The Guantánamo Memoirs of Mohamedou Ould Slahi

The Buzz

Mohamedou Ould Slahi courtesy of Wikimedia commons. On the difficult business of writing, people of letters often like to quote a maxim attributed to Ernest Hemmingway: "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed." Yet, we are not all so fortunate as to bleed metaphorically. You could call Mohamedou Ould Slahi one of the unlucky few for whom the bell tolls.

Slahi has been detained at Guantánamo since August 2002 under the authority of AUMF. After largely growing up in Germany, the native Mauritanian traveled to Afghanistan in late 1990 to train in an Al Qaeda camp and support the mujahedeen, whom the United States/CIA was covertly supporting at the time against Soviet invasion. After the conflict ended in 1992, Slahi severed ties with Al Qaeda and returned to Germany for studieswith a brief stint in Canada for a jobeventually returning home to Mauritania in 2000.

At the request of the U.S. government in 2001, Slahi was summoned for questioning by Mauritanian police and willingly complied, even driving himself to the police station. Despite Mauritanian officials publicly declaring his innocence, the United States requested that he be sent to Jordan for further questioning under the pretense that they believed him involved in the 2000 Millennium Plot. The reasoning was that a member of Slahi’s mosque was caught with plot-related explosives; ipso facto it was thought that Slahi must have indoctrinated this individual despite disavowing AQ in 1992. The Jordanians questioned Slahi under torture for seven months and concluded he was not involved in Millennium, but, unsatisfied, the CIA sent Slahi to Bagram then Gitmo for further torture and questioning. After being held at Guantánamo for eight years despite never being charged with a crime, a writ of habeas corpus granted Slahi's release on March 22, 2010. The Obama administration filed a notice of appeal days later. It’s yet to be announced when a U.S. District Court will rehear Slahi’s petition, but until then, he remains at Guantánamo. A more comprehensive timeline of Slahi's "endless world tour" of interrogation and detention can be found here.

This week Slate published select excerpts from a 466-page handwritten memoir Slahi wrote in prison from 2005-2006 that has just become unclassified. It is intensely disturbing. Providing an unprecedented window into a life of indefinite detention and torture, the sheer volume of manuscript pages underscores one person's attempt to comprehend a new life beyond comprehension. Foreign Policy called it the piece the U.S. government does not want you to read.

While the politics of the facility that CIA veteran Paul Pillar calls a "disgrace" are hotly contested, it's worth noting that however compelling this memoir, six prisoners at Gitmo do face formal charges relating to the September 11th attacks. So while Slahi's experience of a life suspended with no criminal charges is abhorrent, it is not the only story here, something that Slate largely glosses over. That said, six people are hardly a reason to spend $800,000 per prisoner a year (and our international credibility) to keep the place open. Read this now.

TopicsEthicsTorture RegionsCubaMauritania

The Guantanamo Political Game

Paul Pillar

The national disgrace that is the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay is still in operation largely because of another familiar national disgrace, which is partisan gamesmanship. At his press conference this week President Obama stated accurately the multiple reasons, which include significant political damage to U.S. interests overseas, the facility needs to be closed. Those reasons are even more compelling today, amid force-feeding of hunger-striking prisoners, than they were when the then newly inaugurated Mr. Obama first committed to closing the place.

A prevalent theme in current commentary is that a fluent but timid president is not getting anything done about Guantanamo because he is displaying the kind of weakness that is also preventing him from getting things done on gun control and other issues. Civil libertarians and others who might usually be sympathetic to Mr. Obama charge that he has been an insufficiently tough leader in dealing with a recalcitrant Congress that has placed multiple roadblocks in the way of closing Guantanamo, including a ban on movement of any of the detainees to federal prisons or any other facilities in the United States. One is entitled to ask in such situations whether the responsibility lies with someone who cannot overcome recalcitrance or with those who are being recalcitrant. But let us instead just review the bidding on how Guantanamo got to be what it is now.

One can identify three motives—all of them misguided at best and reprehensible at worst—that have been involved. They partly correspond to different phases in the detention facility's history.

The original decision by the Bush administration to construct a jail in such an odd place was intended to keep it, and the prisoners in it, outside the reach of any laws. Subsequent decisions by the Supreme Court kept that objective from being fully realized. In any event, the objective was unworthy, given that the United States is a country of laws and not of arbitrary actions by whoever happens to have power at the moment.

A second motive, which still underlies some of the Congressional recalcitrance, is to make an ideological statement that terrorism is “war” rather than “crime” and therefore anyone suspected of involvement in terrorism should be treated differently from anyone else suspected of a crime. Making ideological statements at the expense of real damage to U.S. interests and to American principles (and doing so while disregarding the record of what has or has not worked, including the successful record of convicting terrorists in federal criminal courts) is an inexcusable way to make policy.

A third motive, which is behind much of what we see playing out about Guantanamo today, is to retain the opportunity—with future elections in mind—to inflict costs and embarrassment on one's domestic political opponents. Congressional opponents of President Obama are quick to point out that legislation that has constituted much of the roadblock to closing Guantanamo gives the administration the ability to use waivers to release individual detainees to the custody of foreign countries. Such opponents are not quick to address, of course, why such hurdles and special waiver requirements should have been thrown up in the first place. But in the meantime, it enables the opponents to say the president has not used administrative powers he already has to reduce Guantanamo's prisoner population.

The biggest hoped-for partisan political payoff would come if the waiver authority were actually used. That authority is a dare to the administration to make a mistake. To release a prisoner to foreign custody the secretary of defense has to make certifications about how the receiving country will take steps that ensure the individual will not engage in terrorist activity in the future, or about “alternative actions” that will “substantially mitigate” such a possibility. All of this gets into realms in which it is impossible for any secretary of defense or president to make guarantees. Recidivism happens. With the anger and resentment building up among the men who are getting tubes shoved up their noses twice a day, there is a significant chance it will happen even with someone who was not really a threat when he was first brought to Guantanamo. Not even the most careful screening and review process is foolproof. And so the first time any alumnus of Guantanamo gets involved in what can be described as a terrorist incident, there is a ready-made issue to introduce in the next election campaign back in the United States. The administration endangered the American public, will be the charge from some members of Congress, who will disavow any responsibility themselves.

Count Guantanamo among the many issues of public policy on which the national interest has suffered at the hands of politicians who place that interest behind considerations of partisan advantage. Count it also among the issues on which the American public's unrealistic zero-tolerance attitude toward terrorism facilitates such political shenanigans.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsHuman RightsIdeologyThe PresidencyTerrorism RegionsUnited States

The Onion Goes to War

The Buzz

Does the Onion want the United States to fight another war in Syria? The satirical newspaper’s coverage of the two-year-old civil war in that country has taken a dramatic turn. While the publication made semi-regular references to Syria throughout the war’s earlier stages, its barbs have gotten more common and very pointed lately. Its recent posts have been deeply and darkly critical of current U.S. policy in Syria, and sometimes appear to border on outright calls for American intervention.

Consider three examples from the past six weeks. First, there is this mock op-ed on March 25, written from the perspective of the Syrian leader:

Hello. My name is Bashar al-Assad. I am the president of Syria, and in the last two years, you—the citizens of the world and their governments—have allowed me to kill 70,000 people. You read that correctly: I am an individual who has murdered 70,000 human beings since March 2011, and you have watched it happen and done nothing.

Then there is this news brief from April 4:

WASHINGTON—While tucking in his daughters as they settled into bed Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama reportedly kissed the two children gently on the forehead and reminded them that the lives of Syrian people are “worthless” and “completely insignificant.” “I love you two so much and Syrians are subhuman and don’t matter at all,” said the president.

And finally, there is this piece published yesterday, titled “‘Help Has To Be On The Way Now,’ Thinks Syrian Man Currently Being Gassed”:

HOMS, SYRIA—As Syrian military aircraft rained chlorine gas on his community Tuesday, local man Amir Najjar, 36, reportedly assured himself that military and humanitarian aid from foreign governments must certainly be racing toward the country at this very moment to protect him and other helpless civilians.

It’s telling to look at the assumptions that support this line of humor. Namely, these pieces all work from the premise that the world—and the United States in particular—bears the moral responsibility for what happens in Syria. As a result, the practical considerations about how an intervention to stop the killing might work are necessarily washed away. Reluctance to act on the part of President Obama implicitly means that he doesn’t care about the Syrian people, as the second item stresses. It’s the “responsibility to protect” doctrine in comedic form.

Part of the reason that the paper’s Syria coverage has been so striking to read is that in the past, it has often been a voice against what it sees as excessive or ill-advised American military action, particularly in Iraq. One example is this classic 2003 point-counterpoint published as the Iraq War began, which both anticipated many of the disasters that would happen as the war unfolded and perfectly captured the hubris of many of the war’s supporters. More recently, it has gone after President Obama’s regular use of drones to conduct targeted killings overseas. As one of its television “hosts” asked in a video last year, with the Onion’s trademark deadpan mock-seriousness, “After ten years of combat in Afghanistan, is it time to take a second look at our policy of killing Afghan children with missiles shot from terrifying, remote-controlled flying robots?”

Of course, Syria, Iraq and the drone war are all separate issues, and there are valid policy reasons to support one intervention but not the others. But it’s probably wrong to see the Onion’s “positions” (to the extent that one can call them that) as evidence of a consistent house agenda. The more likely explanation is that humorists are naturally going to respond to real or perceived mistakes, especially those made by the U.S. government. Thus far, Obama has chosen to err on the side of caution in Syria. As the body count has risen, this choice makes a fat target for the kind of biting satire cited above. Yet one can easily imagine an alternative scenario in which, if Obama had decided to intervene last year and things had gone badly, the Onion would now be skewering him from the opposite perspective, mocking his and America’s tendency to intervene frequently in other countries.

So, in short, the Onion is not exactly becoming a comedic arm of Bill Kristol–style neoconservatism or the liberal interventionism of Anne-Marie Slaughter. Nevertheless, its shift on Syria is notable, if only because the publication often serves as a bellwether of elite attitudes. Its Syria pieces have been very funny and well executed, but the reason they pack an emotional punch is because they rely on the presumption of a shared belief—on the part of both the audience and the authors—that of course the United States should be doing more in Syria. As the administration reportedly weighs new steps aimed at ousting Bashar al-Assad, the question of how this decision is portrayed in mass-media outlets—even satirical ones—is very much worth watching.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/David Shankbone. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsMediaSociety RegionsSyria

A New Franco-German Feud

Jacob Heilbrunn

For decades the Franco-German alliance has been at the core of the European Union. But under the pressure of the European economic crisis, the two sides are increasingly sniping at each other in a war of memos. The tensions between Chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande after the loss of Merkel's chum Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012 that both sides seemed initially to have successfully suppressed are now out in the open. Gallic pique is running up against Teutonic stubborness, and it's not hard to see who is going to win this latest round in the Franco-German confrontation.

First a memo from the French socialists leaked in which they urged "confrontation" with Germany and attacked its economic "selfishness." The Socialists see a German-British cabal that is trying to enforce a free-market diktat upon Europe. Their summation is pretty accurate, minus the petulant tone:

The [EU] community project is now scarred by an alliance of convenience between the Thatcherite accents of the current British prime minister – who sees Europe only as à la carte and about rebates – and the selfish intransigence of Chancellor Merkel who thinks of nothing else but the savings of depositors in Germany, the trade balance recorded in Berlin and her electoral future.

Is Merkel not supposed to be thinking about the savings of German depositors, the trade balance, and the matter of her political future?

Now a memo has leaked from the German side, authored by members of Merkel's coalition partner, the Free Democrat Party, a band of doughty free marketeers who incline toward classical economics. The memo announces that France is on the skids, close to a lost cause. "Europe's problem child" is what it calls France—"French industry is increasingly losing its competitiveness. Businesses continue to move overseas, and the profitability of businesses is low."

There is a lot of truth to both memos. After visiting Germany last week, it became clear to me that Merkel is going all-out for reelection which means that she is not going to budge on the German insistence upon further auterity in Europe. She is thinking politically rather than economically, and she knows full well that German voters are transfixed by the prospect that their decades of savings may be sacrificed on the pyre of European unification, squandered by shiftless southern countries. A new political party has emerged on the right that is called the Alternative for Germany. It probably will not pass the 5 percent voting hurdle to enter the German Bundestag, a measure enacted to avoid a repetition of the Weimar Republic when tiny political parties tied the first German democratic republic in parliamentary knots. But the party is already attracting much attention as a populist, right-wing threat to the ruling coalition. It only needs to siphon off a few percentage of votes from Merkel's Christian Democrats and the Bavarian Christian Social Union to pave the way for a Red-Green—Socialist and Green party—coalition to return to power. Merkel is too shrewd to allow that to happen. So she and finance minister Wolfgang Schauble are pouring scorn on the notion that the way out of the European crisis is to abandon austerity and return to the free-spending of the days of yore. At the same time, the German Bundesbank continues to attack the European Central Bank for failing to remain sufficiently vigilant about combatting inflation.

Are the Germans, as the French suggest, being selfish? Well, yes. But it's hard to blame them. A famous German saying has it that "Bei Geld hoert die Freundschaft auf"—when it comes to money, there friendship ends. Perhaps the Germans are hostage to a mindset formed in the 1920s when the Reichsmark was debauched by hyperinflation and it took a wheelbarrow of cash to buy a cup of coffee. But that searing memory is based on real experience, not fantasy. The more the Germans look at Europe, the greater the mess looks. So the temptation to try and minimize the damage, particularly at a moment when the Germany economy itself is markedly slowing, is proving overwhelming.

For the Germans the crisis raises a host of older questions about the true nature of German identity. European? Or German? So far, the political elites have been firmly committed to European unity. There is no reason to believe that a rhetorical shift looms. But Merkel is making it clear that her priorities are winning reelection and safeguarding German assets. She is not about to break with the orthodoxy that more austerity is the road to prosperity. Instead, she is bolstering it. While the verbal brickbats that the two sides are hurling at one another hardly portend the dissolution of the EU, they do suggest that the fabled goal of European unity is like the horizon, always receding as you approach it. As the head of the most powerful country in Europe, Merkel is going to do it the German, not the French, way.

TopicsEuropean Union RegionsGermany

Syria and WMD Inconsistency in the Middle East

Paul Pillar

Once again people are getting spun up over elusive details about what a Middle Eastern regime is or is not doing regarding unconventional weapons. Participants in public debates over policy get seized with questions such as the significance of a soil sample or whether certain victims of Syria's civil war had dilated pupils. People wait with bated breath on whatever else intelligence can tell us about such things. It is as if the wisdom, or lack of it, of intervening in that civil war hinges on whether a particular regime has made use, however small, of a particular category of weapon. It doesn't.

Much has been said about avoiding mistakes that were made over a decade ago in leading up to the Iraq War. Certainly we should try to avoid repeating mistakes. But the biggest mistake that is being made now—and repeats a fundamental mistake in the public discourse prior to the Iraq War—is not an interpretation of evidence regarding somebody's unconventional weapons but instead is the false equating of an empirical question about weapons with the policy question of whether launching, or intervening in, a particular war makes sense.

Whether Saddam Hussein did or did not have WMD turned out to be one of the less important realities about the Iraq War. Even if everything that was said on this subject to sell the war turned out to be true, the human and material cost of the war would have been just as great (maybe even greater, if Saddam's forces had possessed and used such weapons), the post-Saddam political and security situation in Iraq would have been just as much of a mess, and launching the war still would have been a blunder.

In Syria today, whether any chemical weapons have been used does not inform us that the Assad regime has a brutal streak; we already knew that. Nor does it tell us that many Syrians are suffering in this civil war; we already knew that, too, and the suffering does not depend on any use of unconventional weapons. Most important for the policy question facing the United States, facts about chemical weapons use would tell us essentially nothing about the net effect of various forms of external intervention in the civil war, the likely course of the war with or without intervention, and possible political futures of Syria.

There is another parallel between today's debate about Syria and the counterpart discourse before the Iraq War. In each case the issue of unconventional weapons has been used as a convenient selling point by those favoring involvement in a war for other reasons. With Iraq, the WMD question was only, as later acknowledged by Paul Wolfowitz, a convenient topic that could be agreed upon by those who might disagree about other matters. With Syria, most of the current agitation is coming not from longstanding chemical-weapons-control enthusiasts but instead from those who had already been agitating for intervention on other grounds.

The agitators on Syria have been aided by President Obama's unwise earlier declaration about how use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would be a “game-changer.” Perhaps the president said this to help fend off the pro-intervention pressure he already was feeling at the time. If so, the remark was a short-sighted tactic. It opened the way for pro-interventionists to argue that U.S. credibility will be harmed if it does not now intervene in Syria.

That argument is also a familiar one associated with mistakes of the past. It also is invalid, as a matter of how people and governments actually assess the credibility of other governments. The argument was at the center—not just as a public selling point, but as a matter of genuine belief by policy-makers—of the decision to intervene in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. That war also was a blunder.

One might think, based on the current chemically-fueled commentary about Syria, that the ranks of the policy elite in Washington are filled with arms control aficionados whose fondest cause is to eliminate the scourge of unconventional weapons from the Middle East. Anyone who thinks that can be jolted back to reality by Egypt, which this week announced that it was pulling out of an ongoing review conference on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to protest the continued inaction on a resolution dating back to 1995 that calls for establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. That proposal was later expanded to envision a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, to include chemical and other unconventional weapons as well as nuclear ones. A conference, arranged under the leadership of a senior Finnish diplomat, was set to convene last December to discuss the proposal. But Israel refused to attend, and so the United States said it wouldn't go either, and the conference was called off. One barely heard a peep about that in the United States.

The country that balked, Israel, is of course the only Middle Eastern owner of nuclear weapons. That's nuclear weapons, which really are weapons of mass destruction, unlike chemical weapons, which aren't. In fact, the Israeli arsenal is so potent it is the only one that poses an existential threat to any other country in the region (and specifically to Iran).

U.S. policy, and American discussion of policy, about unconventional weapons in the Middle East have long been ridden with inconsistency. Nuclear weapons are perceived where they don't exist, and ignored where they do. The hyperventilation about possible use of chemical weapons in Syria is in the same tradition of inconsistency.

TopicsArms ControlNuclear ProliferationWMD RegionsIsraelEgyptIranIraqUnited StatesSyria