[REDACTED] brought me several Star Wars books … The guards wanted to be baptized with the names of [Star Wars] characters … “From now on we are the [REDACTED] and that’s what you call us. Your name is Pillow, [REDACTED] said. I eventually learned from the books that [REDACTED] are sort of Good Guys who fight against the Forces of Evil. So for the time being I was forced to represent the Forces of Evil, and the guards the Good Guys. “[REDACTED], that’s what you call me,” he said.
—Mohamedou Ould Slahi, author of Guantánamo Diary, who used the library to teach himself English in order to write a memoir for an American audience
Jordan Scott: While at Gitmo I was permitted to visit the Detainee Library. The Library houses a censored collection of books, magazines, and DVDs for detainees’ use, but the prisoners are not themselves allowed in the library. After the tour of the library was complete I asked the Public Affairs (PA) representative if I could have access to the entire catalogue of items housed in
the Detainee Library. I recall him saying that no one had ever asked for this before. I remember that he left briefly to call his superior about my request and when he returned I was informed that
I’d have my answer by the end of the day. Shortly after dinner, the PA representative said that they could not release the document and instead offered his cellphone where I could view the
PDF file for “several minutes.” I refused and upon returning home enlisted the help of Stephen Voyce in filing a FOIA request with the United States Department of Defense.
Stephen Voyce: I received a message from Jordan Scott in the Spring of 2015. He was making last-minute preparations to visit the Guantánamo Bay Detention Center, having been credentialed to do so as a poet (rather than as a reporter). I had been researching the history of the Freedom of Information Act for a paper entitled “Reading the Redacted.” The essay’s purpose was twofold: to explain how this specific form of censorship came to be the preferred tool of military intelligence agencies, and then to document the prevalence of redaction in recent poetry and art, drawing on work by the likes of Philip Metres, Noor Behram, Trevor Paglen, and Mariam Ghani.
Just as I was nearing completion of that article, a March 2015 study conducted by the Associated Press found that the Obama Administration had quietly done more to hinder FOIA transparency than any regime since the legislation was enacted in 1967—a trend that will no doubt continue under Trump’s presidency. Consider, for example,
- In 2014, the government took longer to release documents (if at all) than any previous administration. The backlog at year’s end grew by 55 percent to more than 200,000 requests;
- it cut 375 full-time employee jobs tasked with locating records;
- one in three cases in which claimants appealed decisions to withhold or censor records were done so improperly;
- the White House spent $28 million in lawyers feels to keep documents secret;
- and it set a record by censoring or denying access in 250,581 cases (or 39 percent) of total requests. Additionally, in 215,584 instances the government could not locate records, the claimant could not pay the copy fee, or the government found the request “unreasonable” for unspecified reasons.
Another statistic was also telling: 714,231 FOIA requests in 2014 marks an all-time high. Critical disclosures by WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, William Binney, and others have generated significant interest in the FOIA by activist groups, journalists, academics, writers, and artists. Yet, filing a FOIA request is made so deliberately difficult there are entire organizations dedicated to navigating its onerous agency-specific protocols. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, and George Washington University’s National Security Archive provide a range of essential resources. The last of these publishes a highly instructive “How to File” manual called Effective FOIA Requesting for Everyone.
The contents of the Detainee Library seemed uncontroversial by comparison with other high-profile requests by human rights organizations. Still, Southern Command stonewalled at every opportunity. Eventually we sought the help of Reprieve, an international legal organization that represents the victims of extreme human rights abuses, including, for instance, detainees at Gitmo and the families of drone strike victims. They put us in touch with representatives at the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), an agency charged with resolving FOIA disputes and improving federal compliance with public records law. After two years of negotiations, we received a complete and unredacted list of the books and DVDs contained within the library, while two additional inquiries have gone unanswered: (1) a list of all banned materials, and (2) a list of artworks produced by inmates during their incarceration. Notably, in November 2017, the U.S. Military declared that they would no longer permit detainees to retain the art they make, arguing that “cell block art” is government property and subject to Operational Security measures.
JS and SV: The 600 unclassified pages record what for many detainees is their only exposure to books and films over a fifteen-year period of incarceration, torture, and isolation. Most of these texts are written in English, while the library contains smaller selections of Arabic, Bahasa, French, and Urdu.
We make the archive available to writers, journalists, librarians, academics, and activists such that they might choose to study its contents.