The Legacy of America’s Post-9/11 Turn to Torture

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — Mohamedou Ould Slahi is nearly scientific as he remembers particulars of the torture he endured in the summertime of 2003 at Guantánamo Bay.

There have been the guards who menaced him with assault canine and beat him so badly they broke his ribs. The troops who shackled him, blasted him with heavy metallic music and strobe lights or drenched him in ice water to deny him sleep for months on finish. The mind-numbing isolation in a darkened cell with out his Quran. The feminine guards who uncovered themselves and touched him sexually in an effort to undermine his adherence to Islam.

But what left Mr. Slahi in utter despair, he stated, was the interrogator who tried to threaten him into acknowledging that he was complicit in plotting a terrorist assault.

“If you don’t admit to it, we are going to kidnap your mother, rape her,” the interrogator stated, by Mr. Slahi’s account.

“I remember telling them: ‘This is unfair. This is not fair,’” Mr. Slahi recalled. The interrogator, he stated, responded: “I’m not looking for justice. I’m looking to stop planes from hitting buildings in my country.”

To which Mr. Slahi stated he replied, “You need to get those people, not me.”

Today, Mr. Slahi, 50, is a free man in Mauritania, his homeland in West Africa, after almost 15 years as a detainee, an early portion of that point with the risk of a death-penalty trial hanging over him.

In the top, he was launched in 2016 with out ever being charged, the confessions he made below duress recanted, a proposed case in opposition to him deemed by the prosecutor to be nugatory in court docket as a result of of the brutality of the interrogation.

“I was very naïve, and I didn’t understand how America works,” Mr. Slahi stated.

For the United States, as for Mr. Slahi, the legacy of the torture stays complicated and multifaceted twenty years after the assaults on Sept. 11, 2001, led the George W. Bush administration to put aside authorized and ethical constraints within the title of nationwide safety.

The United States has lengthy since stopped using the so-called enhanced interrogation methods utilized in what research have concluded was a fruitless or counterproductive effort to extract lifesaving info from detainees in secret C.I.A. prisons and at Guantánamo Bay.

But the selection to flip to government-sanctioned torture stays a stain on the nation’s repute, undercutting its authority to confront repression elsewhere. Even at this time, some former Bush administration officers threat questioning when touring to Europe by investigators invoking the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

After his first assembly with President Biden in June, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia reminded journalists that Guantánamo remained open and that the C.I.A. had carried out torture in secret overseas prisons. “Is that human rights?” he requested.

Mr. Slahi at residence in Nouakchott, Mauritania. He reveals indicators of post-traumatic stress dysfunction.Credit…Btihal Remli for The New York Times

The use of torture is complicating efforts to carry the 5 males who’re accused of plotting the Sept. 11 assaults to justice.

“There was torture,” stated Adele Welty, whose son Timothy, a firefighter, died in New York on Sept. 11. She has come to query whether or not the navy commissions at Guantánamo can ship justice.

“The fact that my country could do that is so barbaric. It really bothers me,” she stated. “What kind of people are we that we could do that to other human beings, and did we really believe that what they were saying in response to the torture was real, or were they just saying it to stop the torture?”

Stuart Couch, a former Marine prosecutor whose job was to put Mr. Slahi on trial at Guantánamo Bay — however who refused as soon as he discovered what the navy had carried out to him — stated the United States nonetheless suffered from what he known as the “Jack Bauer effect”: the idea that you could possibly beat a confession out of a suspect, save the day and emerge heroic, just like the star of the TV thriller “24,” which aired on Fox from 2001 to 2010.

Mr. Slahi lived that false impression.

He now has a measure of fame. His best-selling memoir, “Guantánamo Diary,” was launched in a movie model, “The Mauritanian.” While he’s usually denied visas for journey, he not too long ago made a visit to London, the place he took half in a literary studying and was hosted at a celebration by Kevin Macdonald, the director of the film.

A software program engineer, Mr. Slahi has two telephones, a laptop computer and Wi-Fi within the residence he constructed since his launch. Isolated for lengthy stretches throughout his imprisonment, he carries on a number of conversations the world over as of late by means of texts, video chats and telephone calls.

On one stage, his is a hopeful story.

“I wholeheartedly forgive everyone who wronged me during my detention,” he stated in a YouTube message to the world quickly after his launch. “I forgive, because forgiveness is my inexhaustible resource.”

But the consequences of what he endured at Guantánamo are under no circumstances behind him.

Mr. Slahi’s story spans a lot of the 20 years through which the United States has variously obscured, acknowledged and handled the fallout of the interrogation applications approved by President George W. Bush and his group.Credit…Btihal Remli for The New York Times

Mr. Slahi reveals indicators of post-traumatic stress dysfunction: insomnia, inattentiveness, hyperattentiveness, at instances scattered considering. He has listening to deficits most likely associated to the screeching heavy metallic music that guards blasted to hold him awake and power again ache from sciatica that may be attributed to months of shackling.

He has reminiscence lapses of a sure interval of detention and vivid recollections of different instances. Discussing his torture, he juxtaposed the accounts of his abuse at Guantánamo with renditions of songs he remembered listening to there: Drowning Pool’s “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor” to deprive him of sleep, and a Justin Timberlake tune, “Señorita,” that soothed him because it seeped into his cell from a close-by guard submit.

Sept. 11 Anniversary ›

Live Tributes

Updated Sept. 11, 2021, eight:08 p.m. ETMets and Yankees share a second of silence.Scenes at floor zero as a disaster-weary nation marked 20 years since 9/11.She survived 9/11 and Covid: ‘You just keep going.’

Mr. Slahi was one of two detainees whose torture at Guantánamo Bay was carried out below a program authorized by Donald H. Rumsfeld, the protection secretary on the time. The United States additionally despatched 119 folks into the C.I.A.’s abroad community of secret prisons — together with the accused plotters of the Sept. 11 assaults — the place detainees have been routinely sleep disadvantaged, shackled in excruciating methods and subjected to rectal abuse and different brutal remedy.

The C.I.A. has acknowledged that three detainees have been waterboarded. One died of abuse. Many extra have been brutalized in U.S. or allied detention as interrogators improvised their very own strategies.

A complete examine by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee of the company’s program concluded that the methods didn’t save lives or disrupt terrorist plots and weren’t needed, findings that the C.I.A. disputed. (A prolonged government abstract of the report was made public in 2014, however the full report stays categorized.)

Mr. Slahi’s story — specified by interviews, testimony and congressional investigations — spans a lot of the 20 years through which the United States has variously obscured, acknowledged and handled the diplomatic and human fallout of the interrogation applications approved by Mr. Bush and his group.

Mr. Slahi was a intelligent, curious son in a Bedouin household of 12 kids who grew to become the primary in his household to examine overseas. While working towards an engineering diploma in Germany within the 1990s, he traveled to Afghanistan to practice within the anti-Communist jihad at a time when the United States endorsed it. He was again in his native Mauritania on Sept. 11, 2001.

Intelligence analysts sifting by means of data after the assaults famous that he had obtained a name in late 1998 or early 1999 from a satellite tv for pc telephone utilized by Osama bin Laden. The name was a couple of household matter and got here from a cousin who had been half of bin Laden’s interior circle and later fled to Mauritania, Mr. Slahi stated.

U.S. intelligence had additionally come to imagine that Mr. Slahi had hosted three Muslim males in his residence in Duisburg, Germany, for an evening in November 1999. Among them have been two of the Sept. 11 hijackers and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who’s accused of recruiting the so-called Hamburg cell of hijackers and is charged in a death-penalty case at Guantánamo. Mr. Slahi dismissed the encounter as so informal — a matter of providing hospitality to fellow Muslim vacationers — that he stated he didn’t keep in mind the suspect named Ramzi when interrogators pressed him on it.

Investigators additionally observed that Mr. Slahi had moved to Montreal within the winter of 1999 and prayed on the similar mosque as Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian often called the millennium bomber for a failed plot to plant a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve in 1999. Mr. Slahi was questioned by federal safety forces in Canada and left for residence after two months.

By 2001, the United States had persuaded the Mauritanian authorities to hand Mr. Slahi to Jordanian interrogators. He was then despatched to Guantánamo Bay in August 2002, after what he described as a quick, brutal keep at a U.S. navy lockup in Bagram, Afghanistan.

At Guantánamo, guards and interrogators sought to break him each bodily and psychologically. In one case, described by Mr. Slahi and different detainees, feminine guards uncovered themselves and made sexual advances on him as he was shackled to a chair in an interrogation room. A male guard taunted him whereas a feminine guard took off her clothes.

“There was touching,” Mr. Slahi stated. “So humiliating. So destroying.”

After months of interrogation, he admitted to plotting to blow up the CN Tower in Toronto — a confession he later stated was pressured, including that he didn’t know earlier than his interrogation that the skyscraper existed.

A trial was averted after Mr. Couch, then a lieutenant colonel within the Marine Corps, stumbled right into a surreal scene at Guantánamo of one other prisoner in an interrogation cell, nude, shackled to the ground and being blasted with heavy metallic music. The colonel was shocked, did some digging and realized that Mr. Slahi’s confessions have been obtained by means of what he concluded was merciless and weird remedy.

Mr. Slahi’s memoir, “Guantánamo Diary,” has been translated into greater than two dozen languages.Credit…Btihal Remli for The New York Times

Never charged, Mr. Slahi was stored as a prisoner within the conflict on terror, deemed too harmful to launch till his guide, revealed in 2015 after his legal professionals labored to have his writing declassified, put a highlight on his case. A former Army guard, Steve Wood of Oregon, wrote the Obama administration’s interagency parole board that he thought-about Mr. Slahi so protected he would gladly host him in his residence.

U.S. forces delivered Mr. Slahi to Mauritania simply as he had been introduced to Guantánamo: blindfolded and in shackles.

But whereas Mr. Slahi has been launched, Guantánamo continues to reckon with what was carried out to different detainees nonetheless held there — not least the 5 males accused of serving to to plot the Sept. 11 assaults, together with the alleged mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, whom C.I.A. contractors waterboarded 183 instances at a secret jail in Poland.

The conflict court docket at Guantánamo, run by the U.S. navy, is supposed to stability the necessity for secrecy with the rights of the accused.

To the frustration of households of the almost three,000 victims of the assault, the crimes of Sept. 11 have been not often talked about in almost a decade of proceedings.

Rather, protection legal professionals have successfully managed to put the C.I.A. on trial as they’ve systematically sought to exclude proof in opposition to the boys — notably confessions they made months into their stays at Guantánamo — as a product of torture.

The legal professionals for one defendant, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, who sits gingerly on a pillow in court docket as a result of of ache from rectal abuse in C.I.A. custody, argue that the case needs to be dismissed outright as a result of of outrageous authorities conduct.

In an effort to pace up the proceedings — and maybe to defend the identities of sure C.I.A. workers — prosecutors have begun acknowledging that the United States tortured its captives in abroad prisons. They don’t use the phrase, however they’ve learn aloud in court docket from grisly descriptions of abuse to strive to argue that protection legal professionals have adequate particulars to strive to transfer both for dismissal of the fees or to exclude the demise penalty if the defendants are convicted.

Prosecutors stated in 2018 that they might stipulate to “anything tethered to reality” to keep away from the nationwide safety battle over declassifying sure particulars of what went on within the secret websites.

“We’re not going to quibble,” stated one prosecutor, Jeffrey D. Groharing. “We’re not going to call witnesses and debate about whether Mr. Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times or 283 times. We, frankly, think that has little relevance to the commissions and the issues before it.”

After being held in isolation for lengthy stretches, Mr. Slahi is now often on his telephone and laptop.Credit…Btihal Remli for The New York Times

The prosecutors seem to be banking on the concept that at this level, testimony in regards to the remedy of the defendants won’t lead the navy jury within the case to acquit.

But there are additionally lots of Americans who haven’t forgotten the alternatives made after Sept. 11. The nation’s revulsion of torture dates to “the earliest days of the American Republic,” Judge Jed S. Rakoff, a federal decide in Manhattan, wrote in his latest guide “Why the Innocent Plead Guilty and the Guilty Go Free.”

“This is not the way a civilized colony, or later the United States as a whole, conducts itself,” he stated. “I do think that fundamental legal qua moral approach was what was undercut in the wake of 9/11 by what happened in Guantánamo.”

The decide’s courthouse is a couple of blocks from floor zero. “What is still seared in my memory is watching people jump out of the windows of the World Trade Center towers because the alternative is being burned to death inside,” he stated in an interview. “One can never forget the atrocity of that attack. But it is also exactly when atrocities occur that the rule of law is put to the test.”

Only a handful of the boys who have been topic to the remedy authorized by the Bush administration have been launched and spoken publicly in regards to the expertise, with Mr. Slahi being outstanding amongst them.

“I only have the law,” he stated final month. “And if the law fails me, I’m done. There is nothing else left for me.”