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How Mom sent a guy to Gitmo

She thought her article was satire, but U.S. officials didn't get the joke.

February 26, 2009|ROSA BROOKS

My mother is a terrorist!

Or at least that's what certain unidentified U.S. interrogators seem to suspect.

It all stems from a satirical article called "How to Build Your Own Home H-Bomb" that my mother, Barbara Ehrenreich, wrote with two coauthors 30 years ago. The article, published in Seven Days magazine, was chock-full of helpful tips for would-be nuclear bomb makers. For instance, it advised those struggling to enrich uranium to make "a simple home centrifuge. Fill a standard-size bucket one-quarter full of liquid uranium hexafluoride. Attach a six-foot rope to the bucket handle. Now swing the [bucket] around your head as fast as possible. Keep this up for about 45 minutes."

It's a good thing the Iranians haven't discovered this technique. But don't chuckle. If you're reading this, and you ever admit it (and believe me, if tortured, you'll admit anything), you never know what might happen.

Just ask Binyam Mohamed, who was released from Guantanamo to his home in Britain this week after nearly seven years of detention. His lawyers believe that he was suspected of being a terrorist, in part, because he confessed to having read my mother's article.

Mohamed, an Ethiopian refugee, moved to Britain with his father in 1994. In June 2001, Mohamed -- then 22 -- traveled to Afghanistan. When the war began there in October 2001, he fled to Pakistan. In April 2002, he tried to fly back to Britain, but his papers weren't in order and he was detained by Pakistani authorities.

According to his lawyers, he was then subjected to brutal interrogation by Pakistani and U.S. agents, who seemed convinced that he was a top Al Qaeda figure in possession of nuclear secrets. They say he was beaten and threatened with death, then "rendered"-- apparently with CIA cooperation -- in July 2002 to Morocco, where interrogators repeatedly slashed his genitals with a scalpel.

At some point, they say, Mohamed began to confess to an impressive range of sins. Pressed for details about his purported nuclear know-how, for instance, Mohamed admitted that he had, indeed, once read my mother's article on the Web, but said it was just a spoof.

They didn't get the joke. According to Mohamed's attorneys, who have had access to classified records, the article seems to have been deemed a crucial piece of "evidence" against their client. An intelligence-community game of Telephone ensued, in which Mohamed's "confession" that he'd read up on the manufacture of nuclear weapons was passed along from interrogator to interrogator, until U.S. authorities convinced themselves that Mohamed was part of a dangerous nuclear plot against the United States.

Mohamed, whose mental health was rapidly deteriorating, was transferred to Guantanamo and charged with conspiracy to aid Al Qaeda. He asserted that he was not guilty and had confessed only as a result of torture. But when his defense attorneys sought access to the records they believed would exonerate him, the U.S. government refused to turn them over. By 2007, the attorneys said, Mohamed had become so unstable that he was smearing his feces on his cell wall.

Eventually, the frustrated military lawyer assigned to prosecute Mohamed resigned to protest his own office's withholding of crucial evidence, and in the end, all charges were dropped. This week, Mohamed was finally released from Guantanamo and allowed to return home to Britain a free man.

Still, many details of Mohamed's case remain secret. The Bush administration agreed to release Mohamed to British authorities only on the condition that details relating to his interrogation remain classified. Mohamed's attorneys went to court over the issue, and on Feb. 4, the British High Court of Justice reluctantly agreed to the continued suppression of details about Mohamed's interrogation. But the court openly expressed its dismay that "a democracy governed by the rule of law [the U.S.] would expect a court in another democracy [Britain] to suppress ... evidence contained in reports by its own officials ... where the evidence was relevant to allegations of torture, ... politically embarrassing though it might be."

It's definitely embarrassing to be known as a nation that tortured detainees, and for the U.S. officials who authorized Mohamed's torture, the consequences, if made public, could be worse than just embarrassing. By now, though, U.S. officials are fairly used to this form of political embarrassment. My guess is that records of Mohamed's interrogation would show something else that's just as embarrassing for the U.S.: the inability of many of our ace intelligence experts to tell the difference between threats posed by serious terrorist masterminds and the threat posed by a hapless young man who once read a satirical article about how to make nuclear weapons.

I hope they'll let me visit my mom in her interrogation cell.

--

rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com

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