There’s a scene in Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary where, after months in an isolation cell guarded around the clock by soldiers wearing Halloween masks, the author is suddenly greeted by one of those guards undisguised. Shyly avoiding Mohamedou’s eyes, the MP escorts him outside, past the rest of his now-unmasked guard contingent, for a surprise breakfast with his interrogator. Exposed, the soldiers are flustered. “If I catch you looking at me, I’m gonna hurt you,” one snaps.
Mohamedou recalls that he was “scared as hell”—at the terrifying novelty of being led out of doors, but also because, as he writes, “I was not used to my guards’ ‘new’ faces.”
“Through time I had built a perception about the way everybody looked, but imagination was far from reality,” he writes. “If you deal with somebody for so long behind a face cover, that is how you know him ______. But now if he ______ takes off the face cover you have to deal with his features, and that is a completely different story for both sides.”
I kept thinking of that scene last Thursday morning, as I was being led down long Pentagon corridors and into a rudimentary conference room for the “open” portion of Mohamedou’s Guantánamo Periodic Review Board hearing.
Fourteen-and-a-half years ago, Mohamedou drove himself to a police station in his home city of Nouakchott, Mauritania, voluntarily reporting for questioning. He was told he would be home by the following morning. Instead, he was rendered to Amman for eight months of interrogation in a Jordanian intelligence prison, and then rendered again, first to Afghanistan and then, on Aug. 5, 2002, to Guantánamo. There he languishes, while Guantánamo Diary, his handwritten account of this odyssey and his brutal GTMO “special projects interrogation” (first excerpted in Slate in 2013), has now been published in 25 countries and 22 languages.
For the past four years, Mohamedou Ould Slahi has been both a constant presence and an absolute absence for me: I’ve edited and introduced his book, become close to his family members and an international network of advocates and friends, and been invited in his place to read from his book and talk about his case. I have also been refused all access to him and denied every avenue of direct or indirect communication. Until Thursday morning, I hadn’t come close to a glimpse of his living form or face. Now I would get that glimpse.
“Like seven minutes,” a seasoned GTMO reporter warned me. Others elaborated the process, doing their best to manage my expectations: You gather, the feed goes live, you watch as a few pre-published statements are read. The feed goes off, a curtain is drawn. The real, classified hearing begins.
Only in the twisted universe of Guantánamo can this be called progress. And yet it is—not just progress, but likely Mohamedou’s best hope for returning home any time soon. Habeas corpus, that venerable fail-safe against arbitrary detention, failed him personally and has all but failed Guantánamo-wide. A federal judge’s 2010 decision granting Mohamedou’s habeus corpus petition and ordering him released was one of a group of victories the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vacated that same year and remanded for rehearing. Not one of these cases has been reheard.
So hopes of securing Mohamedou’s freedom have shifted to the Pentagon-run Periodic Review Board process. The PRB’s began inauspiciously: President Obama created the process by executive order in March 2011, announcing that all prisoners not facing military commission prosecution and not yet cleared for release would have Periodic Review Board hearings within a year; four years later, just 13 of the 48 eligible prisoners had had their cases reviewed.
But in the past year, another 29 prisoners have had hearings, and the number of those who have been cleared for release through the PRB process is climbing. In all, in 24 out of the 33 decisions it has issued so far, the review board has determined that holding the prisoners “is no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.” Which means it is possible to enter a room in the very office building where the secretary of defense, on Aug. 13, 2003, personally approved Mohamedou’s torture, and feel the first real optimism about his fate.
The Pentagon is the world’s largest low-rise office building; it might well also be Earth’s most heavily branded space. As 18 journalists and nongovernmental organization observers and two representatives from the Mauritanian embassy settle into the viewing room, an inset in the projection screen plays the end of a documentary about the battleship U.S.S. New Jersey and then the opening montage of another about black soldiers in the Revolutionary War. Poster-sized photographs of troop homecomings and family reunions hang on the room’s other three walls.
Just before 9:00 a.m., when the session is scheduled to begin, there’s a brief verbal skirmish in the room over the question of whether journalists can use laptops to take notes, followed by the grumbling consignment of laptops to bags. At three minutes past 9, an image floats in from Guantánamo, its five blurred figures slowly surfacing into focus.
We’re looking down the length of a small conference table. On the right side sit Mohamedou’s two “personal representatives,” uniformed officers assigned to assist prisoners through the PRB process, one in olive camouflage, the other beige. On the left, is a civilian interpreter, blue button-down untucked and eased back in his chair in a way that suggests that, with Mohamedou’s facility in English, he expects to be little used; and seated next to him, in a business suit, Teresa Duncan from his civilian legal team. At the far end, looking straight at the camera, is Mohamedou Ould Slahi.
We are in a digital house of mirrors now. They, too, are looking at a projection screen, but their feed is coming from another room inside the Pentagon. They see the six members of the Periodic Review Board—identified on the PRB secretariat’s website as “senior officials from the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and State; the Joint Staff, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence”—and at least one other person who serves as clerk. To attend the open session, journalists and observers sign ground rules that include not reporting on or disclosing the identities of the review board members and staff; in fact, for us, the board is completely invisible.
The clerk, a disembodied voice, reads the convening formalities and the government’s official “detainee profile,” a four-paragraph assessment speculating whether Mohamedou would pose a threat to the United States if released. One of the two uniformed personal representatives leans forward and reads his statement in support of Mohamedou, telling the board that during Mohamedou’s time in the prison, his “conduct has continuously been exceptional” and that if he is released, he “plans to pursue a small business and write books to support himself and other family members.” Teresa Duncan does the same with her opening statement, mixing a review of his case with personal reflections from hundreds of hours of face-to-face meetings. You can read all three of these documents aloud right now, and you’ll have recreated the entire open session.
Mohamedou says nothing. Between the poor resolution of the GTMO feed and the grainy wall projection in our room, we can’t even make out the contours of his mouth. It’s impossible to read his expressions.
Reports filed by some of the journalists immediately after the session capture general impressions of Mohamedou: “Wearing glasses and a white shirt.” “Clean shaven and bald.” “Slender, clean-shaven 45 year old Mauritanian.” “Bald and bespectacled.” “Dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt and glasses, arms folded on the table.” During the 20-minute session, he “barely moved,” “sat quietly,” “occasionally stroked his forearms.”
I quote these because they are good and true, and because I cannot do much better. The spectacles were reading glasses. He had the three statements arranged neatly before him on the table, and he read along, turning pages with the readers and removing the glasses in between. He looked fit. He seemed exceptionally calm, with a concentration and composure that felt to me both deliberate and real.
He was very little like I’d imagined, but that wasn’t the source of the discomfort I was feeling as I watched the proceedings. Instead, there was a queasiness to the whole stage-managed scene and a visceral inequity in the way he and those who spoke for him sat exposed to us while those who will decide his fate remained screened from our view. I realized almost as soon as the feed began that it was not Mohamedou that I needed to see.
So much of what’s remarkable for me about Guantánamo Diary takes place after the destabilizing shock of that scene in which Mohamadou first sees the faces of his jailors. With the masks removed, the real recognitions begin. Fear and shyness give way to curiosity, prisoner-guard relationships bend toward friendships: It really is, as Mohamedou wrote, “a completely different story, for both sides.”
In a remarkable letter submitted to the Periodic Review Board, one of Mohamedou’s former guards tells this story of recognitions from the other side. “Before my assignment to Guantanamo, I had heard that the men I would be guarding were the worst of the worst and that they would likely hate me and everything the United States and I stood for,” he writes. “I expected to find angry and brutal men.” And yet, he recounts,
My experience with Mr. Slahi was nothing of the sort. I found Mr. Slahi to be polite, friendly, and respectful. For some time, I had the opportunity to interact with Mr. Slahi on a daily basis. I observed Mr. Slahi to maintain a good sense of humor despite his surroundings. We spoke about many things, including sharing our views about life. I did not see or hear support for violence or fundamentalist Islam from him.
During my time serving in Guantanamo, my daughter was born. I was quite proud and pleased. Because I had developed a relationship as human beings with Mr. Slahi, I shared the fact of her birth with him. He was openly pleased for me and able to express compassion and empathy.
I have learned that the habeas corpus court granted Mr. Slahi’s petition more than five years ago and held that there was no evidence that justified his imprisonment. I was quite pleased and believed that decision was consistent with American values. I was saddened when I then learned that the decision was remanded by the Court of Appeals and that his case is still pending.
Based on my interactions with Mr. Slahi while in Guantanamo, I would be pleased to welcome him into my home. Based on my interactions, I do not have safety concerns if I were to do so. I would like the opportunity to eventually see him again.
In three or four weeks, the Periodic Review Board will make public its decision. Since I left the Pentagon last week, I’ve been trying to think not of what I saw there but of what Mohamedou was seeing: a group of individual men and women, one or two of whom might remind him of this guard or any of dozens of other Americans who have come to know him through the years. I try to imagine the classified conversation that happened after the feed for the open session went dead—not just their questions and Mohamedou’s answers but each of their specific human voices. I think of how a journey that for Mohamedou began in goggles and earmuffs has finally reached a scene where seven human beings can see one another’s true features. That gives me hope.