Guantanamo Bay Prisoner Mohamedou Slahi's Memoirs Add Personal Voice

Mauritanian detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi had been sitting in Guantánamo for nearly a decade before his rare 466-page personal memoir was declassified with redactions, and made public last year. As President Barack Obama recommitted himself in Tuesday’s press conference to closing down Guantánamo in the face of growing scrutiny over detainee hunger strikes, Slahi’s newly declassified accounts add a somewhat rare personal glimpse into the largely classified issue the current administration continues to uncomfortably navigate.

Slahi’s story is one of a well-traveled, German-educated Mauritanian with “links” to Al-Qaeda, a sworn fighter of the Mujahideen in 1990 who fought against the Soviets during the period of U.S.-supported efforts Afghanistan. And yet, Slahi contests any further links that have been drawn between him and the terrorist organization — links that have left him imprisoned for over a decade in what he calls years of “endless detention and interrogation.”

By Slahi’s account, as communicated with the help of his pro-bono attorneys Hollander and Duncan of Freedman Boyd Hollander & Duncan P.A. and Moreno of Linda Moreno P.A, “suspicious associations” linking him to 9/11 have left the detainee voiceless and detained without trial, and subjected to intense interrogations, sleep deprivation, severe temperature and diet manipulation, and physical and psychological humiliations. His interrogation techniques are said to have been personally approved by Donald Rumsfeld in August of 2003. In 2009, the ACLU joined Slahi’s legal team to file a habeus corpus petition challenging his detention, and by March 2010, a federal judge ruled the U.S. did not have grounds to detain him. Despite the district court’s rulings, the Obama administration continued to oppose his release and filed an appeal to D.C.’s circuit court.

But Slahi’s story is not simply one of proclaimed innocence. The fascinating angle of his account is his self-portrayal as someone who simply wants his account to be heard. “Please,” he pleaded in a 2005 testimony via video link to the U.S. Administrative Review Board, “I want you guys to understand my story okay, because it really doesn’t matter if they release me or not, I just want my story understood.”

And, seven years later with the release of his memoir, it appears as though his story may be gaining a widespread audience. Slahi completed his draft in English-language handwriting, which he mastered while detained, claiming his mission in writing was not to point fingers, but to “to be as fair as possible to the U.S. government, to my brothers, and to myself.” This week, Slate magazine is releasing a 3-part series on his memoirs. The first part of Slahi’s declassified manuscript is available here alongside an interactive timeline of his detention created available here. The New York Times has also collected summaries and transcripts of his case.

The manuscript does — of course — allege of a range of horrifying interrogation and detention processes. Among allegations, Slahi recounts being greeted by a guard upon arrival with a simple phrase, “welcome to hell,” and being told if he didn’t confess to various allegations he would “never see the light again…” and would be “put in a hole … [his name] wiped out of the detainees database.” He recounts one particularly harrowing story of a boat trip where he was beaten and starved as guards threatened to throw him over the edge.

Despite disputes that may follow over the content, Slahi' manuscripts contribute a unique glimpse into the personal accounts as told by detainees. In fact, it is remarkable the documents were declassified, as Executive Order 13526 allows sensitive national security documents to remain classified a 25-year period.

The administration has faced ongoing pressure to release and declassify Guantánamo documentation. For example, Mohammed Barre of Somaliland, held at Guantánamo until December 2009, filed a motion to compel the government to disclose the information officials had collected on him. The administration responded by saying it did not have the time and resources to sift through and redact his files. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth responded with outrage, saying he was “troubled by the government’s apparent lack of urgency in issuing public versions of classified materials filed in Guantánamo proceedings.”

With recent outcry over government failure to "see the signs" from the Tsarnaev brothers, national security forces likely feel growing pressure to take suspicious behaviors linking individuals to terrorism seriously — fears that brought Slahi to Guantanamo in the first place. As the Obama administration will be forced to respond to growing dissatisfaction with public accounts of brutality at Guantánamo, much of the policy conundrum likely remains the same.

To be sure, this new personal account heightens discomfort the administration faces in defending its program. But, those who see Guantánamo as a dispensable overreaction to 9/11 may not fully understand the driving forces which have maintained the unpopular program despite waves of similarly incriminating documentation and political bluster.

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Rachel George

Rachel is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics. She holds a BA in Politics from Princeton and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard. Her interests include journalism, U.S. foreign policy, human rights, and international law.

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