The secretive wing of Guantanamo Bay reserved for the highest-priority terrorist suspects is an unlikely place for Russian propaganda.
But letters from one of its long-term residents indicate that for at least two years, the only English-language news accessible to these survivors of CIA black sites is RT, the Kremlin channel that loves to broadcast whatever makes America look terrible.
Guantanamo officials would not comment on why RT, which U.S. intelligence considers a key component of Vladimir Putin’s global messaging, gets shown in Gitmo’s Camp 7. Inmates there include confessed 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and accused USS Cole bomber Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.
Another one of those cellmates is Muhammad Rahim al-Afghani. Apprehended by the CIA in Pakistan in 2007, Afghani has written to his attorney voluminously—displaying a Seinfeld-esque sense of humor unexpected from a man who was once forced awake for so long he hallucinated. But among Afghani’s observations is that he and the 14 other Camp 7 detainees are fed a media diet heavy on RT.
In a March 15, 2017 letter Afghani wrote, “It’s the only western news we get—and it’s from Moscow.”
Joint Task Force-Guantanamo would not address why RT is permitted to the Camp 7 detainees, nor why it is the only English-language news they get. “We don’t discuss operations in Camp Seven, period,” said Navy Commander John Robinson, a Joint Task Force spokesman.
Robinson, however, confirmed that RT is available at Guantanamo for the 26 non-Camp 7 detainees. It’s included in their Galaxy 19 satellite TV package of 200 channels in various languages: “The current list of offerings includes RT, among numerous other news sources. Detainees choose which stations, if any, they watch or listen to.”
Afghani has been watching RT for a long time. He first referenced “the TV I have, RT, Russian TV” in a December 2015 letter to his lawyer, Carlos Warner, who shared a trove of Afghani’s letters with The Daily Beast. He’s sufficiently familiar with RT as to form a critique of the network’s editorial choices.
“Funny how RT likes Trump and doesn’t talk about Guantanamo anymore,” he writes, continuing: “This is all fake news. Propaganda is not news.”
Camp 7 is by far the most sensitive part of Guantanamo. There, the U.S. military holds 15 detainees, separated entirely from the 26 housed in the other Gitmo detention camps. Reporters and human rights advocates are permitted guided tours of every part of Guantanamo except Camp 7. Information about the camp is partial and difficult to acquire. Government surveillance inside it is ubiquitous. At least one detainee held at Camp 7 claims the U.S. continues to torture him with “noises and vibrations.” The U.S. military has blocked even the United Nations’ special rapporteur for torture from visiting the camp, as he would not agree to stay silent about what he would observe inside.
To be a resident of Camp 7 is to be a former resident of a CIA black site, where the agency tortured the 15 men with waterboardings, nonconsensual anal penetrations, painful bodily contortions, extensive sleep deprivation, mock executions, and more.
Afghani is the last recent black-site survivor to make it to Camp 7, arriving in 2008. The only non-detainees allowed in are military personnel: the Red Cross and attorneys meet with the detainees elsewhere in Guantanamo. The overwhelming secrecy surrounding Camp 7 is predicated on how dangerous the men held there are assessed to be, but detainees and their advocates contend that the real reason for their isolation is to cover up their torture.
According to the Senate intelligence committee’s 2014 torture report, the CIA apprehended Afghani in Pakistan, believing him to have information on the whereabouts of top al Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden. President George W. Bush and CIA Director Michael Hayden personally approved his torture, which included shackling him in a standing position while he wore a diaper and shorts. Afghani’s treatment began by keeping him awake for 104.5 hours out of the 120 hours that passed from July 21 and 25, 2007. It was the first of what the Senate called eight “extensive” sleep deprivation sessions. His torture resulted in “no disseminated intelligence reports,” the Senate found.
“I was tortured, hung from the ceiling until I was dead. I am not high-value. They call me high-value because the CIA tortured me,” Afghani wrote on July 21, 2015. In another letter carrying the same date, he continued: “In 9 months the CIA tortured me like an animal—only animals were treated better. They did not let me shower or use the toilet for months, they fed me animal food. They would not let me pray unless I confessed to untruths and I was praying for my life.”
Six years after U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden, Afghani remains at Guantanamo and has never been charged with a crime.
He and the other Camp 7 inmates have few options for passing the time. “We don’t get many sports here,” Afghani lamented in March. What they do have, according to his letters, are magazines like Time and Rolling Stone; America’s Funniest Home Videos; Saudi and Beirut-based TV; and a news channel that U.S. intelligence agencies in January characterized as part of “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine” (PDF).
Men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed are unlikely to require additional reasons to view America negatively. But the Kremlin-owned RT saturates its coverage with them, leavened with fare like the “prophesies of fringe authors who predicted a 55 percent chance of civil war and the dissolution of the United States into six distinct territories by July 2010,” which journalist Julia Ioffe once wrote in Columbia Journalism Review. One arguable exception to RT’s portrait of a depraved, irredeemable America: the network loved Donald Trump.
Afghani seems to be sick of what RT broadcasts. “I can’t even watch the news anymore. Every story is more scary and I am here. I am scared for everybody. I choose to turn it off. That’s why I ask about sports,” he explained to lawyer Warner.
He does not only ask Warner about sports. Afghani tries very hard to keep up with the Kardashians.
“Did Caitlyn get the surgery, did she vote for Trump? What does this Tyga do? One [Kardashian] dates a Cav? Does LeBron approve?” Afghani wanted to know in March, seemingly concerned about the impact of Tristan Thompson’s relationship on Cleveland’s ultimately thwarted hopes of repeating as NBA champions.
Warner, his Akron-based attorney, explains that Afghani has a voracious appetite for word from the outside world. Since 2008 or 2009, they’ve met at least three times a year, and the difficulty inherent in getting to Guantanamo—a trip that must be approved by the military—means they get over eight hours together in a stretch. Without an actual court case to work on, Warner and Afghani have spent nearly a decade shooting the shit.
“I hate the Kardashians,” said Warner, “but I can’t look away.”
So the exploits of Kim, Khloe, and Kendall get pored over at Guantanamo, along with the random news of whatever’s happening when Warner makes it out to the Antilles. Typically, Afghani, who is fluent in English, writes letters during their meetings, which—if they clear the military and “other agency” censors—get faxed back to Akron.
That means the letters reflect the random news of the day that the two men discuss, as well as a strong dose of Afghani’s sense of humor. In July 2015, for instance, Afghani wrote, “This is terrible news about Ashley Madison, please remove my profile immediately!!!”
Afghani’s letters have leaked out before—particularly when he briefly made international news later that year for setting up a short-lived Match.com profile. (“Detained but ready to mingle.”)
Afghani often spends his dispatches clowning Warner, one of the few people he has talked to in a decade. Warner’s “girlfriend is wrong, you are only 45% grey,” Afghani encouraged him, adding, “It’s distinguished, like Clooney. Age well, friend.” A different letter to Warner assesses, “You smell great with these Downy Unstopables… I am not getting paid for this.” While Afghani once asked Warner to send candy, Afghani revoked the order: “STOP with the circus peanuts. I am not sure about the dentists here. These candy sucks [sic]. Not funny.”
Trends have passed Afghani by, he laments. “Why are the watches so big now? When you first visited me they were little. Now huge. Are you losing sight? My Timex looks like it was made for a woman.” Warner recalls having to tell Afghani what a smartphone is, noting that it’s not the easiest thing to describe to a man who was abducted in Pakistan four days before the debut of the first iPhone.
And Afghani has become somewhat curmudgeonly: millennials, he recently wrote, “all look like wimpy lumberjacks.”
His sports takes are more easygoing. “Like you said, Moneyball only works if you get the picks right,” Afghani observed in March. After the 2014-2015 NBA season, when Warner brought up the only subject that mattered to Ohio sports fans, Afghani wrote: “It is good to hear about LeBron coming home. Miami is a good place to visit, but nobody wants to live there. Too greasy and hot.”
“Definitely, his personality shines through,” Warner said.
Whatever RT thinks, Afghani isn’t a fan of Trump. The president is an “idiot.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions is an “ass hat.” KellyAnne Conway is “Skeletor.”
But in another departure from RT’s editorial line, Afghani doesn’t hold much against the United States.
“My legal situation is bad, but the camp commander is a good man who treats us humanely,” Afghani wrote in March. “Thank him and the new SJA [Staff Judge Advocate], I know many Americans are good.”