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Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret

Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret

As a result of Salahi’s coöperation, his private cell was now stocked with what the government referred to as “comfort items.” After the pillow came soap, towels, a prayer cap, and prayer beads—by the time Steve Wood arrived, Salahi also had books, a television, a PlayStation, and an old laptop, on which he killed time playing chess and watching DVDs. Eventually, Salahi would be allowed access to a small patch of soil outside his trailer, where he tended sunflowers, basil, sage, parsley, and cilantro. “What I was told was that his information had saved thousands of American lives,” Wood said, “and this is what they’d given him to keep talking.”

Salahi was taken into custody when he was thirty years old, but he had already lived on four continents, and spoke fluent Arabic, French, and German. English was his fourth language. Since he had learned it in captivity, some of his earliest phrases were “I ain’t done nothing,” “cavity search,” “fuck this,” and “fuck that.” “My problem is that I had been picking the language from the ‘wrong’ people—namely, U.S. Forces recruits who speak grammatically incorrectly,” he wrote on a scrap of paper inside his cell. “English accepts more curses than any other language, and I soon learned to curse with the commoners.”

As a matter of professionalism, Wood resolved from the outset to bury in the back of his mind what he had heard of Salahi’s past. “It’s hard to sit there and laugh and chat with the guy, if he’s actually that bad,” Wood told me. The night shift was twelve hours, and he never saw Salahi shackled or restrained. Other Guantánamo prisoners threw punches and feces and urine, but, according to the classified dossier, Salahi’s only disciplinary infraction was that, on May 11, 2003, he “possessed an excessive amount of MRE food.”

Salahi often appeared sullen and withdrawn. But, when he wanted to engage, he spoke with a worldly, provocative humor that Wood found appealing. He liked to rile his guards into debating equality, race, and religion, and he wielded a sophisticated understanding of history and geopolitics to chip away at their beliefs. Before meeting Salahi, Wood had never heard of Mauritania; Salahi told him that, to his great embarrassment, slavery was still practiced there, even among people close to him. Salahi also pushed him to research Western foreign-policy blunders—for example, that in 1953 the American and the British intelligence services had orchestrated a coup in Iran, overthrowing a popular Prime Minister in order to prop up a tyrannical, pro-Western Shah. “Have you heard of Nelson Mandela?” Wood recalled Salahi saying. “Look him up, dude. Look up the prison on Robben Island. See if you think his captivity was just. See what it did to his family.”

A job posting depicts life as an intelligence officer in Guantánamo Bay as “a rewarding challenge with incredible surroundings”—sunsets, beaches, iguanas, pristine Caribbean blue. “After a hustled day of tackling a myriad of issues and directly contributing to the global war on terrorism,” it reads, “fun awaits.” Officers could partake in pottery classes, paintball, rugby, tennis, and softball, or exercise in several pools and gyms. The local dive shop offered gear and certifications for sailing, water-skiing, snorkelling, scuba diving, and more: “No experience, no problem. . . . Relaxing is easy.”

In practice, many military-police officers killed time by watching movies and getting drunk at the Tiki Bar; they also took flights to Afghanistan, to pick up more detainees. But Wood spent his days in the base library, researching topics that Salahi had brought up in the cell. He devoured volumes on history, foreign affairs, politics, civil rights—“pretty much any type of book you could think of, other than, like, romance novels,” he said. “I was educating myself on the world.” But, because Salahi’s trailer was a national secret, Wood kept a cordial distance from most of the other guards. “I’d come home and iron my uniform, and my roommates didn’t know a thing,” he said. “They’d ask me, ‘Who’s in there?,’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know, probably somebody famous.’ ”

In time, Wood began to think of everything he had known before meeting Salahi as a narrow-minded myth of American superiority, notable for its omissions of overseas misadventures. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration’s pretext for invading Iraq was collapsing, and so was Wood’s trust in government. It was the spring of 2004. There were no weapons of mass destruction. The “mission” had not been “accomplished.” When Wood watched the evening news, he saw photographs of American M.P.s torturing and sexually humiliating Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib. He began to wonder whether the case against Mohamedou Salahi was as flimsy and politically motivated as that for the invasion had been. “I was, like, What else have they lied about?” he said.

Salahi underwent daily interrogations. The sessions Wood witnessed were calm and courteous, with Salahi attempting to answer everything asked of him. “It was the pretty blond interrogator bringing in these disks with footage from Al Qaeda and Taliban training camps in Afghanistan,” Wood recalled. The videos had been pulled from jihadi Web sites, or captured by intelligence officers during raids, and Salahi’s role was to identify the people in them. But sometimes, after coöperating, “he’d get depressed and anxious, and say, ‘I’m a bad Muslim,’ ” Wood told me. “And I’d say, ‘No matter what you did in the past, man, you’ve saved thousands of lives.’ I’d always say that, and he’d just shake his head, like, ‘Bullshit.’ ”

One night, when Salahi was asleep, Wood heard sounds that reminded him of a child having a nightmare. He walked into the sleeping area and found Salahi lying in the fetal position, shaking. No adult in Wood’s life had ever looked so frightened and so vulnerable. He gently held Salahi’s shoulder, and said, “Everything’s O.K.” Salahi shook his head, and clicked his tongue in disagreement, but refused to speak. The next day, Wood pressed him to talk about the episode, but Salahi wouldn’t elaborate. He just said, “Dude, they fucked me up.”

The night terrors kept coming. Salahi was on a diet of Ensure nutrition shakes and antidepressants. One day, he complained to Wood that the interrogators were demanding information on events that he couldn’t possibly know about, because they had taken place while he was in custody.

Although Wood had introduced himself to Salahi as Stretch, his nickname from the sawmill, Salahi had quickly learned his real name, as well as those of the other guards. “The tape would fall off our uniforms,” Wood recalled. “We’d try to cover it back up, real quick, but eventually we were, like, fuck it. We knew he wasn’t a threat.” Where once he had struggled to forgive himself for enjoying Salahi’s company, he now felt bad about having to lock the door at the end of each shift. He walked into the morning sunlight in a daze, unable to reconcile his impression of the man in Echo Special with the depiction of the terrorist in the dossier. Had Wood remained as a regular guard, in one of the regular cellblocks, he might have finished his deployment with his understanding of the global war on terror more or less intact. Instead, he began to wonder whether what he was actually protecting at Guantánamo was one of the government’s darkest secrets: that its highest-value military detainee was being held essentially by mistake, and that his isolation in Echo Special was intended to cover up the hell that had been inflicted upon him.

One day, Salahi started requesting paper from his guards. As the result of a recent court ruling, Guantánamo detainees had access to legal representation, and so, during the next several months, Salahi drafted a diary of his detention as a series of harrowing letters to his lawyers, Nancy Hollander, Sylvia Royce, and Theresa Duncan—four hundred and sixty-six pages, sealed in envelopes and mailed to a classified facility near Washington, D.C. No guards or interrogators were allowed to read Salahi’s work. For the first time, he described his experiences without fear of retribution. On one page, he recalled the day he got his nickname, when an interrogator brought him a pillow. “I received the present with a fake overwhelming happiness, and not because I was dying to get a pillow,” he wrote. “No. I took the pillow as a sign of the end of the physical torture.”

The Detainee