On Monday, federal Judge James Robertson ordered the release of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a Guantánamo Bay detainee who had petitioned for habeas corpus back in 2005. The explanation for the decision is now classified, but Robertson stated he would make it public in the next few weeks. Slahi is the 34th prisoner to be released from Guantánamo since the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that detainees could challenge their detention in U.S. courts.
But Slahi is also what authorities called a "highly valued detainee." He is suspected of helping recruit the 9/11 hijackers in Germany and of involvement in the attempted millennium bombing in Los Angeles. He has also been held illegally in Guantánamo for eight years without criminal charges.
Like most things pertaining to the war on terror, Monday’s ruling produced some gross misinterpretations. Several Fox News hosts, for instance, suggested that Robertson's decision was a result of President Obama's push for civilian trials for some Guantánamo detainees. But the chain of events that brought the Slahi case to Robertson actually began years before Obama's presidency.
In March 2004, Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, the prosecutor in Slahi’s military trial, halted that process, claiming that the evidence against Slahi had been obtained through torture and was thus inadmissible under U.S. and international law. It is this mistreatment, ultimately, that allowed Slahi to win his release this week.
Indeed, what is most notable about the Slahi case is how severe and well-documented his mistreatment was. A report released last April by the Senate Armed Services Committee highlighted the interrogation techniques used against Slahi, who has become a notorious example of mistreatment of U.S. prisoners of war.
In 2003, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave approval to a memo outlining standard interrogation techniques against terror suspects. The list included sleep deprivation, emotional abuse, hooding, strip-searching using female interrogators, and using dogs to agitate and shock detainees. (Curiously, months earlier, Maj. Gen.Geoffrey Miller, one of Gitmo’s interrogation authorities, had deemed the use of dogs an unacceptable technique. But Rumsfeld approved the memo nonetheless.)
In July 2003, interrogators requested permission to use addition techniques against Slahi, including: replicating the "Stockholm syndrome," in which he was made to believe he was going to be killed; shackling him in a room for hours; playing loud music; and claiming his mother was detained and implying she would be gang-raped by the guards.
Almost as frightening as these techniques was the gross disregard for the rule of law, even within the convoluted legal world of Guantánamo. Interrogators had already started using some special techniques five days before Rumsfeld approved the memo. Moreover, Slahi had already agreed to cooperate by August 2003, but interrogations continued for months after anyway.
That October, an e-mail between an interrogator and the Gitmo psychologist Diane Zierhoffer discussed Slahi’s mental state:
An October 17, 2003 email from a JTF-GTMO interrogator to LTC Diane Zierhoffer, a ITF-GTMO Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) Psychologist, stated that ‘Slahi told me he is "hearing voices' now... He is worried as he knows this is not normal.... By the way... is this something that happens to people who have little external stimulus such as daylight, human interaction etc???? Seems a little creepy.’ …LTC Zierhoffer responded ‘sensory deprivation can cause hallucinations, usually visual rather than auditory, but you never know...In the dark you create things out of what little you have ...’
Robertson’s ruling points to a failure on the part of the military and CIA to treat prisoners humanely, and also a stunning lack of knowledge about the effects of torture on suspects’ mental health.
But the ruling also speaks far louder to the credibility of our judicial system to hold the CIA and military accountable, especially at a time of war. What’s ultimately frightening is not that a suspected terrorist was released, but that interrogators didn’t believe their actions would have consequences. They did, and that's why Slahi is a free man today.