'Imagine the Worst Possible Scenario': Why a Guantanamo Prosecutor Withdrew From the Case

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Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch truly believed Mohamedou Ould Slahi was guilty. He also believed that Slahi's interrogators had broken the law — tormenting him physically and sexually, and threatening the gang-rape of his mother.

guantanamo-protest-top.jpgIn Washington, D.C., members of the group Witness Against Torture protest the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. (Reuters)

Stuart Couch had been waiting nearly two years to start this job. He had been waiting since September 11, 2001.

Couch, a lieutenant colonel in the United States Marine Corps, was a military prosecutor. When President George W. Bush decreed that the 9/11 perpetrators would face trial by military commission, a form of martial justice last used against German and Japanese war criminals following World War II, Couch had volunteered for the mission.

Arriving at Guantanamo in October 2003, Couch was startled by an unlikely sound: grating, blasting, heavy-metal music. He went to look into the commotion. Perhaps some off-duty guards were fooling around with a boom box, he thought.

With his escort trailing behind, Couch followed the music toward an open door, where a strobe light's flash was spilling into the corridor.

Couch turned into the doorway. He froze.

On the floor, amid the flashing lights and the deafening metal sounds, was a shackled detainee, kneeling, mumbling, rocking back and forth. Praying. This man was in agony.

Let the bodies hit the . . . floor! the song roared. Beaten, why for (why for).

Couch suddenly noticed that two men in polo shirts — apparently civilians, judging by their hair length — also were in the room. They planted themselves in the doorway, blocking his view.

"Can I help you?" one of the men shouted over the music. They looked to be in their late 20s or early 30s. Neither seemed particularly fit, nor were they groomed like military men. One wore hair mousse. The other, the fatter one, had a chin-beard.

"I'm Lieutenant Colonel Couch, and I'm trying to have an interview over here," Couch said. "You guys need to turn that down."

The men shut the door.

***

That scene was still resonating through Couch's mind when he met with his CITF investigator. The top priority was Mohamedou Ould Slahi — the detainee, Couch concluded, with "the most blood on his hands."

Born around 1970, Slahi, a military interrogator later said, was "bright, capable, likable." Slahi knew Arabic, French, and German when he arrived at Guantanamo and picked up casual English by his second year at the prison.

This sophistication was remarkable, given that Slahi came from simple circumstances in Mauritania. He was the eighth of a camel herder's 13 children. After his father died, Slahi's mother kept the family together. Mohamedou revered her.

In 1988, Slahi won a scholarship to study in Germany. He was the first in his family to attend university — or fly on an airplane. He studied computers, electrical engineering and microelectronics.

"He was supposed to save us financially," his younger brother Jahdih later said. On a visit home, Slahi brought toys, cameras, and soccer balls.

"It was very clumsy," Slahi later said, "but they wanted to give the message that 'We are watching you.'"

But Slahi spent much of 1990 through 1992 in Afghanistan, one of many Arabs helping fight the Communist regime in Kabul. He trained at the al Farouk camp, took the alias Abu Masab, and pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden.

After the Communists fell, Slahi returned to Germany, where over the next six years he ran low-profile businesses that U.S. intelligence later suspected were al Qaeda fronts to launder money and recruit fighters. After making the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of Muslims, Slahi moved to Canada and became a prayer leader at a mosque in Montreal.

Western intelligence agencies had been aware of Slahi before the Millennium Plot, which involved plans to bomb the Los Angeles airport and four popular tourist sites in Jordan. When Ahmed Ressam was arrested for his role in the plot in December 1999, intelligence officials learned that he belonged to the Montreal mosque where Slahi led prayer services.

Canadian authorities questioned Slahi, sent officers to his mosque, and put a police car on his tail. One night, Slahi later said, he was awoken by agents drilling holes into his third-floor apartment to plant surveillance cameras. He called the local police station, saying his neighbor was spying on him; the police suggested he cover the holes with glue.

"It was very clumsy," Slahi later said, "but they wanted to give the message that 'We are watching you.'" He moved to a room at the mosque, but the surveillance continued.

Tired of constantly having "people right behind me, at the market, watching my butt," Slahi decided to return to Mauritania. The FBI tracked his itinerary: flying via Brussels to Dakar, Senegal, where his brothers were to pick him up for the 270-mile drive north to Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital.

At Washington's request, Senegalese police arrested Slahi when he landed. He was questioned about the Millennium Plot and his jihadist past, but denied everything. Four days later, the Senegalese put Slahi on a private plane to Nouakchott, where he was arrested again.

An American team came to interrogate Slahi. He continued to deny wrongdoing, and after three weeks the Mauritanians released him. "The Americans keep saying you are a link," Slahi later said Mauritanian officials told him. "But they didn't give us any proof, so what should we do?"

After 9/11, American agents went back to question Slahi in Nouakchott. One struck him with a plastic water bottle and threatened torture, Slahi said. The next month, Mauritanian intelligence called Slahi in for more questions.

Why not flee?

"Maybe I'm stupid, I don't know," Slahi later said. "I went to the police and said, 'Why do you want me?' They said, 'Please don't worry, it is just formalities.' "

After a week in jail, however, he learned he was being sent to Jordan. This was disturbing, Slahi thought, because "the Jordanians have [a] very bad reputation when it comes to treatment of detainees."

"Can you turn me over to the United States?" he asked. "What do I have to do with Jordan? Turn me over to America."

"The United States wants you to be turned over to Jordan," he was told.

"Then, man," Slahi said, "what happened to me there is beyond description."

Jordanian agents pressed him on the Millennium Plot. One "struck me twice in the face on different occasions and pushed me against concrete many times because I refused to talk," Slahi said. "He threatened me with torture" and pointed out another prisoner, "this guy who was beaten so much he was crying, crying like a child." As the months dragged on, Slahi said, he lost so much weight that he looked "like a ghost."

In July 2002, U.S. agents showed up to retrieve him.

"They stripped me naked like my mom bore me, and they put new clothes on me," Slahi said. Aboard the plane, he was chained in place and fitted with a diaper. "I had to keep my water for eight hours straight," he recalled. "Psychologically, I couldn't [urinate] in the diaper. I tried to convince myself that it was okay, but I couldn't and I was exploding [on the inside]."

Slahi figured he would be returned to the Germans. "I was happy, because [I] know Germany and I think Europe is a lot more liberal than America," he said. "I thought they were going to ask me a few questions and then I would go to jail and I will be all right."

When Slahi arrived at Guantanamo, the FBI insisted on taking charge. For several months, he was questioned exclusively by FBI and CITF investigators, who generally followed their law enforcement training.

"The FBI guy said, 'We don't beat people, we don't torture. It's not allowed,"' Slahi said. "I was, every once in a while, taken to interrogation. Okay, so far so good."

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Jess Bravin is the Wall Street Journal's Supreme Court correspondent and the author of The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay.

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