The CIA's Last Detainee Hates LeBron James, and Other Letters From Guantanamo Bay

Muhammad Rahim's letters from Guantanamo reveal more than just his take on LeBron James; they also show he's more than what the government says he is.

by Andrew Helms
May 27 2015, 3:33pm

Three years ago, the last detainee interrogated by the Central Intelligence Agency, Muhammad Rahim, wrote a letter to his lawyer delivering a clear and unequivocal message.

"LeBron James is a very bad man and should apologize to the city of Cleveland," Rahim wrote.

Rahim, an Afghan native captured in Pakistan in 2007 with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda, had learned about James's decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and play for the Miami Heat from his lawyer, Carlos Warner, a Cleveland native.

"I told Muhammad about LeBron and what he meant to Ohio and the city of Cleveland," recalls Warner. "That letter came out of him being offended by what LeBron did to his people."

In another letter, Rahim—known to friends and family as Sikander, a nickname bestowed on him by his grandfather and meant to honor Alexander the Great—counseled Warner to take President Obama "straight to the post" if the two ever played basketball together. After hearing the song "Gangnam Style," Rahim asked Warner to see if his shackles could be removed so that he might dance to the infectious K-pop tune.

It's difficult to reconcile the cultural appreciation and curiosity expressed in Rahim's letters with the brutal details about his interrogations contained in the recent Senate torture report. How can a man tortured by the CIA, kept awake in one instance for 135 hours straight, also joke that Americans carry around ... too many rewards cards?

"Make one card for everything," suggested a letter from Rahim, "or kiss my grits!!!"

Imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay since late 2008 with little hope for release, Rahim's detention has provided for a perverse form of cultural exchange. At the prison—both a symbol and an undead tool of America's extralegal war on terror—detainees have access to movies, television, and radio programs in multiple languages.

Though the entertainment provides little solace for detention without end, Rahim has attempted to use the access to understand the country that tortured him and holds him without charge.

"He has such an amazing strength of character," says former military lawyer Lt. Commander Kevin Bogucki. "It's impressive that after everything, he says that maybe this is his opportunity to learn some things, to be able to read, to do all these sorts of things."

Prior to his arrival at Guantanamo, Rahim had little contact with American culture. Born in Jalalabad, a city in the Nangarhar province of eastern Afghanistan, he was able to attend a religious school and learn Arabic, a rarity in eastern Afghanistan where most speak the local language Pashto.

Rahim's knowledge of Arabic found him work as a businessman, translator, and teacher. A "blood type O" personality, according to Warner, Rahim was able to get along with different tribes and groups, adapting and surviving in a volatile environment.

Yet these translation skills also appear to have put Rahim in contact with Al-Qaeda. After the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Arabic-speaking members of Al-Qaeda began moving east towards Tora Bora and the border with Pakistan. As one of the few locals who could speak Arabic at a high level, it is believed that Rahim may have helped facilitate transactions for local businesses and members of Al-Qaeda alike.

The extent of his work with Al-Qaeda is unclear, but the Senate report shows that the CIA believed that Rahim had contact with Osama bin Laden, making the capture and interrogation of Rahim a priority for the Agency as the hunt for bin Laden grew cold.

"The government's theory was that he essentially provided material support for terrorism by serving as an interpreter in Tora Bora," concludes Bogucki, who traveled to Jalalabad in 2010 to meet with tribal elders in his work on Rahim's case. According to Bogucki, all those he spoke with considered Rahim to be a businessman and teacher.

Both Bogucki and Warner could not elaborate further on the specific allegations against Rahim, but Warner did add that Rahim is not a jihadist. The CIA declined to comment for this story.

On June 25, 2007, Rahim was captured in Pakistan and transferred to CIA custody. Desperate for leads on Bin Laden, the agency classified Muhammad Rahim as a "high-value detainee." As the Senate Report summarizes, "CIA personnel assessed that Rahim likely possessed information related to the location of Usama bin Laden and other al-Qa'ida leaders."

This designation made Rahim eligible for detention at CIA-run black sites where he was subjected to so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques," a program designed by two former CIA contractors, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, and harshly criticized by the Senate Intelligence Committee's recent report.

For Rahim's lawyers, the high-value detainee label is misleading and is at the root of Rahim's legal purgatory today. "He's not KSM," says Bogucki, referring to Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the man who planned the 9/11 attacks, beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and was waterboarded 183 times at a CIA black site in Poland in 2003. While Rahim potentially had intelligence that could have been useful to the CIA and American counterterrorism officials, Warner states that Rahim definitely "was not a planner of 9/11."

After his capture, the CIA rendered Rahim to a black site in Afghanistan. There, CIA officers had one conversation with Rahim in which he declined to provide information about threats against the United States or top Al-Qaeda leaders. "Based on this interaction," recounts the Senate Report, "CIA interrogators reported that Rahim was unlikely to be cooperative." This prompted new CIA Director Michael Hayden to request authorization to interrogate Rahim using "enhanced interrogation techniques."

By that time in 2007, the CIA's interrogation program was in disarray. A string of scandals including the release of photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, a harsh report from the CIA's own inspector general and a Supreme Court decision asserting that all detainees must be treated according to Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions had left the program suspended and politically toxic.

Despite the turmoil, the CIA was convinced of the program's effectiveness and wanted to use it on Rahim. As the Senate Report details, CIA Director Hayden needed to get the program reauthorized to interrogate Rahim so he sought political approval from the White House and legal approval from the Justice Department to use six techniques: sleep deprivation, dietary manipulation, facial grasp, facial slap, abdominal slap, and the attention grab.

Rahim would not be waterboarded, the technique having last been used by the CIA in 2003 on Khalid Sheikh Muhammad.

The CIA began applying "enhanced interrogation techniques" on Rahim on July 21, 2007, when interrogators approached Rahim and told him "his assumptions about how he would be treated were wrong." They proceeded to hit him using the "facial slap" and "abdominal slap" techniques. His eighth and final sleep deprivation session from November 2 to November 8 lasted for 138.5 hours. During these sessions, Rahim was left standing shackled to a wall, wearing only a diaper and shorts. His diet consisted mostly of water and liquid Ensure.

In response to these techniques, a CIA cable reports that Rahim threatened to "make up information if interrogators pressured him" and that he told them that "he was at the complete mercy of the interrogators and they could even kill him if they wanted."

Despite the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques," the Senate Report concludes, "The CIA's detention and interrogation of Mohammad [sic] Rahim resulted in no disseminated intelligence reports."

"He's like the perfect example of them [the CIA] jumping to this extreme form of interrogation," says Bogucki. "They never bothered with rapport-building that would fall within the standard arsenals of an interrogator's tools. They took one shot, and jumped to the extreme measures. It produced nothing."

In April 2008, the CIA's rendition and detention group conducted an internal review of Rahim's interrogation. As the Senate Report details, the group identified several factors that contributed to Rahim's lack of cooperation, including "the interrogation team's lack of knowledge of Rahim" and "the team's inability to confront Rahim with incriminating evidence." The group recommended—six years after the CIA began using "enhanced interrogation techniques"—that the CIA include rapport-building techniques in future interrogations and survey techniques used by other U.S. government agencies.

Rahim's brother, Zardan, who was held at Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan and was only recently granted asylum in London, read the Senate report, the most detailed public account of his brother's detention and torture in existence.

"When I think about Muhammad Rahim," he told VICE Sports over the phone, "I cry from my heart."

In late 2008, Rahim was transferred to Guantanamo Bay. Upon arrival, the Department of Defense issued a press release asserting that Rahim "was a close associate of Usama bin Ladin and had ties to al-Qaida organizations throughout the Middle East."

Seven years later, no charges have been brought against Rahin. For former military lawyer Kevin Bogucki, the most likely charge that could be brought against Rahim is material support for terrorism, yet since that charge is not a war crime, Rahim cannot be charged in the military courts used at Guantanamo Bay.

Rahim's status as a high-value detainee further complicates his situation. Very few politicians are willing to advocate for the transfer of a high-value detainee from Guantanamo Bay, leaving Rahim in a state of legal purgatory.

"Muhammad Rahim has the misfortune of being stamped a high value detainee, and not because he did anything so horrible but because they thought the intelligence he possessed was high value," says Bogucki.

Now stuck at Guantanamo Bay indefinitely, Rahim survives day-to-day, spending some of his time learning about American culture. Warner says that Rahim's ability to adapt to his circumstances should not soften attitudes toward Guantanamo. "Some detainees I think won't make it another week," he says, describing Rahim's aptitude for understanding and appreciating American pop culture as the exception, not the rule.

"He's one of these guys where he searches for the silver lining in every dark cloud," says Bogucki.

In a 2013 letter, Rahim wrote, "I am moved by this: 'The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become totally free so that your existence becomes an act of rebellion.' I am here." When asked what Muhammad Rahim would think about LeBron James's return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Bogucki said, "I think he would see it as a real story of redemption. Even though LeBron made a bad decision, he arguably betrayed the city of Cleveland, ultimately he came full circle and the people of Cleveland have embraced him."

After a brief pause, Bogucki added, "Muhammad Rahim would see that as interesting. That it's never too late to come home."