Armed Conflict Courts & Litigation Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law Democracy & Elections Terrorism & Extremism

Moral Obtuseness, Guantanamo, Boko Haram, and the Media

Benjamin Wittes, Andy Wang
Tuesday, January 20, 2015, 6:18 PM
This morning's BBC’s NewsHour show opened with a news judgment reflecting a genuinely odd moral calculus. At the end of the show’s headlines section, announcer James Menendez says: “coming up later in the program today, our West Africa correspondent . . . is on the shores of Lake Chad, where survivors---many of them missing family members---have been gathering in the wake of last week’s deadly attacks by Boko Haram.” That, however, could wait until the second half of the show.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

This morning's BBC’s NewsHour show opened with a news judgment reflecting a genuinely odd moral calculus. At the end of the show’s headlines section, announcer James Menendez says: “coming up later in the program today, our West Africa correspondent . . . is on the shores of Lake Chad, where survivors---many of them missing family members---have been gathering in the wake of last week’s deadly attacks by Boko Haram.” That, however, could wait until the second half of the show. Something of greater urgency had bumped the survivors of a massacre within the last few weeks of as many as 2,000 people from the first half of the show. What was it? “But first we have a rare and detailed insight into the treatment of detainees held at the American military base at Guantanamo Bay.” Menendez actually doesn’t mention until a bit later that this “rare and detailed insight” is actually a look at the treatment of a single detainee more than a decade ago---the latest in the series of entirely credulous reporting concerning the newly published diary of Mohamedou Ould Slahi: Guantánamo Diary.
So there it is, kind of stark: hundreds of thousands of dead Nigerians killed by one of the world’s most menacingly vicious terrorist groups vs. one brutal interrogation conducted many years ago. By what moral or news calculation should the latter take precedence over the former? Only one that, perhaps subconsciously undervalues African lives relative to those taken by terrorists in the West and overestimates---to the point of significantly misstating---the problems of Guantanamo and the story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Let’s start, as the BBC should have, with the Boko Haram massacre, which has been dramatically undercovered by the press, in general, certainly relative to the much lesser contemporaneous events in France. A recent article in MediaMatters notes that:
A quick Nexis search confirms [the undercoverage]: the Baga massacre has hardly made a dent in cable or network news coverage. Searching evening cable news transcripts between January 3 and 14 for "Boko Haram" turns up only nine substantive discussions of the Baga massacre: four on CNN, three on MSNBC, and two on Fox. Network news fared even worse. The massacre was mentioned once on NBC, twice on ABC, and once briefly on CBS. According to the American Press Institute, 73 percent of Americans get at least some of their news from nightly broadcast news.
  Blogger Ethan Zuckerman published the following arresting figures on his site on January 9. The comparison is unlikely still this stark, but it’s pretty bad:    
If you haven’t heard about the Baga massacre, that’s not surprising. Most major media outlets have barely covered the story. In the graph above, the orange line is the phrase “Charlie Hebdo”, and the blue is “Baga”. On January 4th, the day after the Nigerian army base fell, the top 25 US mainstream media ran twenty sentences that mentioned Baga. Yesterday, the same news outlets ran 1,100 sentences mentioning Charlie Hebdo. (Today’s count will likely be higher, but Media Cloud is still collecting today’s data, and there’s still four hours in the day.)
But there’s something particularly jarring about what the BBC did today, which is not merely to treat the Boko Haram killings as the forgotten stepchild of what happened in Paris but to sublimate it to what happened to single person---by his own account---more than a decade ago at Guantanamo. The BBC today displayed a remarkable lack of curiosity about who Slahi is, as opposed to what interrogators did to him. And in that the news agency is hardly alone. The New York Times celebrated the publication of the book in its ArtsBeat column, describing it as follows:
Michael Cunningham, Joshua Ferris, Nicole Krauss and Lili Taylor will be among the participants at a reading in New York on Jan. 26 in honor of the publication of “Guantánamo Diary,” described as the first and only diary written by a still-detained prisoner at Guantánamo Bay to be publicly released. The diary’s author, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, is a Mauritanian citizen who was arrested in November 2001 on suspicion of connections with Al Qaeda. A federal judge ordered his release in March 2010, but the United States government has fought that order. Mr. Slahi has not been charged with a crime.
The Guardian has serialized the Slahi diary and has written triumphantly of its publication, while noting that: “one federal court has ordered [Slahi’s] release on the grounds that the evidence against him is thin and tainted by torture, [but] Slahi has been languishing in a form of legal limbo since December 2012 after the justice department entangled the case in an unresolved appeal.” National Public Radio ran a lengthy segment featuring the book’s editor and Slahi’s lawyer.
Read or listen to any of this, and you’ll no doubt come away with a sense of outrage that Slahi is still locked up. He gets portrayed as a wrong-place-wrong-time kind of guy. He was certainly subject to a most horrid interrogation. Even with all of that, Slahi still doesn’t seem to warrant relegating ongoing atrocities by Boko Haram to the second half of a show. But here’s the thing: there’s a lot more to the Slahi story than the press around his book is letting on. And it’s there for anyone to read. Indeed, to listen to the BBC or this NPR story or to read the New York Times ArtsBeat section, you might not learn---or in the case of NPR, you might miss the brief mention---that the federal court opinion ordering Slahi’s release was vacated by the D.C. Circuit. And none of these stories would give you a set of facts about Slahi that are hard to reconcile with the premise that makes his book so compelling: that this is an innocent person against whom the United States can prove no wrongdoing who was brutally tortured by the military. Slahi’s case is, in fact, one of extraordinary moral complexity---as one of us has pointed out before in response to prior whitewashes of the man. It is certainly true that his interrogation was horrific, and it is also true that the evidence linking him to any one Al Qaeda plot was insufficient to support criminal charges against him. That said, he’s almost certainly not an innocent. Consider how D.C. Circuit Judge David Tatel described the facts in his habeas case---in that D.C. Circuit decision that so few of the news stories now bother to mention. Judge Tatel, it is critical to mention, did not consider any facts that depended on the brutalization Slahi endured:
Mohammedou Ould Salahi was born in 1970 in Mauritania. In December 1990, he traveled from Germany, where he was attending college, to Afghanistan “to support the mujahideen”—Islamic rebels seeking to overthrow Afghanistan’s Soviet-supported Communist government. Salahi Am. Decl. ¶ 5. While in Afghanistan, Salahi attended a training camp run by al-Qaida, which organized and funded efforts by foreign volunteers to assist the resistance movement. See John Rollins, Cong. Research Serv., R41070, Al Qaeda and Affiliates: Historical Perspective, Global Presence, and Implications for U.S. Policy 3–4 (2010). Although the United States denies having supported al-Qaida directly, it acknowledges that it provided significant economic and military support to the Afghan mujahideen from approximately 1981 to 1991. Id. at 4. In March 1991, shortly after finishing his training, Salahi swore bayat, an oath of loyalty, to al-Qaida. He left Afghanistan soon after taking this oath but returned in January 1992. Having “heard rumors that the mujahideen had invaded Kabul and started fighting among themselves,” Salahi decided to travel back to Germany in March 1992. Salahi Am. Decl. ¶ 11. At this point, he alleges, he “severed all ties with . . . al Qaida.” Id. ¶ 12. According to the government, however, the record contains significant evidence that Salahi recruited for al Qaida and provided it with other support after his alleged withdrawal in 1992. For example, the district court found that Salahi sent a fax to al-Qaida operative Christopher Paul in January 1997, asking for his help in finding “a true Group and Place” for “some Brothers” interested in fighting jihad. Salahi, 710 F. Supp. 2d at 11 (quoting Salahi’s fax to Paul). Salahi admitted to interrogators that he knew Paul to be a “man of great respect in Al-Qaida” and that he sent the fax to “facilitate getting the [aspiring jihadists] to fight.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). As the district court recognized, “[t]he most damaging allegation against Salahi is that, in October 1999, he encouraged Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Marwan al-Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah to join al-Qaida.” Id. at 10. Bin al-Shibh helped coordinate the September 11 attacks, and al-Shehhi and Jarrah were two of the September 11 pilots. Nat’l Comm’n on Terrorist Attacks Upon the U.S., The 9/11 Commission Report 225, 434–35, 437 (2004) [hereinafter 9/11 Commission Report]. The government contends that while bin al-Shibh, al-Shehhi, and Jarrah had originally intended to travel to Chechnya to wage jihad against Russian forces, Salahi convinced them to travel instead to Afghanistan to receive military training. According to the government, the three men followed Salahi’s advice and with his assistance traveled to Afghanistan, where they were recruited by al-Qaida into the September 11 plot. But the district court, having discounted portions of the government’s evidence as unreliable and inconsistent, found only that “Salahi provided lodging for three men for one night at his home in Germany, that one of them was Ramzi bin al-Shibh, and that there was discussion of jihad and Afghanistan.” Salahi, 710 F. Supp. 2d at 11. In addition to Salahi’s connection to bin al-Shibh, the district court found that Salahi “had an ongoing and relatively close relationship” with Abu Hafs al-Mauritania, who “is believed to be one of [Usama] bin Laden’s spiritual advisors and a high-ranking leader of al-Qaida.” Id. at 12, 14. Abu Hafs is Salahi’s cousin and is married to the sister of Salahi’s ex-wife. Id. at 12–13. In August 1993, Salahi accompanied Abu Hafs to an al-Qaida safe house in Mauritania. Id. at 8. Several years later, Abu Hafs asked Salahi to meet with Abu Hajar al-Iraqi, allegedly al-Qaida’s telecommunications chief, when al-Iraqi visited Germany in late 1995 and early 1996 to explore purchasing telecommunications equipment for al Qaida operations in Sudan. Id. at 8, 12. At the evidentiary hearing in the district court, Salahi testified that his involvement with al-Iraqi was limited to discussing the telecommunications equipment al-Iraqi planned to purchase and to driving him to various locations. Hr’g Tr. at 551:15–22 (Dec. 15, 2009). The record contains evidence of additional contacts with Abu Hafs. For example, in December 1997, and then again in December 1998, Salahi transferred $4,000 to Mauritania for Abu Hafs, but the district court noted that “the government relie[d] on nothing but Salahi’s uncorroborated, coerced  statements” to tie these money transfers to al-Qaida. Salahi, 710 F. Supp. 2d at 14. Also, around November 1999, Abu Hafs encouraged Salahi to return to Afghanistan, sending him money and two passports. Id. at 13. Although Salahi declined his cousin’s invitation, he retained the passports for over a year. Salahi eventually gave one of the passports to his ex-wife, presumably to return to her sister, the passport’s owner. He gave the other passport directly to its purported owner, Ahmed Mazid, who was introduced to Salahi by Saleh al-Libi, an al-Qaida member from Libya. Id. at 13, 15; Hr’g Tr. at 570:13–16 (Dec. 15, 2009). Around the time Abu Hafs sent Salahi the passports, al-Qaida was allegedly seeking to improve Internet connections between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Salahi, 710 F. Supp. 2d at 12. The government argued that Salahi’s receipt of the two passports corroborated earlier statements he made to interrogators that he was asked to assist with this project, but the district court found only that Salahi’s receipt and retention of the passports raised “unanswered questions about the lawfulness of his activities and the nature of his relationship with Abu Hafs.” Id. at 13. The government also alleges that Salahi interacted with members of an al-Qaida cell during a brief stay in Montreal, Canada, from November 1999 to January 2000. Although this Montreal al-Qaida cell has been linked to the unsuccessful Millennium Plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport, the government does not allege that Salahi participated in that effort. Id. at 14. Much about Salahi’s connections to the Montreal cell remains hazy and disputed, and for its part, the district court concluded that the government’s evidence of Salahi’s activities in Canada did not “add [anything] of significance to the proof that Salahi was ‘part of’ al-Qaida,” although the evidence might be sufficient “to support a criminal charge of providing material support” to the organization. Id. at 15; see also 18 U.S.C. § 2339B. After leaving Canada, Salahi returned to Mauritania, where according to the government he “performed computer activities with a goal of helping al-Qaida.” Appellants’ Opening Br. 43. For example, Salahi considered creating an Internet discussion group about fighting jihad but dropped the plan after a German al-Qaida operative, Christian Ganczarski, suggested that the discussion group would attract attention from authorities. Salahi, 710 F. Supp. 2d at 13. Salahi may also have subscribed to electronic mailing lists through which he received emails discussing cyber-attacks. Two such emails were found on a computer Salahi used at his workplace in Mauritania. Id. The computer also contained a third document with instructions on implementing cyber-attacks. Id. The district court concluded that although these three documents are “not evidence that Salahi engaged in . . . cyberattacks,” they nonetheless corroborate Salahi’s statements to interrogators that “he knew about and had some involvement in planning for denial of service computer attacks.” Id. Salahi was captured in Mauritania in November 2001 and has been held at the United States Naval Station at  Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since 2002. In December 2004, Salahi appeared before a Combatant Status Review Tribunal, which concluded that he was lawfully detained. See Parhat v. Gates, 532 F.3d 834, 837–41 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (describing the establishment of Combatant Status Review Tribunals and the procedures under which they operate). He then filed the habeas petition that is the subject of this appeal.
There is yet one more reason to look askance at claims that Slahi was, as Col. Morris Davis put it to the BBC this morning, a Forest Gump figure in Al Qaeda---someone who showed up everywhere but by coincidence, not by design. He flipped. And when flipped, he appears to have provided a huge amount of information to the U.S. government that someone who had played no role in Al Qaeda just would not have had access to. Back in 2010, before the current cult of Slahi began, Peter Finn wrote an excellent Washington Post article about him and another informant, former Al Qaeda bomb-maker Tariq al-Sawah. According to Finn, “At some point, [Slahi] began to provide information that helped officials chart connections among Islamist radicals across Europe.” In The Terror Courts, Wall Street Journal reporter Jess Bravin offers a bit more detail:
“After he broke, he gushed, he told us more than we could process,” said a person familiar with the interrogations. “He wrote and wrote, he did homework every night. We gave him a computer, and he immediately wrote a long autobiography. Then he began to map out the structure of al Qaeda—each name with the hyperlink, showing who else he knew.”
How valuable was this information? Finn writes:
Sawah, now 52, and Slahi, now 39, have become two of the most significant informants ever to be held at Guantanamo. Today, they are housed in a little fenced-in compound at the military prison, where they live a life of relative privilege—gardening, writing and painting—separated from other detainees in a cocoon designed to reward and protect. . . . By all accounts, Guantanamo has become a surreal sort of home for Sawah and Slahi. Each has a modular unit outfitted with a television. Each has a well-stocked refrigerator. They share a garden, where they grow mint for tea. Together—and they are reported to have become close—they are known by some in the military as Guantanamo’s “Odd Couple”: The taciturn Sawah is 5-foot-10 and has, on occasion, ballooned to more than 400 pounds; the gregarious Slahi is short and slight. Sawah, an enthusiastic painter, has decorated his place with his own watercolor scenes of the ocean and has been allowed chaperoned walks by the sea. Slahi has used his time at Guantanamo to write his memoirs. “A little advertisement,” he told a military panel in describing the project, while expressing the hope that it would one day be declassified and published. “It is a very interesting book.”
Now his book has been published. It is, undoubtedly a very interesting book. But it is not a simple book. And moral outrage at Slahi’s treatment should not cause major media organizations to blur who he was or what he did. Only in the oddly fevered anti-Americanism of news organizations obsessed with Guantanamo would the publication of this manuscript---the meat of which has been available for a long time---push the current activities of Boko Haram to the second half of an hour of news.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

Subscribe to Lawfare