Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, in for Tanzina Vega. On Monday, the Biden administration announced that it had repatriated Abdul Latif Nasser out of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and back to his home country of Morocco. Nasser was held at Guantanamo for nearly two decades. US officials accused him of fighting with the Taliban against the US military in Afghanistan in 2001, but Nasser was never charged with a crime, and he was approved for release from Guantanamo back in 2016. But that never happened, a sign of the deep-seated political disagreements that have hung over the detention center since it was first used to hold detainees starting in 2002.
President George Bush: It's important for Americans and others across the world to understand the kind of people held at Guantanamo. These aren't common criminals or bystanders accidentally swept up on the battlefield.
President Barack Obama: For many years, it's been clear that the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay does not advance our national security. It undermines it. It's counterproductive to our fight against terrorists because they use it as propaganda in their efforts to recruit.
President Donald Trump: This morning. I watched president Obama talking about Gitmo, Guantanamo Bay, which, by the way, we are keeping open, which we are keeping open.
President Donald Trump: We're going to load it up with some bad dudes, believe me, we're going to load it up.
Interviewer: Do you think that you'll succeed in getting Guantanamo Bay closed?
President Joe Biden: That is my hope and expectation.
Melissa Harris-Perry: 39 detainees still remain at the facility, only 11 of whom have actually been charged with war crimes. According to the New York times, US taxpayers are paying $13 million per Guantanamo detainee per year. Now, we'll have more coming up on the Biden administration's approach to releasing detainees from Guantanamo, but first, we want to focus on a more personal aspect of Abdul Latif Nasser's story. In February 2020, the WNYC podcast Radiolab released a multi-part series called The Other Latif in which the show's cohost Latif Nasser reported extensively on the man whose name he shares.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now that the subject of his series has been released, we want to check back in with Latif Nasser about this important update. Latif, great to have you here.
Latif Nasser: Thanks for having me, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Something that you sought to learn in the podcast series was how Nasser ended up imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. What does the US government say about that?
Latif Nasser: Well, that's part of the problem, as you said, he's never been officially charged with anything. We know from leaked documents from over a decade ago, basically, what they thought this guy did. There's a pretty nefarious laundry list of things. Being a top explosives expert for Al-Qaeda, being a top military advisor to Osama bin Ladin, blowing up the UNESCO world heritage site, the Bamyan Buddha statues, fighting the US and coalition forces at the battle of Tora Bora. There's a big list there that we know from these DoD documents from over a decade ago.
Melissa Harris-Perry: He's been there. He was there for almost two decades held at Guantanamo. What was his experience like there?
Latif Nasser: His experience was he wasn't waterboarded. He was exposed to treatment that I think many people would call-- I would call torture, including sleep deprivation, prolonged solitary confinement, exposure to extreme heat or cold, loud noises, sensory overload. He has long-term hearing damage because of that. I think that was probably more early on in his time there, but ever since then, he's just one of 40 guys at a prison.
Melissa Harris-Perry: He was supposed to go back to Morocco now five years ago. Right? He was approved to be sent back to Morocco back in 2016. Why did that not happen?
Latif Nasser: He got approved unanimously by six big agencies in the United States government to leave Guantanamo in 2016. Basically, what happens is during the tail end of the Obama administration, the thing that keeps him at Guantanamo is paperwork, basically. There's this bureaucratic log and diplomatic log jam. Basically, at the end, the thing he needed was a signature from the Secretary of Defense, which he just didn't get. He was kept there by paperwork and that made it--
He couldn't get out in the Obama administration. Then, the Trump administration came in. You just played the tape of what president Trump wanted to do with Guantanamo, not let people out but load it up. He did let one guy out, but that was to a Saudi prison. In terms of detainees, it was pretty much the same under Donald Trump. Then now, over the last six months, it's just been a matter of, I think, the Biden administration getting together who and what they want to do, and their strategy about what they want to do about Guantanamo.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You make the point about the detainee who was released under president Trump into a Saudi prison. What is our understanding about what lies ahead for Nasser? Apparently, his lawyers say that there's an expectation that he'll be reunited with his family, but I'm wondering about the other legal battles that he will face in Morocco.
Latif Nasser: There's an investigation pending on, and I got the language here, his alleged involvement in the perpetration of terror acts in Morocco. All the former Guantanamo detainees that were released in Morocco were also investigated in this way, whether it's in a way, a real serious investigation that could mean that he is facing more prison time. That's a question. Or, is this just a perfunctory thing to say, "Okay, let's just review this guy."? It's unclear at this point, but he is still technically under investigation in Morocco.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering, he was not the only detainee cleared to leave back during the Obama administration. I'm wondering if you currently have any sense as to whether or not others who were cleared to leave under that administration will have an opportunity to be repatriated or why it was Nasser who was the first?
Latif Nasser: As of now, after Abdul Latif Nasser left, there are 10 more guys who are in this position where on paper, basically, they're allowed to go, but they just can't. Basically, the reason why I think Abdul Latif Nasser was the first for the Biden administration is that one of the folks I talked to who put together that transfer package, he said it's not that Abdul Latif Nasser was low-hanging fruit, Abdul Latif Nasser was no-hanging fruit. The whole package was totally put together. It was really just that final bureaucratic say-so that was preventing him from getting out. I think that was the easiest lay-up in terms of a transfer that they could do.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You were just talking about someone who you spoke with as part of the series, but of course you did not get to speak with Abdul Latif Nasser himself because he was being held in Guantanamo. Does the fact that he's now in Morocco raise any possibility that you might actually have that opportunity to continue reporting by speaking directly with him?
Latif Nasser: Yes, that's what I'm hoping. In my experience with this series, trying to interview released Guantanamo detainees, they've been the most difficult sources I've had in my career as a journalist. Both getting access, getting them to agree to want to sit down for an interview, which to them feels like another interrogation. Then, the interviews themselves are very, very delicate, given that there's so much trauma in the air. I very much would like to interview him, but I'm approaching it as carefully as I can.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you talk about that journalistic ethic about how careful you need to be and how maybe determined you need to be in finding the source and having an opportunity to speak with the source, I'm wondering about the story in general. Part of the reason you made the series was because Guantanamo had largely fallen off the radar, our attention was tuned towards lots of things. One might suggest, perhaps maybe particularly the Biden administration, that a quieter approach might be more valuable to them in terms of actually getting these approved detainees released.
I'm wondering about the balance that you see between telling the stories versus holding back a bit on the stories because of the politics.
Latif Nasser: I've heard that argument before, and I think probably strategically, tactically for the administration, that sort of makes sense. I could see you making the opposite argument as well, but I do think for me and for my team, it's our job as journalists to shine a light on this black hole, this legal black hole. I think it's important for us to say even almost 20 years later, holding people for 19 years without charges, without a trial, torturing them, that is medieval, that's wrong. We have to all keep witnessing that. There are political tactics, but I think that for us we're journalists, sunlight has value.
Melissa Harris-Perry: A great disinfectant [laughs].
Latif Nasser: Exactly. Yes, I think this is what has gone on, legally. That's a pre-modern thing. That's a pre-Magna Carta thing to hold people for that long and not charge them with anything and that's not okay.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm thinking also that at times journalists are taught that the best way to report stories is with as much personal distance as possible, to be sort of the most objective. Yet, the series is so rooted in your own interest here, your own interests not ideologically, but literally because you all share a name and because that shared name has meaning, perhaps even for your experience in the US. I'm wondering if you can talk about the journalism associated with telling a story about the other Latif.
Latif Nasser: Yes, it was a deeply personal story, way more personal than any story I've ever done, and compounding that, both the questions of religion and identity and why we believe and act the way we do. While reporting this series I was becoming a citizen and studying for my civics exam and thinking about questions of due process and equal rights and things like that, and just seeing this man's story buck all those values that this country is supposed to stand for, you know what I mean, and for me to be personally signing up for that. It felt weird.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Latif Nasser is one of the co-hosts for Radiolab and lead reporter for the Radiolab series, The Other Latif. Latif, thanks so much for joining us today.
Latif Nasser: My pleasure, thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: With me now is someone who's reported closely on Guantanamo from the base itself for years, Carol Rosenberg is the Guantanamo reporter for the New York Times. Carol, thanks for coming back on The Takeaway.
Carol Rosenberg: Thank you heard including me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you talk a little bit about the status of other detainees who have been cleared for release under the Obama administration?
Carol Rosenberg: There are four other men at Guantanamo among the 39 detainees who were in a similar situation to Abdul Latif Nasser. One, Soufyan Barhoumi of Algeria had been in an absolute similar situation, meaning diplomats had arranged for his repatriation and he should have been going home in the very tail end of the Obama administration, but something went wrong just like Abdul Latif. The arrangements came in too late and he has sat there throughout the entire Trump administration because during Trump, they just basically ended all transfers but one. During the Trump administration, they sent one man, a convicted terrorist, to Saudi Arabia to prison.
There were four others like Abdul Latif, but three of them really never had arrangements to go anywhere. The situation as of today is there are 10 men among the 39 for whom the new Biden administration needs to find countries to take them in, either, in some instance repatriate them, or in other instances find rehabilitation programs to absorb them.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You reported earlier this month that officials in the Biden administration are divided on whether the Justice Department should take the position that Guantanamo detainees actually have due process rights. What is the nature of this disagreement?
Carol Rosenberg: Well, at the end of the day, they took no position. They decided to-- I guess that's a measure of just how divided they were. The ability of the US government to hold someone as a law of war detainee at Guantanamo in what is coming up on year 20 of this war with Afghanistan, relies to a certain degree on legal definitions. They are held as war prisoners with one exception down there, nobody is convicted of a crime, but 10 or 11 are awaiting trial. The question of whether someone is entitled to due process would be significant for the men who are held as war prisoners, no charges, no release. As a matter of law, the Biden administration has adopted the same legal positions as all of its predecessors that this War on Terror, this war that exists with Al Qaeda is bigger than the battlefield.
When we leave, when the last troop leaves Afghanistan, they say the authority to detain someone as a prisoner on this War on Terror continues. The pendulum of whether due process rights applies could help those men who are sort of like POWs in this war, in the federal courts as they seek release. We had been watching, we had expected some perhaps more liberal interpretation of what rights a detainee could use in order to get out of Guantanamo, and some clarification in the death trials down there, the capital trials down there on absolutely what evidence could apply. It didn't happen in this question over at the appeals court in the due process challenge. They took no position, which was a surprise, but in a way, a little bit different than the previous position that they had no due process rights.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There wasn't an affirmative statement of the rights, but there also wasn't a clear discourse that those rights don't exist. I'm wondering about that non-position, because you've reported that the Biden administration is trying to be a bit more quiet in its transfer of detainees out of Guantanamo, in part having learned from the backlash that the Obama administration experienced. Yet, here you and I are talking about it on the radio, in part because you wrote about it in the New York Times. Is it really quiet?
Carol Rosenberg: The due process clause question really is about this administration retaining the prerogative to hold people as a matter of law, but as a matter of policy behind the scenes, quietly, I guess you could say, there's a ton of brainstorming going on. How to get people out, where to send them, who to put on trial? They haven't backed away from any of the trials, but there's three men who have yet to be arraigned down there. There's different pockets of government deciding how to achieve, if at all possible, president Biden's aspiration to close Guantanamo. Closing Guantanamo means not leaving the base, but stopping the prison, picking up and moving those detainees elsewhere. In some instances, sending them in other countries, in other instances they would need to bring them to the United States.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As part of this delay, obviously, there was the Obama administration's attempt. Then, we had a Trump administration in between, but there was also, and there is continuing a global pandemic. I know you were away for about 500 days and then returned last week to report from the base. Can you talk about what Guantanamo has been like during the pandemic?
Carol Rosenberg: Sure. It was like locked in time. The guards came and went. There's over a thousand army national reserve troops down there working at this prison, which now has 39 detainees. They would continue their nine months rotations, but the court was closed. The legal proceedings came to a full stop. The media was not allowed, as you said, for 500 days. I left in February 2020 and was just allowed to return for the first media visit last week. They managed to get the construction going. The place is one big construction zone. There's $125 million barracks for 850 of those prison guards to live in during their stays going up. That's a Trump administration program.
In a sense, for the period of the pandemic, let's say Guantanamo was status quo. Nothing changed for the detainees, nothing changed in terms of let's say the guard program. They did have quarantines as people came in, but all of the personel has changed. There's a new commander down there. There's new guards down there. There's a new captain of the base. As a result, when Guantanamo reopens itself to the world and we go back down for hearings, the only people who's seen a hearing the last time it occurred are the prisoners, the press, and the lawyers. Even the judges are new, coming in to hear these cases.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You have been reporting from Guantanamo for a very long time, even before the first detainees were sent there. Just from how you're feeling, again, having gone back after 500 days, do you think that the closure of the prison complex there can actually happen relatively soon?
Carol Rosenberg: It certainly cannot happen relatively soon. It cannot. The release of Abdul Latif Nasser was one of the easiest transfers available to this administration. It had been done by diplomats of the Obama years. This administration was candid in which they said they used the same arrangements that have been made during the Obama years, and it took them for some reason seven months, or in the intervening seven months when the president took over, to get the Moroccan government to affirm it. There is tremendous amount of hard work to come and a tremendous amount of politics to make some hard decisions about what to do in individual cases and what to do with individual prisoners. For this detention center to close, there would have to be thousands upon hours of diplomacy, some willingness of Congress to let the Defense Department, the administration move some of these detainees to a US soil setting.
As quietly as they're making arrangements for things, there can be change, there can be releases, but there is a very high hurdle to the notion that they can get the last detainee out of Guantanamo and send him somewhere else.
Interviewer: Carol Rosenberg is the Guantanamo reporter for The New York Times. Carol, thank you so much.
Carol Rosenberg: Thank you.
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