Feb 4, 2020

The Other Latif: Episode 1

The Other Latif

Radiolab’s Latif Nasser always believed his name was unique, singular, completely his own. Until one day when he makes a bizarre and shocking discovery. He shares his name with another man: Abdul Latif Nasser, detainee 244 at Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. government paints a terrifying picture of The Other Latif as Al-Qaeda’s top explosives expert, and one of the most important advisors to Osama bin Laden. Nasser’s lawyer claims that he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that he was never even in Al-Qaeda. This clash leads Radiolab’s Latif into a years-long investigation, picking apart evidence, attempting to separate fact from fiction, and trying to uncover what this man actually did or didn’t do. Along the way, Radiolab’s Latif reflects on American values and his own religious past, and wonders how his namesake, a fellow nerdy, suburban Muslim kid, may have gone down such a strikingly different path.

 

Episode 1: My Namesake

We hear the evidence against Abdul Latif Nasser -- at least the evidence that has been leaked or declassified -- and we meet Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, his attorney, who contests more or less every government claim against him. Sullivan-Bennis walks us through the excruciating process that came close to releasing Abdul Latif Nasser in the waning days of the Obama administration, but fell apart at the last minute. He is now technically a free man -- he was cleared for transfer home in 2016 -- yet he remains stuck at Guantanamo Bay, thanks in part to a Presidential Tweet.

 

Read more about Abdul Latif Nasser at the New York Times’ Guantanamo Docket. 

This episode was produced by Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, and Suzie Lechtenberg. Fact checking by Diane Kelly and Margot Williams. Editing by Jad Abumrad and Soren Wheeler. Original music by Jad Abumrad, Alex Overington, Annie McEwen, and Amino Belyamani. 

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate

  

THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists

Speaker 1:

Listener supported. WNYC Studios.

Jad:

Hey, it's Jad. Today we're going to kick off something really special, a Radiolab series that has been years in the making. We have spent the last three years pouring over leaked government documents, traveling around the world, conducting over 60 interviews, piecing together the story of one man's life. His story in the series is going to unfold over six episodes. You'll have to listen in order to really follow along. I think it's going to keep you on the edge of your seat. We're really excited about this. Without further ado, here's producer, Latif Nasser with a series he's calling The Other Latif.

Speaker 3:

Hey wait, you're listening...

Speaker 4:

Okay.

Speaker 3:

All right.

Speaker 4:

Okay.

Speaker 3:

All right.

Speaker 4:

You're listening.

Speaker 3:

Listening.

Speaker 5:

...to Radiolab.

Male:

Radiolab.

Speaker 5:

From.

Male:

WNYC

Female:

C.

Male:

Yeah.

Latif Nasser:

There's a website called HowManyOfMe.com. At the top of the page it says there are 329,470,115 people in the United States. How many have your name? It's a pretty simple website. It uses census data to see how common your name is. You should do it. It's fun. When I type in my name, first name, Latif, L-A-T-I-F, last name Nasser, N-A-S-S-E-R. What it says is there are one or fewer people in the United States named Latif Nasser, one or fewer. I'm the one. How could there be fewer. Anyway, being the only Latif Nasser in the United States, that's not a surprise to me. I've never met anyone with my name before. Not in high school, college, grad school, not as a journalist where I meet new people almost every day. Not even in my trips abroad to Muslim countries where you'd think it would be a more common name and to be totally honest, I kind of liked it that way. I was special. I was one of a kind until I wasn't.

Latif Nasser:

I found another one, and this is the story about that guy, the other Latif Nasser. The one that the census does not count. The one that if you write him a letter, and I have many times it'll just come right back returned to sender. The one that doesn't have a passport, a driver's license, a social security number or a phone number for that matter. I've come to think of him as a black hole in a black hole and that's because the other Latif Nasser is detainee 244 at Guantanamo Bay.

Latif Nasser:

I'm Latif Nasser.

Speaker 7:

He would've killed me.

Speaker 8:

You have to take everything the CIA says with pinch of salt.

Speaker 9:

People who've committed crimes tend to lie about it.

Latif Nasser:

And this...

Speaker 10:

That's why he's still at Gitmo.

Speaker 11:

Opened up the Pandora's box of horrific things about American justice.

Latif Nasser:

...is the other Latif.

Speaker 12:

Would you have cut your head off on a video if you'd been instructed.

Speaker 13:

[lo da. 00:03:40]

Speaker 14:

Should've been home a long time ago.

Speaker 15:

He's innocent.

Speaker 16:

That might be the stupidest thing I've ever heard someone say.

Speaker 17:

I like my brother. You are my brother.

Latif Nasser:

Episode one, my namesake. The whole thing started three years ago. I was at work doing what I do best, procrastinating. I was scrolling through Twitter when I saw something in my feed from a not-for-profit law firm. It said, read our urgent letter to [@POTUS 00:04:19] seeking intervention for Abdul Latif Nasser. At first I thought this sounds crazy. I thought they were talking about me. My name is Latif Nasser not Abdul Latif Nasser, but Abdul is one of my middle names and for a while when I was in college, for reasons I'll explain later, I went by that exact name, Abdul Latif Nasser, but anyway, the tweet. It wasn't about me, it was about another guy and someone was apparently appealing on his behalf to the president of the United States, at the time Barack Obama.

Latif Nasser:

The tweet only had three retweets and one like. I clicked on the link and read the letter. This other Latif Nasser was an inmate at the most notorious prison in the world. I don't think I even knew for sure that Guantanamo was still open, or at least I hadn't thought about it in years but all of a sudden there was a guy there with my name. I typed his name into Google and see what would come up. It wasn't very much. I learned that he was from Morocco, which struck me because I had done an exchange term there in university, but then most important of all, I found something on the New York Times website called the Guantanamo Docket. It has profiles of every single guy at Guantanamo.

Latif Nasser:

I pulled up his and it had a mugshot photo of a guy, wearing a khaki prison jumpsuit, bald, furrowed brow, big unkempt beard. At the top, it said he was 51 years old, but that he'd already been at Guantanamo for 15 of those years, almost a third of his life. Then I found a Department of Defense report called a detainee assessment from 2008. It's 15 pages and it's got the word secret in all caps typed at the top and bottom of every page. It was WikiLeaked out. It basically has a list of all the horrible things the U.S. government thinks this guy did.

Latif Nasser:

According to the government, he was a top explosives expert for Al-Qaeda. He helped blow up the famous Bamiyan Buddha statues.

Speaker 18:

2000 thousand year old stone Buddhas carved into clips, cultural wonders of the world.

Latif Nasser:

He was directly associated with Osama bin Laden before and after 9/11. "One of the most important military advisers to Osama bin Laden." He allegedly commanded troops against U.S. and coalition forces on the front lines of the battle of Tora Bora.

Speaker 19:

Tora Bora high up in the white mountains close to the border with Pakistan.

Latif Nasser:

If you remember, that's the battle where Osama bin Laden got away. This guy, the other Latif was supposedly caught trying to escape to Pakistan, surrounded by other Al-Qaeda fighters and holding an AK-47. Now at Gitmo things don't get any better. According to this document, he's had 56 reports of disciplinary infractions. He was "noncompliant and hostile to the guard force and staff", and it says if he got out, he would pose, "HIGH RISK TO THE U.S., ITS INTERESTS AND ITS ALLIES."

Latif Nasser:

When I read all this, I thought, oh my God, this guy's a monster. I needed to know more, so I put in a call to the DOD, but they wouldn't talk about him. Then I put in a call to his lawyer, didn't get a response and because there was literally nothing else about this guy online, I figured that was the end of it, but then the lawyer called me back. Okay, now talk.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Okay. Can you hear me?

Latif Nasser:

Oh man, fine. This is great.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

[crosstalk 00:08:14].

Latif Nasser:

I feel like we do... Yeah.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Hang on one sec.

Latif Nasser:

And my producer Suzie Lechtenberg set us up in the studio.

Suzie Lechtenberg:

Shelby's having a hard time hearing you.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Sorry.

Latif Nasser:

Oh, okay.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Sorry.

Latif Nasser:

LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA. Any better? Oh, LA LA LA LA LA LA.

Suzie Lechtenberg:

Oh, that's [inaudible 00:08:28] good.

Latif Nasser:

Better, better, better, better, better, better, better. Better.

Suzie Lechtenberg:

That is better?

Latif Nasser:

Is this better? She'd actually just been chatting with Abdul Latif himself that morning.

Suzie Lechtenberg:

I was like, dude, I got get off the phone. I'm going to this interview about you.

Latif Nasser:

From her apartment in Queens.

Suzie Lechtenberg:

Yeah. I had told him that you pronounce your names slightly differently, that I was going to butcher it.

Latif Nasser:

Anyway. Her name...

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

My name is Shelby Sullivan-Bennis.

Latif Nasser:

Is Shelby. Okay. Can you first just tell me what is his name.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Abdul Latif Nasser.

Latif Nasser:

When you first got an email from me, did you notice the names were the same or did it take you a while to notice that?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I did notice. In fact that it first occurred to me that you are a relative, which is really the only reason I answered.

Latif Nasser:

Oh, wow. Of course. She's in her early 30s from Rhode Island.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Middle class white.

Latif Nasser:

She never really planned to be a Gitmo lawyer.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I think actually on some elementary school yearbook, I had written dancer.

Latif Nasser:

But you wanted to help people, which is what led her to study law and it was in her third year apprenticing at a law clinic that luck intervened. She was sitting around a table with all the other law students.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

We kind of went around the table and pulled numbers out of a hat and I wound up with Guantanamo. I was like what?

Latif Nasser:

Not really what she was expecting.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I think I was a little confused.

Latif Nasser:

But the more she learned about Guantanamo Bay and the people still held there, the more she felt like this is what she should be doing.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

They were the people that others were less willing to defend. It was harder to get behind them and that made me want to do so.

Latif Nasser:

How many clients do you have there?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I have seven.

Latif Nasser:

Oh wow. Well, so back to the other Latif, back to our guy. Like when did you first hear about him, hear his name for the first time?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

The first time I heard the name Abdul Latif Nasser was 2016.

Latif Nasser:

Shelby was 29 years old working at the law firm reprieve when one day she received a letter.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

The handwritten communication from Abdul Latif.

Latif Nasser:

What was his handwriting like?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

It was good. It was better than mine.

Latif Nasser:

He had gotten her name from one of the other detainees and send her the first letter he had sent to a lawyer in almost a decade. It was in English, which he taught himself while he was there and it was a plea for help. After being at Guantanamo for 14 years, 14 years without a trial, he was now up for his first sort of Gitmo parole hearing. He needed a lawyer and fast because this hearing...

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Is less than two months away.

Latif Nasser:

And like were you getting requests like this all the time or was this a very rare or unusual thing?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Today the answer would be that I get them all the time, then that was my first.

Latif Nasser:

What happened from there? Like what did you have to do or...

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I learned the bare details of his case.

Latif Nasser:

Blowing up Buddha statues, key Osama adviser, Tora Bora.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

And then I went to go meet him.

Latif Nasser:

To get to Gitmo first.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Take regular flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Latif Nasser:

Then a second flight.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

An airline that has a contract with the government.

Latif Nasser:

Down to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Plane lands, everyone's in military garb and they all have guns. You get on a bus, hop on a ferry.

Latif Nasser:

Take the ferry to the other side of the bay.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Disembark and look around for your minder. Essentially your military babysitter. They need to bring you into the detention camp.

Latif Nasser:

Get you a proper badge. Go through all your stuff.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

All of your client notes.

Latif Nasser:

Your pens one by one.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Make sure that the paper you're bringing in has no staples in it, which means it has to be detached from your notebook.

Latif Nasser:

Finally, they take you to a meeting room.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

They have them essentially in, it's kind of like an array of cement hut, none of which have windows.

Latif Nasser:

One of the few things Shelby had heard about this guy was that years ago he had preferred not to be represented by a female lawyer.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

So-

Latif Nasser:

She finds herself thinking.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I hope he knows I'm a woman.

Latif Nasser:

Inside the hut...

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

It's essentially a cement room. It's got the bed. It has the very basic framing of a toilet, plastic table with metal legs.

Latif Nasser:

On one side of the table there's a chair for her.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

On the other side is seated a man in a white prayer cap, a baggy white shirt, a relatively short gray beard, close shaven head, grayish brown eyes. I saw a healthy looking older gentleman with one ankle cuff chained to the floor and he stood up and extended his hand and held mine and said, thank you Shelby for coming.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I think he didn't expect me to show up.

Latif Nasser:

Was there any like small talk or what was it like, we got two months, we got to get down to business like here we go.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

The later.

Latif Nasser:

What she soon learned, she told me was that document I read was totally false.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

He did not take up arms against the Northern Alliance. Definitely does not have extremist sentiment. He didn't support what happened on 9/11.

Latif Nasser:

He was not a member of Al-Qaeda.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Did not have a relationship with Osama bin Laden.

Latif Nasser:

He did not blow up the statues.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Was not on the front lines at Tora Bora.

Latif Nasser:

The reason he went to Afghanistan was to help his fellow Muslims.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

And he found himself under fire along with a slew of children and families seeking shelter from the bombings.

Latif Nasser:

He got caught by Afghan forces and Shelby believes sold to the Americans for a bounty. According to Shelby, Abdul Latif is an innocent man.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Detained without charge or trial for the last 15 years.

Latif Nasser:

Actually now it's been 18 years. Was Abdul Latif Nasser ever tortured?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Absolutely.

Latif Nasser:

Hearing Shelby say all of this was disorienting. I remembered all those high profile news stories of guys locked away in Guantanamo who are probably innocent.

Speaker 22:

Detained at Guantanamo for two years without charges [crosstalk 00:14:39].

Latif Nasser:

Like those young British guys.

Speaker 22:

...Tipton Three.

Latif Nasser:

They were Tipton Three.

Speaker 22:

Reportedly detained on their way to a wedding in Pakistan.

Latif Nasser:

All of this felt weirdly plausible. But then I'm like, of course his defense attorney saying he's innocent, what else are they going to say? The fact that I shared this guy's name and religious background made it even more confusing. As a Muslim to see an innocent Muslim man profiled, held, tortured in this way makes me outraged, but I'm just as outraged at the zealots who belonged to groups like Al-Qaeda who often target moderate Muslims in the name of our shared faith. Anyhow, I just felt like I couldn't put myself down in one spot. You have these two totally contradictory stories of this guy with my name. One was the blackest black, the other was the whitest white, no hint of gray in between. There was no trial, no easy way of investigating the evidence on either side. I can't talk to him directly because no journalist has ever interviewed a current Gitmo detainee. It was like he was trapped in a box with innocent and guilty at the same time, but this hearing could change all of that.

Obama:

Good morning everybody.

Latif Nasser:

It's called the periodic review board hearing or PRB.

Obama:

Today the department is submitting to Congress our plan for finally closing the facility at Guantanamo once and for all.

Latif Nasser:

These hearings were part of Obama's original plan to close Gitmo back in 2011.

Obama:

We'll accelerate the periodic reviews of remaining detainees to determine whether their continued detention is necessary.

Latif Nasser:

The whole point of these things is trying to answer one question, which is are you a threat?

Obama:

They continuing a significant threat.

Latif Nasser:

From now on, so this is very future focused, much less like a trial and much more like a parole hearing.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Absolutely.

Obama:

Let's go ahead and get this thing done. Thanks very much everyone.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

But.

Latif Nasser:

There's a catch because Shelby says PRB hearings are like these maddening paradoxical puzzles. These boards want to hear that you're no longer a threat. Part of that is that they want to hear that you're sorry and they want to hear exactly what you're sorry for.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Not only were you expected to admit and repent, but do so with specificity.

Latif Nasser:

For example, if they think you were a member of Al-Qaeda, they want to hear you regret and apologize for being a member of Al-Qaeda. That's the only way you're going to get out.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

It's a plead guilty to this crime or stay in jail forever. I have had clients ask me if they should admit to doing something that they didn't do, and of course I can't counsel you to lie, but I'm not going to lie to you and say that if you deny three of these three paragraphs that you have any shot at because you don't.

Latif Nasser:

Which makes you think, okay, easy, right? Just apologize without meaning it. He can get out. Here's the catch with that. Imagine the other Latif is innocent, but he does that. He confesses and says, yes, I was Osama bin Laden's top military advisor and somebody writes that down. If he fake apologizes and doesn't get out, that fake apology actually counts as a confession, a non-torture confession, which then if he ever does get a fair trial, could count as evidence against him.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Any statements you make, they're gravely dangerous.

Latif Nasser:

Had you been to PRBs before or was this your first PRB?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

It was my first PRB.

Latif Nasser:

Oh wow.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Yeah, and I must have called a dozen mentors, former professors, people I had never met before but had come on good recommendation as to what they thought, but there was controversy at the time and disagreement as to what to do.

Latif Nasser:

Shelby laid out the situation for Abdul Latif. There are risks to lying and there are risks to telling the truth.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I told him that this was a dangerous hearing and it is your decision entirely.

Latif Nasser:

On June 7th, 2016 at 09:06 she and Abdul Latif Nasser sit at a table in a small overly air conditioned conference type room in Guantanamo Bay.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

He's at the head of the table so to say in kind of like a plush chair.

Latif Nasser:

On the wall.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

There's one way glass.

Latif Nasser:

And next to it was a video teleconference screen.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

VTC and you see that word kind of like pop up as though you're about to watch a show or have some sort of like CEO convo.

Latif Nasser:

This VTC connects them through over 800 miles of...

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Undersea cables.

Latif Nasser:

...to another air conditioned conference type room in an undisclosed location in the Washington DC area.

Speaker 24:

Good morning [inaudible 00:19:57] determine whether continue [inaudible 00:19:57].

Latif Nasser:

This room also has a table.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

A very similar looking table, but maybe more mahogany.

Latif Nasser:

And around it sits six people.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

The six members of the periodic review board.

Latif Nasser:

And even though Shelby can see them, their eyes, their hair, their glasses.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

They're all, I mean, I would say anywhere between 35 and 50.

Latif Nasser:

She's not allowed to know their identities.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

No, no.

Latif Nasser:

They represent six of the most powerful agencies of the American government.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

You've got DOS, DOD, Joint Chief of Staff.

Latif Nasser:

Department of Justice.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Homeland Security.

Latif Nasser:

And National Intelligence. These are career civil servants, insulated from politics, theoretically nonpartisan. Also, importantly, these folks have the highest security clearances and in front of each of them is a folder with a summary of all of the classified information about Abdul Latif Nasser that the American government has. Without a doubt, more information about him than I've dug up in three years of reporting. Now because I can't access most of his PRB record, I don't know the full deeds of what happened, but here's what I do now. I know that five minutes in at 09:11 there were technical difficulties to the video teleconference.

Latif Nasser:

09:14, the video teleconference is reconnected. I know that Abdul Latif Nasser's alleged crimes were read out, so Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Tora Bora and so on. Then Shelby's opening statement in which she says that Abdul Latif Nasser has a supportive family back in Morocco who's ready to receive him. He has a home and a job waiting for him. Eventually it's his turn to speak.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

He was encouraged to kind of articulate like a hello, welcome message.

Latif Nasser:

Was he nervous? Did he look nervous?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Yeah.

Latif Nasser:

He sits quietly, his hands folded in his lap. He's wearing a loose white T-shirt. One that another detainee had loaned to him for this hearing and a white prayer cap. He's very still, he leans toward the mic and says a simple statement.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Something along the lines of, I appreciate the opportunity to be heard here today and I would like to answer any questions that you have or something like that. And he spoke really confidently.

Latif Nasser:

But the board looked confused.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

There was like a scramble and like ha and someone on the other side grabbed their mic and was like, could he say it again? We can't hear him.

Latif Nasser:

Shelby pushes the microphone closer to Abdul Latif's mouth. He tries again. I appreciate the opportunity to be heard-

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Nope, still can't hear him.

Latif Nasser:

At this point, both he and Shelby are getting a little anxious.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I basically told him to like shout out.

Latif Nasser:

I appreciate the opportunity to be heard today and then ironically.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Because of his volume, they had questions about his demeanor.

Latif Nasser:

Oh, my God.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

And I'm ready to shoot myself in the head. My guy's too quiet and then I tell them to be louder and then it seems that maybe he was too loud and I'm not quite sure who it came from, but I was asked whether he was upset on some level.

Latif Nasser:

And Shelby's like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

We asked him to raise his voice because you guys couldn't hear. Remember that like.

Latif Nasser:

There's a whole conversation about it and Shelby's responding calmly, but in her head she's like.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Oh my God, like horrifying.

Latif Nasser:

And then the Q&A, the part where the panel basically grills Abdul Latif Nasser. Asked him a million questions to see whether he's still a threat. Yeah. What do you guys decide that he's going to say?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

We go through an honest history and explain different decisions made over the course of his life and I have-

Latif Nasser:

Of his true story.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Yeah.

Latif Nasser:

Did he like admit to anything? Did he like say that he regretted anything?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I can't say what he said.

Latif Nasser:

Right.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Yeah.

Latif Nasser:

Did he apologize for anything? Can you say that?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I can't.

Latif Nasser:

The whole hearing takes a couple of hours. After they cut the video teleconference line, the panel in DC has its own meeting to discuss Abdul Latif Nasser's case. On the one hand, they know that keeping him in prison is a burden on the United States financially, legally, in terms of our international reputation but on the other hand, they know that letting him go means that if he ever commits a crime, ever threatens or harms an American anywhere in the world, it'll be on them. The decision to release a guy from Guantanamo has to be unanimous. All six members of the board have to agree. After the hearing ends, they tell Shelby, you'll hear back from us in a month.

Latif Nasser:

The result after the break.

Arlin Sconya:

Hello, this is [Arlin Sconya 00:25:08] currently located in Arlington, Texas. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.

Speaker 26:

Whether you're new to Pocket Casts or have been a fan for years, we're offering you a free three month trial of Pocket Casts plus, giving you all the great features of our free mobile app plus more. Listen to the podcasts you love and discover even more when you redeem your trial at pocketcasts.com/wnyc.

Latif Nasser:

This is Radiolabs. The Other Latif. I'm Latif Nasser. A little more than a month after Abdul Latif's PRB hearing.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I was in London.

Latif Nasser:

Shelby was at a work retreat at this fancy donated office space.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

In this gorgeous building. I swear it had a fountain in the middle. It was all very impressive.

Latif Nasser:

She and her coworkers were in a conference room, sitting in a circle of chairs.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Talking about different issues. Someone at the front with a projector.

Latif Nasser:

And she was trying to focus.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

But yeah, every now and then.

Latif Nasser:

She'd take out her phone, check her email.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

And I wasn't sure they would come through because they're always wishy washy on timing.

Latif Nasser:

She knew that technically any day now she would hear the results of Abdul Latif Nasser's PRB hearing.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I'm just sort of sitting there refreshing, refreshing, refreshing, refreshing.

Latif Nasser:

And then it came. Soon after Shelby still at the retreat, found a quiet room.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Sat down in a chair and...

Latif Nasser:

Calls in to the official hearing with Abdul Latif where they tell him the results. Did he know nothing? Like did he have a sense or was he like coming is totally cool.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Totally cool.

Latif Nasser:

Wow.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I know, the suspense. It was actually... it began kind of coldly. There are all these kind of like deep male voices, like asserting things that sound kind of like rules.

Latif Nasser:

Things like?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

No classified information shall be discussed and no mention of other detainees.

Latif Nasser:

Et cetera, cetera.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

It was kind of like, okay, let's get to the...

Latif Nasser:

Finally someone started to read.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

This very formalized final determination letter. It began something like Abdul Latif Nasser, I'm here today to inform you that the periodic review board-

Speaker 27:

The periodic review board by consensus determine the continued lawful for detention of the detainee is no longer necessary. To protect against [crosstalk 00:27:53] security of United States.

Latif Nasser:

He's free. He's free to go.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Yes. And then I start squawking in because Abdul Latif's not said anything yet and I'm like, did you hear that? Did you understand what that was? And he said, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. He just kept saying thank you, kind of like an excited, like he's not even done with the you before he starts the next thank. Like, thank you. Thank you. Thank you, and I kind of wanted to like interrupt him and at some point I did. I was like, Abdul, I want to hear what you think.

Latif Nasser:

And what did he say?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I'm so happy. So, so happy. I have no words. I wrote down actually a bit of the transcript. It occurred to me halfway through the excitement to take a transcript and he says, I want you to give my wishes and thanks to everyone. I'm thankful for what they've done for me. You should thank yourself first. This sounds self-aggrandizing now that I'm reading it out loud.

Latif Nasser:

No keep reading. Keep reading.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I'm so excited to see my family for the first time. I can't tell you. I can see my brother's face now. You will have to come to Morocco like I told you, and have your honeymoon in Casa Blanca. Tell your boyfriend that this is what he must do. Thank you for all your hard work, and then the final line is my lawyer was a light in these dark times.

Latif Nasser:

And how did that feel?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Like the greatest success of my life at that point.

Latif Nasser:

With Shelby's help, the panel cleared him unanimously. All six of them together decided that he no longer posed a serious enough threat to keep him at Guantanamo. It was the closest thing he ever had to a trial and he won. And then what happened after that?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Well, honestly, there wasn't much that we were supposed to do after that.

Latif Nasser:

Basically it was just a matter of paperwork. The state department here in the U.S. had to make arrangements with the receiving countries government, in this case, Morocco. They had to ensure that Morocco was willing to receive him and that once he got there, Morocco could properly monitor him and help him reintegrate into society. Pretty straight forward. In contrast to many other transfers that happened around that time, the receiving country, Morocco was a super stable country, a U.S. ally and one that had received over a dozen other Guantanamo guys before. It was a cakewalk.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Yup.

Latif Nasser:

You were just expecting like any day now, like what?... Any day now I'm going to hear what from who?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Any day now I expected to read an article that told me that my client had left on a plane.

Speaker 28:

I am tired of Donald Trump insulting America. [crosstalk 00:30:55].

Latif Nasser:

It's summer 2016.

Trump:

You will be so proud of this country very, very soon. Thank you all.

Latif Nasser:

While Shelby is waiting for that article, pretty much everyone else in the country is focused on the upcoming election.

Trump:

USA, USA.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I want to say it was probably August, September.

Latif Nasser:

Shelby found out from the state department, FYI, Morocco has not yet returned the paperwork.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

They still hadn't heard back.

Latif Nasser:

And so after that, every few days.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I was being kind of that pesky attorney.

Latif Nasser:

Shelby would call them up.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Just check in and see.

Latif Nasser:

How's it all going?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Have you heard from the Moroccans?

Latif Nasser:

They'd always give her some excuse like...

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Because of A or B or C.

Latif Nasser:

Because it was E or because Moroccan elections were happening.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

They were just taking so long, such a Moroccan thing.

Latif Nasser:

Then they would assure her, it's fine.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Don't worry.

Latif Nasser:

It's going to be fine.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

This'll definitely all happen. It'll all go through. Fast forward to October, even in through November, we were nervous.

Trump:

Gitmo, right? Guantanamo Bay.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

And of course by then we knew who had won the election.

Trump:

Which by the way, which by the way, we are keeping open, which we are keeping open. And we're going to load it up with some bad dudes believe me.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I mean, we had heard his rhetoric on the campaign trail and we'd heard a hundred other statements. It never actually occurred to me that someone could mess this up.

Latif Nasser:

Basically as best as I could figure out, for some reason, that email, that diplomatic exchange gets stuck in a Moroccan civil servants inbox and that person just doesn't respond and by the time that person does respond saying, okay, send him over. The bureaucratic window had closed. Obama was about to leave office, so no more Gitmo transfers. Done. Even though he had been cleared to go by the American government and to come home by the Moroccan one, it was just too late. But Shelby would not give up. She's on her phone constantly.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Call every single human being who I know who works for the state and defense department.

Latif Nasser:

Talk to anyone who will listen.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Try to climb a ladder, any ladder. I don't care if it's the correct one.

Latif Nasser:

But...

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

It was the holidays.

Latif Nasser:

People were not picking up their phones.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

I was able to reach a few people in government.

Latif Nasser:

She told them, I need to talk to someone about my client. There's been a paperwork mixed up. Does anyone know what's going on?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Give me anything. It was Christmas Eve, embarrassingly I was at an Applebee's in Rhode Island?

Latif Nasser:

On Christmas Eve?

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis:

Yeah, yeah. I was meeting up with a bunch of old friends and everyone had just sat down, and place drink and like appetizer orders and I get this phone call from my co-council [Tom Durkin 00:33:38] and I instantly walked outside without a coat. It was freezing. I'm standing outside the Applebee's and Tom basically says the notice didn't go in and he's not going home, and I just sunk to the ground. Merry Christmas.

Latif Nasser:

They filed a last minute emergency motion but that got struck down and then in a last minute hail Mary move, Shelby wrote an open letter to President Obama and tweeted about it. The full tweet actually read, read our urgent letter to @POTUS seeking intervention for Abdul Latif Nasser. Cleared yet stranded at Guantanamo Bay. That was the tweet I saw. The day I saw it was January 19th, 2017 the last day of the Obama administration. Nothing happened with the letter as far as Shelby knows, President Obama didn't ever get it. A day later, President Trump got sworn into office. He had recently tweeted that "there should be no further releases from Gitmo. These are extremely dangerous people and should not be allowed back on to the battlefield."

Latif Nasser:

That's where we are. Terrible accusations by the U.S. government, a lawyer who claims virtually none of it is true. A PRB hearing that claims he's no longer a threat to the U.S. A president who staunchly disagrees and finally a man caught in the middle of it, largely forgotten. I heard this story three years ago, right after it happened, and as I've thought about it every day and night since, it hasn't gotten any less irrational. Very high level representatives of virtually the entire U.S. government came together and decided this guy should go home but because of some slow paperwork that some random government flunky somewhere filed late, he just got stuck there. It just seemed unfair.

Latif Nasser:

At the same time, I found myself fixated on that hearing. Why you did all these bureaucrats decide to let him go after so long? Was it because of something he said at that hearing? The more I thought about what I heard from Shelby, the more I got tangled up in the logic of it. Shelby said that Abdul Latif was innocent and that he told the truth to the panel, but she also said that if a detainee went in front of the panel and said he was innocent, he wouldn't get cleared, yet he got cleared. Something didn't add up.

Latif Nasser:

I requested the transcript of the hearing from the Pentagon, but they said I couldn't have the vast majority of it, which I expected, but here's what I didn't expect. It wasn't because it was classified. It was because Abdul Latif and Shelby specifically requested it not be made public. Huh. Weird. And then looking over the tiny portion of it that I was allowed to see, I saw a statement from an anonymous military officer assigned to be Abdul Latif's personal representative. Basically like a military public defender. It's a single page and it reads like a high school teacher's letter of recommendation. He's shy but speaks good English, excelled at his computer class, that sort of thing, but there's one line in there that caught me.

Latif Nasser:

Nasser deeply regrets his actions of the past. That's it. Nothing about what those actions were, when they were, why he regrets them. Just Nasser deeply regrets his actions of the past. Huh? So he had regrets. But if he was innocent and telling the truth, what did he have to regret? Unless he was actually guilty and telling the truth or he was actually innocent but lying to the panel and now Shelby was lying about his lying or maybe he was guilty and telling a lie.

Latif Nasser:

The logic here just broke my brain and the fact that the U.S. government and Shelby were so tight lipped made it all the more frustrating, like both sides disagreed about everything except the fact that nobody else should know the details. Now, coincidentally, as I've been working on this story, I've been in the final stages of becoming a U.S. citizen. Okay, here I am. I just got through security. I'm in the basement of this giant marble building. And at one point I was sitting in a nondescript government lobby cramming before my civics tests about, among other things, the rule of law and I wasn't actually allowed to have my phone on, but of course I did and it just kept dinging with push alerts about exactly the kinds of news reports you'd expect about secret drone strikes and migrants detained at the border. These stories feel very much outside the law where the government has said either nothing or basically just trust us.

Latif Nasser:

My mind came back to this story. How did this happen here, in the land of life, liberty and due process. And how is it still happening in our names and with our tax dollars? According to the New York Times, a single Guantanamo detainee costs $13 million per year. Sitting there in that lobby, I told myself, yeah, I have to do this story. I just have to. This has become the most personal and most difficult story I've ever reported. I felt way out of my depth so many times over the last three years, being ushered through the bowels of the Pentagon, being surveilled and chased by unmarked cars in foreign countries. Having late night WhatsApp convos with alleged terrorists but here we go. Five more episodes in five countries covering five pivotal moments in this guy's life to try to understand how he got to where he is and how we got to where we are.

Latif Nasser:

This episode of The Other Latif was produced by Annie McEwen, Sarah Qari, Suzie Lechtenberg and me, Latif Nasser. Fact checking by Diane Kelly and Margot Williams. Editing by Jad Abumrad and Soren Wheeler. Original music by Jad Abumrad, Alex Overington, Annie McEwen, and Amino Belyamani. Episode two next week.

Debra:

Hi, this is [Debra 00:41:41] from San Francisco, California. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad with Robert Krulwich and produced by Soren Wheeler, Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachel Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, [Debu Harry Fortuna 00:42:13]. Sarah Sandbach, Malissa O'Donnell, [Todd Davis 00:42:16], and [Russell Gregg 00:42:17] and I'd really like to add, I will miss you, Robert.

 

Copyright © 2020 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at www.wnyc.org for further information.

 

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.