“He Reminded Me of Forrest Gump”

Guantánamo’s former chief prosecutor explains what Slahi is like and why the United States owes him more than his freedom.

Air Force Col. Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor for the Office of Military Commissions at the Department of Defense.
Air Force Col. Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor for the Office of Military Commissions at the Department of Defense.

Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Intro: U.S. Air Force Col. Morris D. Davis was appointed chief prosecutor of Guantánamo’s Office of Military Commissions in September 2005. He assumed the post not long after a wave of defections by Guantánamo prosecutors. Three military prosecutors resigned over investigation and trial procedures that they believed had been rigged to ensure convictions. A fourth, Marine Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, the officer assigned to prosecute Mohamedou Ould Slahi, had withdrawn from the case when he uncovered information about Slahi’s treatment at the hands of his interrogators. Col. Davis himself would soon follow suit. In October 2007, he resigned in protest over plans to allow testimony gained through waterboarding into commission proceedings.

LS: What was Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s status and situation when you arrived in Guantánamo?

MD: I became the chief prosecutor in September 2005; my first trip to Guantánamo was actually a few months later. I’m not sure exactly what his status was at the time, but he definitely wasn’t on my list of top priority cases.

LS: In his memoir, Slahi tells of how, shortly before his “special interrogation” began, FBI agents showed him a list of the 15 highest-priority detainees in GTMO, and he was No. 1 on the list. How do you get from there to him not even being on your radar for prosecution three years later?

The Guantánamo Memoirs of Mohamedou Ould Slahi







MD: When Slahi came in, I think the suspicion was that they’d caught a big fish. He reminded me of Forrest Gump, in the sense that there were a lot of noteworthy events in the history of al-Qaida and terrorism, and there was Slahi, lurking somewhere in the background. He was in Germany, Canada, different places that look suspicious, and that caused them to believe that he was a big fish, but then when they really invested the effort to look into it, that’s not where they came out. I remember a while after I got there, in early 2007, we had a big meeting with the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Justice, and we got a briefing from the investigators who worked on the Slahi case, and their conclusion was there’s a lot of smoke and no fire.

LS: So that was the ultimate conclusion?

MD: Yeah, the ultimate conclusion was, “This looks odd, and that looks odd, and that—and at the end of the day all we can show is that it … well, it looks odd.” … They could never directly link him to any attempt to cause any real harm.

LS: When did you first become aware of Slahi’s case?

MD: When he really came to my attention was around the summer of ’06. Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hamdan case that June, we were preparing some cases for trial, and we were looking for a detainee who could come into the courtroom and explain how al-Qaida worked—how, if you’re a David Hicks, how do you go from sitting at home in your La-Z-Boy to the front lines of terrorism? I was hoping we would do a kind of al-Qaida 101 for a military jury: Here’s how you get brought into the system, how you go through training, the way you move up, like from double-A to triple-A to the big leagues, that kind of thing.

The name we got back was Tariq al-Sawah. They said he had a 20-plus-year involvement with terrorism, had worked as a trainer in the training camps, spoke fluent English—and he’d been cooperative. That was when I was told that, yes, Sawah was the perfect person to approach to be a cooperating witness, but it was a package deal—that he and Mohamedou Ould Slahi had this kind of symbiotic relationship and you couldn’t do something for one without doing something for the other. So suddenly Slahi pops up on my radar scope, as a tag-along with Sawah.

LS: And Sawah and Slahi were living in a special arrangement by that point, where they had their own quarters, with a garden?

MD: It’s funny. That was back in the days when you couldn’t even talk about Guantánamo—it was supposed to be this super-secret place, but you could go on Google Earth, and if you knew where to look, you could zoom down and see their tomato garden. You could see where they lived. I’m assuming the picture hasn’t changed: I don’t think you can see their barbecue grill, but you can see their garden.

LS: By the time you became chief prosecutor, Lt. Col. Stuart Couch had withdrawn from Slahi’s case and written some memos about what he’d discovered about Slahi’s treatment and how he could not in good conscience prosecute his case. When did you first see those, or did you ever have conversations with Lt. Col. Couch about what Slahi had been through?

MD: I don’t recall seeing the memos, but I recall talking to Stu about it. Stu’s office was next door to mine, so I saw him frequently, and Stu wasn’t bashful. He’d been there for a good while before I came aboard, he knew all the past history, and from Day 1 he’d come in and fill me in, saying here’s what you need to be aware of, and I’ve got problems with this.

I don’t recall specifically talking with Stu about Slahi until the summer of ’06. At the time, we were trying to figure out, “What can we do with Slahi?” What we wanted to do was make a kind of plea deal with Sawah, in return for him being our inside-baseball expert. But if it was a package arrangement, we had to figure some kind of a comparable deal for Slahi, which meant we had to come up with something we could charge him with, and that was where we were having real trouble. That’s what led to the big meeting I mentioned earlier.

LS: When did you first meet Slahi?

MD: I don’t remember exactly the dates, but it was at some point after Sawah was identified as potentially the best guy to help us. I had to go through the Intel side to get to them. They’re in a unique environment: They’re inside the detention perimeter, there’s a big fence around the facility, and then they’re inside what they call the wire, which is another layer within that, so it’s a manpower-intensive effort to deal with two guys.

In all, I think I met with them on three or maybe four occasions over a period of months. They had both said that they were interested in cooperating. I didn’t have the authority to promise if you cooperate, we’ll do this or that, so I told them what I needed to know from them was what they wanted in return, a kind of laundry list of what they expected to get out of it, that I would take back to whoever had the authority to commit to the agreements. The last time I’d met with them, I asked them for this list, and I said I promised I’d come back and we’d see where we could go from there. And then the whole mess hit over including testimony gained through waterboarding and I resigned and I never saw them again.

LS: What is he like in person?

MD: I would say he’s naturally caffeinated. He’s very energetic, very outgoing, friendly. It was really interesting. He and Sawah, they’re polar opposites. Slahi is a very slight—I don’t know what he weighs, 110 pounds maybe, a little guy. And Sawah, he was kind of the opposite of the hunger strikers, because it looked like he was trying to eat himself to death; he was huge. And so you had this really big guy with this little, frail guy. Sawah was polite but he wasn’t somebody you’d sit down and have a beer with and shoot the breeze. If you talked, he would talk, and he was polite, but he wasn’t going to carry the conversation. Whereas with Slahi, it wasn’t a matter of getting him to talk, it was a matter of getting him to shut up. He was like a windup toy; once you’d get him wound up, you could hardly get him to stop to take a breath so you could interrupt him. Very gregarious, very friendly.

LS: You spoke in English?

MD: Yeah, he spoke perfect English. We had very long conversations, sitting around drinking tea. He’d always make tea. I’m not a big hot tea drinker to begin with, but he grew mint, so he’d always make mint tea.

LS: Why is he still there? Will he ever get out? What happens to him if he does? I can’t figure it out.

MD: I can’t either. The big problem that we ran into, like I said, was, “What can we charge him with?” There really is nothing I know of that you could charge Slahi with at Guantánamo. Which puts him in one of two categories: Either he is an indefinite detainee—and I don’t know what the administration plans to do with those folks, particularly as the war winds down, since we’ve always used the war as justification for indefinite detention—or he’s among the ones they want to transfer out. If it’s the latter, I don’t know what the plan is; I don’t know if Mauritania wants him back, or if another country would be willing to take him. But I think we’ve got some obligation to figure out some solution for him. I mean, the guy’s clearly been mistreated and spent more than a decade of his life in prison, so it would be kind of tough just to walk him out to the gate and say, “Have a nice life.” We owe him some help in having a life.

That’s essential. A friend of mine represented a Kuwaiti detainee who he said clearly wasn’t a terrorist when he went to Guantánamo, but after he was released and went back to Kuwait he was a pariah because he’d been a detainee. He couldn’t find a job, he couldn’t find a wife, he got shunned by his community, and the only people who would take him in were the terrorists. Now that’s not Slahi, from what I’ve seen. Still, if it was me and some country kept me locked up for more than a decade and tortured me, I’d be a little pissed. So I don’t know. But I think he would need, and deserves, some kind of help to have a productive future rather than a problematic future.

I mean from what I saw, the guy certainly has the intellect and personality. He has all the tools to do something with his life if he ever gets out of Guantánamo.

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