The Long Shadow of the CIA at Guantánamo

Dissecting the U.S. government’s justification for indefinite detention.


| Summer 2015


Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a designated “high-value detainee” in U.S. government parlance, is on trial in the Guantánamo Bay military commissions. The 49-year old Saudi Arabian is accused of directing the October 2000 al-Qaeda suicide boat bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Aden, Yemen, which killed 17 sailors and injured 40 more, and a failed plan to bomb the USS The Sullivans. Five other high-value detainees, including alleged “mastermind” Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, are being tried together for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. All six could face the death penalty if convicted.

Al-Nashiri’s experiences offer a case study of how the U.S. government has chosen to wage the “war on terror” and the consequences of those choices. The Saudi Arabian represents a hard case, however, because he is a secret. For the four years he spent in the custody of the CIA, he was a ghost. Today, he remains obscured by the long shadow the CIA casts over military detention and commission operations at Guantánamo Bay. He is housed in a secret facility with other former CIA detainees, and has never been allowed to communicate by phone or Skype with members of his family, let alone anyone else (although the government recently indicated that brief, monitored and time-delayed family calls may be a possibility in the future). The American lawyers who represent him are obligated to guard their words when speaking about the years he was “disappeared” or the cause of his diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.

What makes al-Nashiri “high-value” today is not that he poses a continuing threat to national security (he is under lock and key around the clock) or that he could be tapped for actionable intelligence about terrorist plots. Rather, he, like the other high-value detainees at Guantánamo, is the literal embodiment of the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program, which remains one of the most closely guarded national security secrets despite being dry-docked in 2006 and officially terminated in January 2009. To keep the CIA’s secrets secret, these prisoners’ experiences—their overseas detention, their interrogation, the conditions of their confinement and the people involved in their abuse—remain classified. The government’s justification for its harsh incarceration of al-Nashiri in the present is that he has knowledge of classified information, namely his own memories of how he was treated by the CIA.

Keeping human beings classified is no easy feat for a government that wishes to persuade the world that Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO) detention operations are “safe, humane, legal and transparent” (the official motto) and that the military commissions are a perfectly acceptable venue for producing justice. This work is done through coercion, co-optation, and compulsion of complicity on the government’s part.