At the Mercy of Fools

grew up in New Delhi and the suburbs outside Washington, DC, and now lives in Southwest Ohio with his wife and son. He works as a gardener at a teaching farm, and writes about food, plants, and the arts in their various wild and domesticated forms.

Guantánamo Diary, Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Canongate, 2015)


Mohamedou Ould Slahi first appeared on the radar of American intelligence in 2000. Slahi, a Mauritanian, was then living in Montreal, and attended the same mosque as Ahmed Ressam, who tried in 2000 to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport.

A number of things made Slahi suspicious. First, he had fought with Al Qaeda in 1991 and 1992, when the organisation — with American support — was trying to overthrow the communist-led government of Afghanistan. Before moving to Canada, Slahi had lived in Germany, and a few encounters there set off intelligence alerts. Abu Hafs, one of Bin Laden’s advisers, was married to Slahi’s wife’s sister, and Slahi had twice helped his brother-in-law transfer money back to his family during the Ramadan holidays. Also, it was later discovered that Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, who was involved in planning 9/11, had spent a night in Slahi’s house in Duisberg. For these associations, Slahi has, for the last fourteen years, lived under the control of America’s shadow government — by this I mean all of the parts of our military and intelligence agencies that operate outside of public scrutiny, and to a significant extent outside of democratic control.

Slahi left Canada in 2000, partly out of terror at the surveillance that began there, and returned home to Mauritania. After turning himself in for further questioning after September 11th, he was kidnapped and taken to Jordan, then to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and finally to Guantánamo Bay. At every stop, he has been subjected to torture: extreme temperatures, beatings, sexual humiliation, borderline starvation, sleep deprivation, threats to his family and life, and extended periods of total isolation.

After one such period of torture in Guantánamo, Slahi told his interrogators he was ready to confess. ‘If you’re ready to buy,’ Slahi said, to quote his account in Diary, ‘I am selling.’ He then penned a confession indicating that he planned to blow up the CN Tower in Canada. His interrogators, pleased, asked for some corroborating details. When they became frustrated with his responses, Slahi said, ‘Just tell me the right answer. Is it good to say yes or to say no?’

Apparently some particularly odd elements of his confession — such as Slahi’s claim that he planned to mix sugar with the explosives — prompted his interrogators to give him a polygraph. On October 31st, 2004, after years of torture and confinement, the polygraph registered ‘No Deception Indicated’ or ‘No Opinion’ when Slahi asserted that he knew nothing about any terrorist plots.

After this point, his treatment seems to have improved. In 2005, Slahi handwrote a writ of habeas corpus, and also the pages of this book. A US District Court judge ordered him released in 2010, but he still remains in Guantánamo pending the government’s appeal. It is unclear what, if anything, he can be charged with.


I picked up Guantánamo Diary purely out of a sense of guilt and obligation as an American. Very quickly, though, I began to read, to my astonishment, with delight. Written in a slangy American English that the author has picked up from his captors, the pages are filled with such liveliness and insight that you forget the circumstances in which they were written — on sheets of unlined paper in a segregation cell, with no end in sight and no guarantee that any of it would be read. In his curiosity about virtually everything, his extraordinary fairness to his persecutors, and the warmth of his humour, Slahi reminds me a great deal of Primo Levi. Like Levi’s great memoirs, Slahi’s Diary is a work of witness, a catalogue of brutal torments and occasional joys, and a guide to survival and sanity under obscene conditions. It is also — and in this way Slahi is unique — a first-hand tour of the shadow government under which all of us, in some form, live.

Fantasies about this government are difficult to avoid. Mine, I will admit, are particularly incoherent. A repressive surveillance state is about to descend on us, so we need to be vigilant; but we can also ignore them entirely, because they will soon wither away like sick flowers and leave us to dig our cabbages in peace.

Never, though, in all my rumination and reading and watching of spy movies did I imagine a scene like the following. Here, in Slahi’s own words, is the American intelligence community’s attempt to forge a letter from his brother:

… the forgery was so clumsy and unprofessional that no fool would fall for it. First, I have no brother with that name. Second, my name was misspelled. Third, my family doesn’t live where the correspondent mentioned, though it was close. Fourth, I know not only the handwriting of every single member of my family, but also the way each one phrases his ideas. The letter was kind of a sermon, ‘Be patient like your ancestors, and have faith that Allah is going to reward you…’

Perhaps naively, I was stunned by this. I went into this book expecting evil, and evil, for me, has always been bound up with the concept of intelligence. The dark power behind the throne — from the scheming minister to the angel Lucifer to our shadow government — is supposed to be good at what it does. Remember that these are a few hundred of the highest value detainees the Americans possess. Surely the best people have been sent to interrogate them. Could something else be going on with this amateurish letter? Slowly, though, the evidence in the book piles up: these are their best people. The letter is an entirely representative sample of their abilities.

So, when the interrogators attempt to disorient Slahi in terms of time, their plan fails because their wristwatches are clearly visible. Their printouts, which they show to Slahi, contain date and timestamps, and they are then flummoxed when he knows the time and date. One white interrogator, who Slahi describes as ‘very silly’, threatens him with the prospect of a black colleague. Slahi is confused about why this should scare him, since he points out that ‘half of my country is black people.’

Other interrogators tell Slahi that they have an incriminating videotape of him planning terrorist attacks. When he is almost convinced that he did plan such an attack, they show him Bin Laden speaking to an unknown operative. Slahi can only respond, ‘You realise that I am not Usama bin Laden, don’t you?’ Another interrogator, Slahi writes, ‘is one of the laziest people I ever knew. He didn’t take time to read reports, and so he always mistook me for other suspects.’ I’m not sure what sort of information you can get when fiercely interrogating a suspect you think is another person.

One can go on and on. It is hard to imagine a less competent interrogation than the one depicted in the pages of this book. For every reasonably intelligent guard or interrogator, there are six or seven like the ones above. And the stupidity clearly rises all the way up the ranks. There are over two thousand black-bar redactions in Guantánamo Diary. These people have high-level security clearance and the responsibility to guard America’s national secrets; presumably many people work under them; and on every page of this book they display some mixture of sloth and ignorance.

Names are redacted on one page and revealed on the next; some of the redacted names are historical figures, like Gamal Nasser, who the censor seems not to have recognised; female pronouns are the only ones blacked-out, and it has occurred to no one that this makes it pretty obvious which officers are female. Larry Siems, the Diary’s editor, has done a fine job making educated guesses, but much of the censorship is so careless that he doesn’t even have to work hard.

‘Orwellian’ — this word has great currency in our society. Politicians use it almost reflexively when criticising the overreach of various intelligence agencies. There is, though — and Orwell would have appreciated this irony — a compliment hidden in the word. ‘Orwellian’ indicates not just fearsome technological capacities of surveillance and repression, but the accompanying skill and insight to use them to achieve desired ends. Remember, when Winston is being tortured by O’Brien, how he is almost grateful to be at last so profoundly understood.

I would like to coin a new word in honour of the author of this book: Slahian. A Slahian situation is where an entity possesses those same fearsome resources, but can only wield them bumblingly, because there is insufficient intelligence left in the system to use them in any other way.

This is the truth that Orwell missed in 1984, or perhaps hinted at in his sly appendix: tyrannies — and there is no question that America is field-testing tyranny in Guantánamo Bay — have a built-in limiting agent, because the mature fruit of tyranny is idiocy. This fruit has clearly been ripening for some time in America; it is very soft right now, and quite possibly about to fall on all of us.

There seem to be two processes at work in this decay of intelligence: first, the driving out of capable people, and second, a belief that human capacity is not important anyway, because it can simply be replaced by more sophisticated technology.

One can see the first process at work in the account of Slahi’s detention that Siems provides in his introduction. Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch was the first prosecutor in the case. After realising that Slahi’s confessions were produced under torture, and in any case highly implausible, he had a crisis of conscience. Couch describes being at a baptism one Sunday, and hearing words spoken about human dignity:

And when we spoke those words that morning, there were a lot of people in that church, but I could have been the only one there. I just felt this incredible, alright, there it is. You can’t come in here on Sunday, and as a Christian, subscribe to the belief of dignity of every human being and say I will seek justice and peace on the earth, and continue to go with the prosecution using that kind of evidence.

In an earlier era, this evidently decent man, with intelligence enough to connect his faith and his conduct, would have gone to his superiors and worked to get Slahi released. In today’s military, all he can do is free himself from the contagion. Couch withdrew from the case, Slahi’s life remained unchanged, and the military became a little less capable than it was before.

Couch is not an isolated instance. Throughout this book, the dumb and the brutal stick around; everyone else leaves or gets transferred. The commander of Guantánamo’s detention operations in August 2002, for example, told journalists that he and his uniformed officers were questioning the ‘enemy combatant’ designation that denied the detainees Geneva Convention protections. Apparently little was being accomplished by mistreating the low-level operatives — along with the totally innocent — who were imprisoned there. ‘The Pentagon’s solution,’ Siems writes, ‘was to replace that commander and ratchet up the camp’s intelligence operations.’ I have some guesses about the character and abilities of the person he was replaced with.

As smart people leave, higher-order responsibilities are simply transferred to computers. The motto for today’s shadow government might as well be, ‘Thinking? Our machines will do that for us.’ Slahi’s only crime, as noted above, is suspicious associations. These are the kind of things — phone call records, money transfers — that a computer can spot. After the computer finds its connections, though, you still need some sort of human discrimination to recognise which patterns are consequential, and this is precisely what is in short supply.

Notice that the Americans interrogators, who spend countless hours with Slahi, never consider that he might be innocent based on their own observations; it is only the polygraph, an extremely unreliable mechanical device, that changes his fortunes. So when SKYNET, a tracking system named — my God, consciously? — after the mainframe which enslaves mankind in the Terminator films, analyses phone call data to flag a man as Al Qaeda, there is inadequate human judgement behind the computer to spot that this is because he is a journalist.

A computer tells another computer to drop a bomb; it kills a grandmother picking okra in Pakistan. No one can explain the reason; this is a state secret, and the secret, almost certainly, is that there is no reason. The computer told them to do it. There are various intersections of data, and some of them happen to result in dead grandmothers. Since mistakes have no consequences for the perpetrators, the shadow government keeps on doing the same thing, and anyone smart enough to see that this is counter-productive — or simply disgusting—cannot survive for long inside this organism.


I think Guantánamo Diary will eventually be seen as one of the central documents of our time. Aside from the depth and wit of its writing, it contains the best available portrait of our decaying shadow government, and has valuable insights on ways to live with it while it maintains its power.

Early on, when Slahi is about to be handed over to the Mauritanian state for questioning, he entertains various plans for escape, and then, as he gives up on his fantasies, coins this wonderful aphorism: ‘The key to surviving any situation is to realise that you are in it.’

Here is an incident that gets at the heart of the Slahian situation. A bored guard teaches the detainee chess. Within a few games, the detainee begins to beat the guard easily. This enrages the man. The detainee must then carefully plan a strategy that ensures that he will lose each game. The guard is pleased with his great skill and continues to treat the prisoner well.

The central lessons of Slahi’s experience of American detention can be gleaned from this story. First and foremost, don’t display any intelligence. Stay silent or don the mask of an affable simpleton. Slahi manages this much of the time, but putting this sort of straightjacket on your consciousness ends up being impossible for someone as lively and open-hearted as he is. The results are a few genuine relationships with sympathetic guards (soon transferred away), and also this great book, which poured out in the months after the polygraph ended the worst of his treatment.

This leads to a depressing thought: if Slahi hadn’t written the Diary, and had, like the Good Soldier Svejk, kept up his mask of amiable idiocy, he might be a free man by now. The Americans have released other detainees they couldn’t charge with anything, and there seems to be no explanation for why they are so determined to hold onto Slahi other than his ability to sympathetically communicate in English about the conditions of his detention.

We are in a strange moment in America — and I am very curious what the view looks like from readers in other countries — between types of societies and forms of government, where a book can be published while its author remains imprisoned without charges for fourteen years; where the most damning information freely circulates while public silence becomes, quite possibly, a better strategy for survival than speaking out.

I don’t mean to sound deterministic, because it has taken a lot of good, hard work from people like the ACLU to make this book available to us. There are decent people even in Guantánamo — Slahi always acknowledges them, and the small kindnesses he has received. Every one of these counter-currents is to be valued and supported. But behind every black line in this book, I see a bored, vacant face — terrible at chess and convinced that it is a grandmaster; destroying itself and convinced that it is winning — and I have no idea how to reach it, or how to hide from it.

Here, though, is a person living in a present as bad as any future I can imagine, and displaying more grace, flexibility, and resourcefulness as a prisoner than most of us manage under kinder conditions — a living example of how a Slahian situation can be survived with dignity and wit intact. At the end of the Diary, you will find the following Author’s Note:

In a recent conversation with one of his lawyers, Mohamedou said that he holds no grudge against any of the people he mentions in this book, that he appeals to them to read it and correct it if they think it contains any errors, and that he dreams to one day sit with all of them around a cup of tea, after having learned so much from one another.


  1. Thanks, Akshay, for a really thoughtful and thought provoking review. When the pages of one man’s reality read like Thomas Pynchon doing George Orwell…who knows what could happen next?

    I believe another central document of our time will be Mike Lofgren’s Anatomy of the Deep State, which is a sort of coda to the connections between Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and the military-industrial-homeland security complex that have arisen post-September 11th. Written by a former Republican congressional aide, no less!

  2. Hi Akshay,

    Much appreciated your piece, thanks for it, and I agree with most of what you’re saying.

    But I do make a difference between foolishness and psychosis, and it’s the latter which worries me most when observing the little which we’re allowed to observe about the doings and not-doings of our “elite”.

    And since in the free-market society that we’re living in there’s at least a trickle-down effect in this respect – the psychosis I mean – I’m actually very worried about seeing it spreading all around me, a little more of it every day, it seems.

    And so long for the cabbage growing – that’s what I’m afraid of.

    I’d love to talk some more about this with you, please write back if you feel like it,



  3. Dear Mike — many thanks for the suggestion — I’m definitely going to look up Lofgren’s book. One of the interesting things I noticed about our culture, particularly popular culture, is that it is no longer daring to say that the government is full of idiots, but the shadow state (spies, operatives, military brass) is still assumed to possess great competence and skill. We then get into moral arguments about whether they should be allowed to do various things. The fact that they can’t do them effectively anyway strikes me as a more damaging fact which is rarely brought up. Interestingly, the various people (e.g. in Jordan) who tortured Slahi before America took the reins all told the U.S. that he clearly knew nothing, and to let him go. So they did in fact figure out the truth which escaped the American torturers.

    Theodor, I’m not sure where the line is between foolishness and psychosis; maybe the distinction isn’t hugely important, as the actions they produce end up being quite similar.

    Keep digging your cabbages, I say. They are good to eat right now.

  4. The Oklahoman’s sport staff discusses Russell Westbrook’s contract extension and the event where the announcement was officially made.


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