Mar 17, 2020

The Other Latif: Episode 6

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 6: Washington, D.C.

Despite being cleared for transfer back to his family in Morocco in 2016, Abdul Latif Nasser remains stuck at Guantanamo Bay. Why? Latif talks to some of the civil servants actually responsible for Abdul Latif’s transfer and they tell him a dramatic story of what went on behind the scenes at some of the highest levels of government.  It’s a surprisingly riveting story of paperwork, where what’s at stake is not only the fate of one man, but also the soul of America.  

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

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LATIF NASSER: Previously ...


LATIF: They said that he was involved with that group. You know the group that I’m talking about?


TARIK: The Moroccan group?


LATIF: The Moroccan group.


DAADAOUI: The only thing they got right about that is the name of the group.


SHELBY SULLIVAN BEVIS: Sudan was actually the place where he was overseeing the farming of sunflowers.


LATIF: I think he worked on Osama bin Laden’s farm.


CATHY SCOTT-CLARK: That doesn’t mean that he’s a senior Al Qaeda character at all.


WRIGHT: Bin Laden was chased out of Sudan.


LATIF: He didn’t know Bin Laden had left.


GARY BERNTSEN: His story falls apart. It’s stupid.


JON LEE ANDERSON: We came here to fight Americans. And we will keep fighting until we destroy them totally.


CLIVE STAFFORD-SMITH: We beat him, hung him up by his wrists.


GITMO HANDLER: Everything we do here is consistent with Article 3 of the Geneva Convention.


CLIVE STAFFORD-SMITH: Where you gradually dislocate your shoulders.


DANIEL FRIED: Don’t throw away law just because your blood’s up.


LATIF: [whispering] Oh come on, come on, come on.


LATIF: I'm Latif Nasser, and this is The Other Latif, episode six: The United States of America. Over the course of the last three years as I've been reporting this story on Abdul Latif Nasser, I've been in the final stages of becoming an American citizen. In the past, I've reported on people who risked everything, including their lives, to come to this country. That's obviously not my situation. I didn't need citizenship. I was born in Canada. I got a green card here in the U.S., which means I can live and work in this country very easily. It also means I don't get called for jury duty, and have the perfect excuse every time someone accosts me outside the grocery store to try to get me to vote for something. But still, I wanted to become a citizen because I want to vote. I want to do jury duty. I believe in the American experiment. This constant striving toward the promise of values like equality and justice and freedom of speech, I think all of that is beautiful and righteous. And sure, there are many times when this country falls short of those values, but you have the sense that it's generally stumbling in the right direction.


LATIF: The citizenship process takes years, and for much of that time I've been reporting out this story. I talked in episode one about cramming for my civics test. By the time I'd passed that test and cleared all the other bureaucratic hurdles, I had also tracked Abdul Latif's journey from Morocco to Sudan to Afghanistan to Guantanamo. Every other week -- sometimes every other day -- I had a different opinion about whether he was guilty or innocent or to what degree, or honestly, whether his guilt or innocence even mattered given what this country had done to him. But at this point, I do have conclusions about what he did and didn’t do. These are educated guesses, based on the limited evidence I’ve been able to see. But here we go.


LATIF: Whether or not Abdul Latif Nasser went to Afghanistan to fight, I think he became a fighter there. I think he went to a training camp. I think he fought against the Northern Alliance. At the same time, I think he did not have anything to do with the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas. I think he did not have anything to do with 9/11 or any of the attacks on the United States leading up to it. I think he did fight at Tora Bora, and that he fled, was captured, and was sold for a bounty. I do not think that he was a terrorist mastermind. I think he was a low- to mid-level fighter who, as far as I can tell, never targeted civilians, never killed any Americans. So what do you do with a guy like that? If he was a low- to mid-level German soldier who fought in World War Two, we would have let him go. But instead, we held him with no due process, no trial, longer than some people in the U.S. who get life sentences actually serve. And that’s not even mentioning the torture. To me, all of that feels quite simply un-American. And as someone who is trying to become an American, that really rattled my sense of what that word even meant, and made me question what I wanted to do.


LATIF'S WIFE: I think your citizenship is just an interesting thing. Just because is it like -- is it part of the burden or the baggage? Or …


LATIF: A couple of nights before my citizenship ceremony, I read the journalist Ben Taub's profile of Muhammadu Salahi, one of the former detainees who was tortured at Guantanamo. The profile goes into depth about some of the twisted ways his interrogators tried to break him. I knew similar things were done to Abdul Latif. And so that night I sat down with my wife just to talk things through.


LATIF: It's like this jubilant moment for me. Like, I get to have these, like, rights and responsibilities and all these things, and then yet then it's like I'm complicit in what's happening to this man in this place. Like, I don't -- it's weird. It's like -- it's like -- it's like buying a bag of oranges or something and you know there's, like, a rotten one in there. And it's like, oh, I know why I'm getting this, like, because I want this and I've wanted this for a really long time, but like -- like, it's like -- but I'm -- at the same time I'm, like, staring right in the face this rotten orange. And it's like this thing where it's, like, you feel, like, the rot. It'll, like -- it'll rot you, like, it'll rot me.


LATIF: And that rot really has spread. It has mainstreamed terms and ideas ...


[NEWS CLIP: Right now the Trump administration is announcing a new regulation that will allow migrant families to be detained longer. Currently ...]


LATIF: ... like indefinite detention at the U.S.-Mexico border.


[NEWS CLIP: President Trump says Qasem Soleimani, Iran's top general whose killing he authorized ...]


LATIF: Like enemy combatants ...


[NEWS CLIP: Soleimani was an enemy combatant waging war ...]


LATIF: ... being targets in drone strikes abroad. And even by other governments.


[NEWS CLIP: More than a million Uighurs and others belonging to various Muslim minority groups are believed to be detained in the Xinjiang region.]


LATIF: China has argued that the Uighur concentration camps are no different than what's going on at Guantanamo Bay.


[NEWS CLIP: The orange jumpsuits evoking Guantanamo now used in ISIS recruitment videos.]


LATIF: Even ISIS has used it in recent years. Now the moment when I first heard about this story was oddly a moment that we seemed to be trying to turn it around. It was a moment when Abdul Latif Nasser actually had a chance to finally go home.


SHELBY SULLIVAN BEVIS: I'm here today to inform you that the periodic review board ...


VOICEMAIL: ... by consensus determined that continued law of war detention of the detainee is no longer necessary to protect against ...


LATIF: Is free. Is free to go.



LATIF: But then nothing happened with that decision.


SHELBY SULLIVAN BEVIS: August, September, there were conversations with the State Department where I was being told that they still hadn't heard back. Fast forward to October even in through November, we were nervous but it never actually occurred to me that someone could mess this up.


LATIF: I'd always assumed that the order to transfer Abdul Latif Nasser just sat on some nameless, faceless, civil servant's desk somewhere, his file shuffled in amongst other annoying paperwork. Just another item on a to-do list of someone who really didn't care what happened one way or the other, lost in the bureaucratic void until it was too late. But as I dug deeper into what actually happened, going down to DC, knocking on doors, tracking down one person and then another and then another, I discovered this story was not the story I thought it was. It's a story of bureaucracy and paperwork, sure, but it's the most dramatic story of paperwork I've ever heard. A story where people way higher up than I expected really did give a damn. In some way, it’s a story about the fight for the soul of this country.


DANIEL FRIED: All right. She said she's good to go.


LATIF: Wonderful! Well, thank you for bearing with us for those last few minutes.


LATIF: So, the story starts for our purposes with this guy.


DANIEL FRIED: Quite all right.


LATIF: Ambassador Daniel Fried.


DANIEL FRIED: I was a 40-year veteran of the Foreign Service. Spent most of my time doing European security, especially after the end of the Cold War.


LATIF: But in 2009 when Obama became President, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reached out to Dan.


DANIEL FRIED: And she basically said to me, "Look, you were in the Bush administration for eight years, why don't you help clean up one of the messes?" And I -- you know, I acknowledged that that was a pretty reasonable request.


LATIF: So Dan became a special envoy for Guantanamo closure, meaning it was his job to coordinate shutting this place down.




LATIF: I found this -- this New Republic article about you when you just took that job. It had some great pull quotes. One pull quote was that -- that you had the most thankless job in Washington, and one was where it said that the work you had to do was grueling work, making the respected career diplomat something like a door-to-door salesman peddling the human equivalent of radioactive waste.


DANIEL FRIED: [laughs] I remember that. Well, it was certainly one of the oddest jobs I ever had ...


LATIF: The first order of business for Dan was to figure out, like, if we're gonna close this prison down, we’re gonna have to convince somebody somewhere to take these people that we’ve labeled the worst of the worst.


LATIF: What kind of a sell was that? Yeah, what would be your sales pitch?


DANIEL FRIED: So I -- what I did was go to governments and say, "Look, good news. You all hated Gitmo under the Bush Administration, and now is your opportunity to help get rid of this thing you called a terrible stain on America."


LATIF: All you need to do is just take a couple of these guys from Guantanamo.


DANIEL FRIED: And they would often look at me cross-eyed. Like, "We got to do what?"


JOSHUA GELTZER: You're saying to that country, "Look, we'd like you to accept some individuals that our own Congress has barred us from bringing to our own country."


LATIF: This is Joshua Geltzer, who used to work at the National Security Council.


JOSHUA GELTZER: That's a -- that's a tough sell in many ways.


DANIEL FRIED: Yeah, I was in the uncomfortable position of asking countries to do something my own government would not.


LATIF: So just getting some of these countries to just even consider taking one of these detainees ...


DANIEL FRIED: It was not easy.


LATIF: But, Dan says, to truly understand the diplomatic derring-do that it took to do this job ...


DANIEL FRIED: You have to go back to what I call the original sin, by which I mean that Guantanamo was neither grounded in the laws of war nor in criminal justice. And once you have established a system outside of either international or U.S. law, which this was, then it's very hard to reintegrate it back into a legal framework.


LATIF: According to Dan, he and his team were essentially trying to undo that original sin. And in some cases to actually get these men, through negotiations with these other countries, back under some of the very international laws that we had turned away from.


LATIF: Okay, so let's just -- like, if you can just run me through ...




LATIF: And in Abdul Latif’s case, you can see the government doing this delicate dance to try to make things right without ever admitting that they did anything wrong.


IAN MOSS: So we'll start from the PRB.


LATIF: Yeah.


LATIF: Dan had left the job by this time, but I did manage to talk to several people who actually worked on Abdul Latif Nasser’s case.


IAN MOSS: I am Ian Moss.


LATIF: Ian was a staffer on the National Security Council at the time.


IAN MOSS: Sometime in summer of, I think maybe July of 2016, he's notified that he's been approved for transfer.


SHELBY SULLIVAN BEVIS: He said, "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you." He just kept saying thank you.


LATIF: You heard that moment back in episode one.


SHELBY SULLIVAN BEVIS: He’s not even done with the “you” before he starts the next “thank.” Like, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."


LATIF: And that notification to Abdul Latif Nasser ...


BEN FARLEY: Would kick off a flurry of activity in my office.


LATIF: That's Ben Farley.




LATIF: One of the guys coordinating all of this at the State Department.


LATIF: So that's the, like, starting gun for your team.


BEN FARLEY: More or less, yeah.


LATIF: First step?


BEN FARLEY: Figuring out where a detainee might go.


LATIF: Now, the PRB had recommended that he be sent back to his home country of Morocco. Which was a promising start.


IAN MOSS: Morocco was a solid counter-terrorism partner.


LATIF: They'd already taken other Guantanamo detainees.


IAN MOSS: And we have a strong bilateral relationship with Morocco.


LATIF: Abdul Latif had a home, family, and a job waiting for him there.


BEN FARLEY: That's a pretty simple calculus, right?


LATIF: But this is a guy who’s been at Guantanamo for almost a decade and a half. So ...


IAN MOSS: You can't just put somebody on a plane and drop them off.


LATIF: So, step two: Both countries have to agree to a set of conditions for the transfer.


LATIF: Yeah, yeah. Okay, so -- so then what happens?


BEN FARLEY: Well, then we begin the -- the negotiations.


LATIF: Ben was the facilitator between Morocco and this big U.S. government inter-agency working group.


BEN FARLEY: So typically the way this would work is that an agency would raise a question.


LATIF: Sometimes little niggling procedural questions, or just basic stuff like, “Are you gonna keep him in your custody at all after he gets there? If so, where will you hold him? And then after you release him, how will you keep tabs on him?" And stuff like that.


BEN FARLEY: And then we at the State Department would reach out to our embassy in the foreign country ...


LATIF: And say, "Can you ask Morocco this question?" And they’re like ...




LATIF: And each question would go into this crazy game of bureaucracies.




LATIF: Up and down and across agencies over here.


BEN FARLEY: And then ...


LATIF: Our embassy ...


BEN FARLEY: Hand-delivering a written communication ...


LATIF: ... to their embassy ...


BEN FARLEY: ... requesting the information.


LATIF: Then ...


BEN FARLEY: Those communications have to go up to the top, and then ...


LATIF: ... across agencies over there, then back through the embassies, until an answer came back to Ben.


BEN FARLEY: And then we would go back to the inter-agency working group and we'd say, "Okay, is this good enough?"






IAN MOSS: You know, you ask a question, it may take three weeks to get an answer back.


LATIF: And in the midst of all of this ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Donald Trump: I've just received a call from Secretary Clinton.]


LATIF: Donald Trump wins the 2016 Presidential election.




LATIF: Okay, so you are -- you are seeing this unfold. You know Donald Trump has been elected. You know that this is -- this stream of transfers is gonna get cut off.


IAN MOSS: I mean, based on ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Donald Trump: Gitmo, right? Guantanamo Bay. Which by the way, we are keeping open.]


IAN MOSS: ... what he said during the campaign? Yeah. I mean, we were all aware of that.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Donald Trump: And we're gonna load it up with some bad dudes, believe me. We're gonna load it up.]


JOSHUA GELTZER: You'd have to be naive to think that the policy objectives were gonna remain the same after noon on -- on January 20, 2017.


LATIF: Joshua Geltzer again.


BEN FARLEY: It became clear that we had two and a half months to sort of do everything.


LATIF: Actually, they really only had one and half months, because Congress, jittery about letting these guys go, demanded 30 days to review every transfer before it gets carried out. So essentially for Ben ...


BEN FARLEY: You have to finish everything 30 days before the inauguration.


LATIF: Was there like a -- a circle on a calendar somewhere where it was like, "Okay, this is 30 days out?"


BEN FARLEY: Yeah. We had a hard deadline. The 20th of December.


LATIF: So they’ve got 43 days to nail everything down.


LATIF: Were you feeling that clock?


IAN MOSS: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.


LATIF: How did it feel? Like, what -- how frantic was it?


IAN MOSS: It became more frantic.


BEN FARLEY: But nevertheless we -- you know, it felt extremely focused.


JOSHUA GELTZER: There was an escalating pace of meetings. This was in -- this was in high gear.


LATIF: But the thing that made Abdul Latif’s transfer more than just a bureaucratic nightmare on speed was the particular demands that our government was making of Morocco.


IAN MOSS: You want to, and this is a Dan Fried quote, you want to give him a hug.


LATIF: Really?


BEN FARLEY: Yeah, really.


LATIF: What do you mean by that?


DANIEL FRIED: You want him to have a job, you want him to have social services. You want them to have the best opportunity for a decent future.


LATIF: Stuff that sounds an awful lot like things in the Geneva convention.


IAN MOSS: You want to transfer them into a situation that increases the likelihood that they will be able to live a productive life.


LATIF: For instance, if Abdul Latif wanted to study computer engineering, the State Department would go ask Morocco, "Listen ..."


IAN MOSS: What would you do to help facilitate that?


LATIF: And on top of that, the State Department was focused something that happened with the last detainee who had been sent there just a year before, in 2015. A guy named Yunis Shokuri.


IAN MOSS: There was a big row in the media following Mr. Shokuri's transfer.


LATIF: Morocco had promised to hold him just for three days. But instead, they opened up an investigation into him and kept him locked up for nearly five months. So ...


BEN FARLEY: Of course, we considered how the Moroccan government treated him after his transfer in our approach to transferring Mr. Nasser.


LATIF: Because when it came to transferring these detainees, the State Department was demanding that Morocco follow American and international law.


BEN FARLEY: The United States will not transfer people into the custody of a country where it is more likely than not the transferee will suffer torture, cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.


LATIF: Like all of a sudden, they’re saying a rule that we tossed out the window at Guantanamo should now apply to Abdul Latif again. And of course you can imagine all these other countries being like, "Come on. You’re telling us not to torture? After everything you did at Guantanamo? Now you're telling us what to do with our own guy in our own country? Seriously?"


BEN FARLEY: Sometimes the response back from the country was a bit standoffish. There was a -- maybe a sense of who are you to come asking me that question?


LATIF: So Ben and his team at the State Department are trying desperately to do the right thing. But again and again, they’re haunted by what Dan called the original sin, this lawless hole that we dug ourselves into. And all the while, time’s running out.


IAN MOSS: All right, so we're -- this is December of 2016.


LATIF: The team at the State Department is keeping their heads down.


BEN FARLEY: Just plugging away.


IAN MOSS: And then new questions came back.


LATIF: Wait. New questions came back from Morocco or new questions came back your side?


IAN MOSS: From the -- internally. Internally.


LATIF: Yeah.


LATIF: Because there are also questions and demands coming from the Defense Department who’s like, "Sure. Treat him right. Don’t hold him too long. But we want to know that Morocco has a plan to make sure Abdul Latif doesn’t end up back in Afghanistan, or running with ISIS or, you know, anything that would hurt the U.S. So there was a lot of back and forth on that.


BEN FARLEY: Oh, yeah.


IAN MOSS: We're down to December 16th, 17th, 18th.


LATIF: Two days to go before the 30-day deadline to notify Congress. And every single question had been answered except for one.


IAN MOSS: The Defense Department was waiting on one more piece of information from the Moroccan government.


LATIF: Like, a -- what, like a trivial piece of information or a serious piece of information?


IAN MOSS: I -- I -- in my view, the relevant questions had been asked and answered. and we'd gone through this already.


LATIF: Whatever this question was, we can't know. It's classified. But we do know that the answer came back from Morocco too late. According to court documents I found, the final all-clear from Morocco was received by the U.S. on December 28th, one week, and one day late. Number of people I talked to who were directly involved said it was actually just one day late. Either way, the law said Congress needed 30 days to review the transfer, and now that wasn’t gonna happen. But besides the fact that it was just a tiny bit late ...


IAN MOSS: It was ready to go.


LATIF: Like, the deal was essentially done.


BEN FARLEY: The Secretary of State said, "Yes, I concur on this transfer." The Attorney General said, "Yes, I concur on this transfer." The Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence concurred on the transfer, and the Chairman of the Joint Staff concurred on the transfer.


LATIF: And they thought, "Who knows? Maybe we can find a way around this 30-day rule. So Ben and Ian and their colleagues figure ...


IAN MOSS: Let’s run -- we’re gonna run through the tape, right? So we’re not gonna slow down. We’re gonna continue our effort to the last day.


LATIF: Got it. Like you’re Usain Bolt running through the tape, like, I’m not gonna slow down right as I’m approaching the finish line.


IAN MOSS: Exactly.


LATIF: And all they needed was one more thing from one more person.


DANIEL FRIED: The Secretary of Defense had to sign off and say this deal makes sense.


JOSHUA GELTZER: We had a word in government that's called the stuck-ee. I don't know if you have that in journalism, but the stuck-ee is the person who's stuck with doing something.


LATIF: [laughs]


LATIF: Once again, Joshua Geltzer.


JOSHUA GELTZER: And this is what Congress I think was trying to do to the Secretary of Defense. It was trying to make the Secretary of Defense the stuck-ee.


LATIF: In 2011, Congress, who'd been pushing back against Obama’s effort to close the detention facility at Guantanamo, had passed a law saying that the Secretary of Defense had to personally sign off on each and every transfer.


JOSHUA GELTZER: They wanted somebody whose name quite literally was on the line and whom they could ask tough questions about transfers, especially if those transfers later looked unwise.


LATIF: After this policy was first put in place, transfers under the next two Secretaries of Defense, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, basically came to a halt. They knew that if they okayed a release and then that guy then planned some new attack it would be pinned on them. Leon Panetta has said about this provision, the fact that he had to sign off, that it quote, "Required that I signed my life away." Now in Abdul Latif’s case, the Secretary of Defense who had to sign off was Ash Carter. And when everything was all put together and put in front of him on his desk, he said no.


IAN MOSS: The Secretary didn't sign off on it. And as I understand, said he wasn't going to.


LATIF: Secretary Carter wouldn’t talk to us, so we can’t really know why he refused to sign. But we do know that several prior detainees sent to Morocco had actually left the country and gone to Syria when fighting broke out with ISIS during the Syrian Civil War. So you can imagine that if Carter saw any little teeny, tiny, question or uncrossed T, or had any nagging doubt at all, he might’ve thought, "No way I’m gonna be on the line here." Or maybe he was just thinking, "We’re past the 30-day mark anyway, this just isn’t my job anymore. Let the next guy be on the hook." Anyway, for whatever reason, he didn’t sign it. So that’s it. Right? No. Because when we come back from break, Shelby's cellphone rings.

LATIF: I'm Latif Nasser. This is The Other Latif. And this is the point in the story where Shelby's cell phone rings.


SHELBY SULLIVAN BEVIS: I'm standing outside the Applebee's.


LATIF: Christmas Eve, December 24th.


SHELBY SULLIVAN BEVIS: The notice didn't go in, and he's not going home. And I just sunk to the ground. Merry Christmas. That just felt like a blow to the face.


LATIF: But Shelby realizes there's one last place that she can go to for help: The court.


SHELBY SULLIVAN BEVIS: The court was the last recourse. Like, we've got the three branches of government and they're all supposed to keep each other in check.


LATIF: Maybe she could convince the court to order the Executive Branch to release Abdul Latif. So Shelby files an emergency motion in the Federal District Court of DC.


SHELBY SULLIVAN BEVIS: Asking the court to grant the writ of habeas corpus.


LATIF: A writ of habeas corpus is an order that the government has to show up in court to give a reason to hold Abdul Latif or else he’s free to go.


SHELBY SULLIVAN BEVIS: We're basically saying to the judge, "Look, you have this PRB determination in front of you that says, 'You know what? We don’t even want this guy. He doesn’t need to be here anymore.'"


LATIF: So the government's reasons for holding him, that otherwise he’d go right back onto the battlefield, they didn’t hold water anymore because the PRB had said he wasn’t a significant threat.


SHELBY SULLIVAN BEVIS: The government cannot then out of the different side of its mouth argue that he should be detained.


LATIF: What reason could they possibly have for holding him if they already said that it’s okay for him to go?


IAN MOSS: Well I mean, it was -- it was complicated for a number of reasons.


LATIF: Now the people like Ian working on Abdul Latif’s case, when they saw Shelby make that motion to the court, they immediately realized that it could potentially help them.


IAN MOSS: If the habeas petition were granted ...


LATIF: If the court sided with Shelby ...


IAN MOSS: ... then there would be no need for the Secretary of Defense to ...


LATIF: Sign off.




LATIF: Or for Congress to be given 30-days' notice.


IAN MOSS: Right.


LATIF: This could be an end run around the red tape. All the government needed to do is not oppose Shelby’s motion in court. They just needed to stay quiet. And if they did that, there was a good chance ...


IAN MOSS: ... the judge would grant the requested relief.


LATIF: The judge would say, "Government hasn’t stated a reason to hold him, so because of habeas, he’s free to go.


SHELBY SULLIVAN BEVIS: All Obama's Department of Justice had to do was back off.


LATIF: So when Shelby filed the motion, immediately a fierce argument broke out across multiple departments within the U.S. government. Now the next part of this story I first heard about from a reporter named Jessica Schulberg who's the one who'd told me to talk to Ian. And this is where the question of what to do with Abdul Latif gets bigger than I ever could have imagined, because that fierce argument in the government, it all came to a head ...


IAN MOSS: On Martin Luther King weekend.


LATIF: Oh, so that's, like, really close to the end.


IAN MOSS: Yeah. I want to say it might have been a Saturday I think.


LATIF: Six days before Inauguration at a meeting in, of all places, the Situation Room.


IAN MOSS: A pretty impassioned meeting in the Situation Room.


LATIF: The one deep inside the White House that you see on TV anytime there’s some big important secret mission going down.


IAN MOSS: Wood panels and monitors and a big table.


LATIF: And sitting around that table ...


IAN MOSS: I would say there were probably about eight of us.


LATIF: Mostly National Security Council staff.


IAN MOSS: My previous boss at the State Department, the special envoy Lee Wolosky called in.


LATIF: So on one side of the table, you’ve got Ian ...


IAN MOSS: Myself and a number of colleagues internally argued look, the U.S. government could simply decide to not oppose the entry of a writ.


LATIF: Let’s just do nothing.


IAN MOSS: We're all simpatico here about the need to transfer this individual.


LATIF: If we do nothing, Abdul Latif’s lawyers will win the case by default, and he’ll go home.


IAN MOSS: But there was opposition from the Department of Justice.


LATIF: On the other side of that table, you had a faction arguing that no matter what we think about Abdul Latif’s specific case -- and we all agree he should go home -- we have to fight the motion. Letting the court rule that we don’t have a right to detain this guy would be like admitting that we were wrong to detain him in the first place. And by extension, that we were wrong to set up Guantanamo. And we can’t admit that. And you can imagine a larger argument here. Legally, the War on Terror is still ongoing. We still live in a world of people trying to hurt us who wear no uniform, belong to no nation, and don't fight by the rules. And so we still need to be able to say who is and who isn't a threat and then to be able to act on it without having to justify ourselves.


IAN MOSS: But we said we don’t need to hold this person anymore. Why would you fight in court to continue to hold him?


LATIF: And so -- and were fevers running hot here? Like ...


IAN MOSS: Yeah. My boss at the time, Steve Pomper made, like, a really, really impassioned argument.


LATIF: You're, like, banging the table.


IAN MOSS: Yeah. We're talking about someone's liberty. An individual who at that point had been detained for 14 years. We have an opportunity to do what we can to transfer him. We should seize that opportunity if that’s what our policy is.


LATIF: Here’s how I think about that moment. If Guantanamo really is this kind of original sin, the sin was that the government gave itself absolute authority to strip these men of their basic rights, their liberty. In that room, one side of the table was saying, for this guy, in this moment, let’s flip that. Let’s right that wrong. Let’s put his liberty first. And the other side was saying, no way. We had the right to take it away and we can’t go back on that.


IAN MOSS: They don’t want to cede that the government has authority to hold these individuals.


LATIF: Did it feel like this, like, final showdown? Like, it was, like, it's either here or never?


IAN MOSS: That's exactly what it was.


LATIF: And in the end, the Department of Justice ...


IAN MOSS: Didn’t want to do it.


SHELBY SULLIVAN BEVIS: They need to assert to the court and to the world that they were right, they were correct, this man was detainable in the beginning. Given everything that -- that our government has allowed to happen to these guys, it's really painful to consider that their release, even though the government wants it, like, these men's lives mean less than a judge ruling against them.


IAN MOSS: I mean, it's so -- I think many of us were -- I mean, we were frustrated and disappointed, but we did what we could and we tried to, you know, run through the tape.


LATIF: Ian and his colleagues decided even though they lost that argument, they could try something else.


IAN MOSS: To prepare a memo.


LATIF: To just put the question to their boss.


LATIF: This would have been for the Attorney General?


IAN MOSS: This would have been for the President.


LATIF: The one guy who could tell the Department of Justice ...


IAN MOSS: To stand down.


LATIF: They wanted to take Abdul Latif Nasser's case to President Obama himself.


IAN MOSS: Mr. President, this is your policy. This is an opportunity to move another individual. What do we do? He could have made the decision.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Barack Obama: I've been working for seven years now to get this thing closed.]


LATIF: And if you ask pretty much anybody, they would tell you that this was exactly the kind of thing that President Obama would sign off on.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Barack Obama: This is about closing a chapter in our history.]


BEN FARLEY: President Obama was extremely invested in closing Guantanamo.


LATIF: He really wanted Guantanamo closed ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Barack Obama: It is a rallying cry for our enemies.]


LATIF: ... and the detainees moved.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Barack Obama: It drains military resources.]


IAN MOSS: He cared about it.


LATIF: He ran on it.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Barack Obama: The United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not part of our country. Is this who we are?]


IAN MOSS: But the memo, for whatever reason, didn't make it up.


LATIF: As far as we know, the memo they wrote never got to Obama. Someone who was in that room, someone who worked very closely with the President, made the decision not to put it on his desk.


IAN MOSS: Um ...[sighs]


LATIF: Ian wouldn't say who it was. Out of the handful of people within the White House that it could've been, who had enough power to make that call, none of them would talk to us.


LATIF: I'm imagining there's a hallway between the Situation Room and the Oval Office, and that's where this ...


IAN MOSS: Downstairs, but the ...


LATIF: Okay. So there's a -- there's a set of stairs where this kind of -- this sort of -- it stopped.


IAN MOSS: Yeah. It didn't make it up the steps.


LATIF: Six days later ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP: Ladies and gentlemen, the President-Elect of the United States, Donald John Trump.]


LATIF: January 20 ...


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Donald Trump: I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear ...]


LATIF: President Trump takes office, And the gate slams shut.


MARTINA BURTSCHER: And It was the 20th of January, 2017, when I visited Mustapha Nasser's family.


LATIF: Martina Burtscher who works for Reprieve is the person who they sent to tell Abdul Latif’s family the news.


MARTINA BURTSCHER: So I was the one physically going there and telling them in person, "No, this is not gonna happen." We were seated in a small apartment done with traditional Moroccan tile walls and a quite generous guest room. We were seated there and Mustapha's wife, she prepared a traditional dish called pastilla which is a seafood dish, especially for me to bring them basically good news. I was seated in the middle of the family around this table of food.


LATIF: And when Martina started to explain what had happened ...


MARTINA BURTSCHER: They did not really believe the words that I was delivering. They told me over and over again this must have been a mistake, and Martina I'm sure that you can figure out a way. And the sisters, they were crying. Abdul Wahab was there also, his older brother, who kept on saying, "But he did nothing wrong." Grieving is a process, and it's grieving a decision that they probably won't see their brother again before they die or anything like this. They don't know. There was a cake. They still brought out all the food because they couldn’t comprehend it.


LATIF: Abdul Latif is still there. His case is still pending in the courts. But it’s pretty clear that nothing will change unless or until there’s a new administration in Washington, DC. And so really this is the end of the story that I can tell about him. Which is hard, because the story that I have been able to tell has a giant, gaping hole at its center: Him. His voice. In all my searching, I've never heard it. I’ve had nothing more than what I could cobble together about him through other people, and through dubious quotes in government documents. I wrote him letters, and they would come right back, "Return to Sender." But I also sent letters to him through Shelby. And one time, he wrote back. Shelby passed it along.


LATIF: Yeah, so I'll just do it. It feels like this is -- this was his place, so ...


LATIF: And so while I was in Morocco, I went to the ocean to a beach near his house, and I read it out loud.


LATIF: "Dear Latif. I was born on March 4th, 1965, in Casablanca into a fairly large family. I have two brothers and five sisters. Today, I have a wonderful set of nieces and nephews. My family is very close. I had a good life. I was blessed with a very loving family. They are my greatest gift. When I was younger, my parents always encouraged me to learn, and because of that I did well in school. I liked reading. As a child, whenever I found money I went to buy a book. I was the first in my family to get into college. I remember my parents telling me that I'd been accepted to college. The information is made public on a big board and they saw the news before I did. I remember my mother crying with joy. I enjoyed science. I've always loved biology. I was talking recently about the story of my biology teacher and the crab. When I was 12 or 13, the teacher asked for someone to bring him a live crab for the class to study, so my friend and I on the weekend rode our bikes to Roukasha Beach and found one. We brought it into class the next week and I will never forget this. It bit the teacher's finger and everyone laughed, and someone asked if the teacher would deduct from my grade because I brought him the crab. He did not. I went on to study biology in college. I wanted to be a teacher.


LATIF: "Today, my family is just as supportive as ever. They have ensured that when I finally return home, I will have meaningful work so I can build my skills and I won't be a burden to those who love me. I will be able to work for my brother's small business at first, but what I want to do eventually is to teach. I remember Moroccan food, the best food in the whole world, and the beautiful Moroccan shoreline and the sea. I've been here so long and I'm able to hear or smell the ocean from my cell but never able to set foot in it. I also remember the sounds of Morocco, the bustle of the city, the call to prayer. In Gitmo, we only hear the thud of boots.


LATIF: "When I get out of here and my foot touches the ground in Rabat, I will kneel and kiss the ground. I will arrive off the plane with my eyes open, not hooded as I was when I arrived here. It'll be the first time I walk freely without shackles. The experience for me will be like the smile of a baby first seeing its mother. I want to know what the future holds in Morocco. I don't want Morocco's name associated with Guantanamo. I don’t want a bad reputation for Morocco, which today is an example for other countries. The King sets a good example of Islam. Where in the Qur’an does it say a woman can’t drive, or be your lawyer, or anything she wants? Thank you for your interest in me and who I am. It's a good reminder that there is an answer to that that has nothing to do with Guantanamo.


LATIF: "Sincerely, Abdul Latif Nasser, ISN 244."


LATIF: I’ve spent so much time combing over the details of this guy’s life as a reporter, but this story has also become personal to me in ways that don’t make journalistic sense. And so when something big happened in my personal life, I felt like I needed to tell him.


LATIF: "April 24, 2019. Hello, Abdul Latif. Salaam Alaikum. I hope you're well. I wonder how you're doing, how your family is doing. I'm still out here spending most days and nights at my computer working on this radio documentary about you. I have no idea whether, when it comes out in the fall, they'll actually let you listen to it or not. I wanted to write to hear how you're doing, but also to let you know about something big that happened in my life yesterday.


ANNOUNCER: Good afternoon everyone. Congratulations and welcome to your naturalization ceremony.]


LATIF: I took an oath to become a citizen of the United States.


LATIF: I hereby declare on oath ...


ANNOUNCER: That I will support and defend ...


LATIF: That I will support and defend ...


ANNOUNCER: The constitution and laws ...


LATIF: The constitution and laws ...


ANNOUNCER: ... of the United States of America.


LATIF: ... of the United States of America.


LATIF: So now I am a citizen. During the ceremony, I found myself thinking about you.


LATIF: ... and required by the law.


ANNOUNCER: And that I take this obligation freely ...


LATIF: And that I take this obligation freely ...


LATIF: And what you would think about the fact that I did that.


ANNOUNCER: Without any mental reservation ...


LATIF: Without any mental reservation ...


LATIF: The fact that I have actively decided to become a part of this country that is imprisoning you without a trial.


LATIF: ... or purpose of evasion.


ANNOUNCER: So help me God.


LATIF: So help me God.




LATIF: Soon I will have an American passport which will have my -- and hence also your -- name on it. Perhaps that makes you wince, perhaps it makes you happy, perhaps it doesn't mean anything at all to you. Hope to hear from you soon and if I don't, Ramadan Kareem in advance. Latif."


LATIF: For whatever reason he never wrote back to me. But he did tell Shelby to tell me congratulations.


LATIF: This episode was produced by Sarah Qari, Annie McEwen, Suzie Lechtenberg and Latif Nasser and reported by Sarah Qari and Latif Nasser. Fact-checking by Diane Kelly and Margot Williams. Editing by Jad Abumrad and Soren Wheeler. Original music by Jad Abumrad, Dylan Keefe, Alex Overington and Amino Belyamani. That's it.


[ALAN: This is Alan Rosetti-Chou calling from Minneapolis, Minnesota. 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, Rachael 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, W. Harry Fortuna, Sarah Sandbach, Malissa O’Donnell, Tad Davis, and Russell Gragg. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.]


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