US Military Police guard detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Photo: Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Navy/Getty Image
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An extraordinary diary from Guantanamo Bay reveals the failure of American democracy

Detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi's account of the camp is heartbreaking. But it is crucial the truth is told.

Guantanamo Diary
Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Edited by Larry Siems
Canongate, 381pp, £20

Thirteen years after it opened, the literature on the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay has become extensive. There are works of journalism, collections of documents, scholarly analyses, novels and some searing memoirs, such as those by the former detainees Ahmed Errachidi and Moazzam Begg. But there has never been a book quite like this: an account by a prisoner, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, of his abduction, rendition and sustained torture, composed inside Guantanamo’s concentric layers of concrete and razor wire.

It has taken a decade to bring it to press, an achievement that required years of litigation, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Even now, the declassified version of Slahi’s text contains redactions, some of them pages long, which in places make it disjointed. And it is plain that some of these deletions, insisted on by the Pentagon for reasons of national security, are absurd. On one page, the context suggests that a blacked-out single word must be “tears”. To allow readers to become aware of Slahi’s reaction to yet another abusive incident apparently might imperil American lives.

Meanwhile, ten years after Slahi completed his manuscript – written in a clear and vivid style, though English is his fourth language – he is still a prisoner. Like almost all of Gitmo’s more than 100 remaining detainees, he has never been charged with any crime. Indeed, military prosecutors abandoned all efforts to do so long ago.

Among Gitmo inmates, Slahi, an electrical engineer by trade, is probably unique for another reason, in that his nightmare began when he drove himself to a police station in his home country, Mauritania, in response to a request that he present himself. He imagined he might be gone for at most a few days. Instead, soon after the 11 September 2001 attacks, he found himself interrogated and tortured with mounting intensity at the behest of the US, first in Mauritania, then in Jordan, at the US airbase at Bagram in Afghanistan and finally at Gitmo, where he arrived in August 2002. We are familiar with the cases of “extraordinary rendition”, in which the US sent prisoners to various Arab countries to be tortured. Not the least shocking thing about this book is that, for Slahi, by far the most brutal treatment occurred at Guantanamo.

I can only shudder on reading that the worst abuses he endured were taking place when I made my first visit to Gitmo, in the autumn of 2003. This was during the period when General Geoffrey D Miller was commandant of the camp – a man who became infamous when, the following year, photographs revealed what happened after he recommended that Saddam Hussein’s old prison at Abu Ghraib be Gitmoised.

Back then, when the US was still reeling from 9/11, the motivation and sense of mission at Guantanamo were palpable and Miller, like most of his joint task force, fully accepted the Bush administration’s claim that Gitmo inmates were “the worst of the worst”. I was on a sanitised, shepherded press trip but there were still plenty of clues that what was taking place amounted to a flagrant abuse of the Geneva Conventions.

But just how bad this was getting, I had no idea. Slahi’s editor, Larry Siems, supplies informative footnotes, which demonstrate that this account is supported by copious, now public, official records. It is therefore safe to conclude that when Slahi describes being kept for weeks on end in freezing temperatures, being shackled in agonising positions for hour after hour, being doused with icy water, being made to wear a special torture suit lined with ice and being beaten so badly that he felt he was “breathing through his ribs”, he is telling the truth. He also writes that when he went on hunger strike, he was told he would be “fed up your ass” – subjected to what last year’s Senate intelligence committee report termed “rectal feeding”, a revolting and dangerous practice that the report’s authors showed was commonplace.

Slahi’s interrogators were convinced that because he had fought against the communists in Afghanistan in 1990-91 and because his cousin was a first-generation al-Qaeda leader, albeit one who had denounced 9/11, Slahi was a terrorist mastermind, a crucial figure in the thwarted “millennium plot” in California and the originator of a scheme to blow up the CN Tower in Toronto.

All of this was fantasy. But finally, after many months, he broke, a process he explains with heartbreaking honesty. “I tried to make myself look as bad as I could, which is exactly the way you can make your interrogator happy . . . I had to wear the suit US Intel tailored for me, and this is what I did.” A few weeks later his reward was to be allowed to read a short letter from his mother – his first contact with his family since his disappearance, 815 days earlier.

I went back to Gitmo in summer 2013 and found it very different. Barack Obama had promised to close it on his second day in office in 2009 and signally failed to achieve this. The result was a pervading sense of listlessness: depressed and homesick soldiers guarding visibly ageing inmates, with no end in sight. For this, Obama blames the Republicans in Congress. Yet in 2010 Slahi won a habeas corpus action in the federal district court. He would be free now – if the Obama administration had not promptly filed, then won, an appeal, so that Slahi’s long limbo in Gitmo’s legal black hole continues.

Slahi ends with a question: “So has the American democracy passed the test it was subjected to with the 2001 terrorist attacks? I leave this judgement to the reader,” he writes. Having read his extraordinary and overwhelming account, I feel the answer is not in doubt.

David Rose writes for the Mail on Sunday. His book “Guantanamo: America’s War on Human Rights” is published by Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit