pakistan 
<https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/04/24/obama-drone-apology/>. No 
one can explain the reason; this is a state secret, and the secret, 
almost certainly, is that there is no reason. The computer told them to 
do it. There are various intersections of data, and some of them happen 
to result in dead grandmothers. Since mistakes have no consequences for 
the perpetrators, the shadow government keeps on doing the same thing, 
and anyone smart enough to see that this is counterproductive—or simply 
disgusting—cannot survive for long inside this organism.


I think/Guantanamo/ /Diary/ will eventually be seen as one of the 
central documents of our time. Aside from the depth and wit of its 
writing, it contains the best available portrait of our decaying shadow 
government, and has valuable insights on ways to live with it while it 
maintains its power.

Early on, when Slahi is about to be handed over to the Mauritanian state 
for questioning, he entertains various plans for escape, and then, as he 
gives up on his fantasies, coins this wonderful aphorism: “The key to 
surviving any situation is to realize that you are in it.”

Here is an incident that gets at the heart of the Slahian situation. A 
bored guard teaches the detainee chess. Within a few games, the detainee 
begins to beat the guard easily. This enrages the man. The detainee must 
then carefully plan a strategy that ensures that he will lose each game. 
The guard is pleased with his great skill and continues to treat the 
prisoner well.

The central lessons of Slahi’s experience of American detention can be 
gleaned from this story. First and foremost, don’t display any 
intelligence. Stay silent or don the mask of an affable simpleton. Slahi 
manages this much of the time, but putting this sort of straightjacket 
on your consciousness ends up being impossible for someone as lively and 
open-hearted as he is. The results are a few genuine relationships with 
sympathetic guards (soon transferred away), and also this great book, 
which poured out in the months after the polygraph ended the worst of 
his treatment.

This leads to a depressing thought: if Slahi hadn’t written the /Diary, 
/and had, like the Good Soldier Svejk, kept up his mask of amiable 
idiocy, he might be a free man by now. The Americans have released other 
detainees they couldn’t charge with anything, and there seems to be no 
explanation for why they are so determined to hold onto Slahi other than 
his ability to sympathetically communicate in English about the 
conditions of his detention.

We are in a strange moment in America—and I am very curious what the 
view looks like from readers in other countries—between types of 
societies and forms of government, where a book can be published while 
its author remains imprisoned without charges for fourteen years; where 
the most damning information freely circulates while public silence 
becomes, quite possibly, a better strategy for survival than speaking out.

I don’t mean to sound deterministic, because it has taken a lot of good, 
hard work from people like the ACLU to make this book available to us. 
There are decent people even in Guantanamo—Slahi always acknowledges 
them, and the small kindnesses he has received. Every one of these 
counter-currents is to be valued and supported. But behind every black 
line in this book, I see a bored, vacant face—terrible at chess and 
convinced that it is a grandmaster; destroying itself and convinced that 
it is winning—and I have no idea how to reach it, or how to hide from it.

Here, though, is a person living in a present as bad as any future I can 
imagine, and displaying more grace, flexibility, and resourcefulness as 
a prisoner than most of us manage under kinder conditions—a living 
example of how a Slahian situation can be survived with dignity and wit 
intact. At the end of the /Diary, /you will find the following Author’s 

“In a recent conversation with one of his lawyers, Mohamedou said that 
he holds no grudge against any of the people he mentions in this book, 
that he appeals to them to read it and correct it if they think it 
contains any errors, and that he dreams to one day sit with all of them 
around a cup of tea, after having learned so much from one another.”

/*Akshay Ahuja* grew up in New Delhi, India, and Bethesda, Maryland, 
USA. He writes for Dark Mountain./

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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