Stories That Matter: How Radiolab's Latif Nasser Introduced Listeners to a Guantanamo Bay Detainee
Despite epic red tape, "The Other Latif" put eyes back on the detention center in Cuba, where a man accused of terrorism who shared the reporter's name sat without charges or trial for over a decade.
A few years ago, Radiolab producer Latif Nasser was procrastinating on Twitter when he saw his name in a tweet from a non-profit law firm. Except, the tweet wasn’t about him, it was about a Moroccan man named Abdul Latif Nasser who was in detention at Guantanamo Bay for alleged terrorism. His lawyer had been tweeting at the president to try to get him released.
By that point, Abdul Latif Nasser had been in Guantanamo without charges or trial for 15 years. Despite being cleared for transfer home to Morocco, “the other Latif” was still in prison, and no one could explain why. Journalist Nasser, whose work typically focuses more on the science and culture of things like robots, snowflakes, and laughter, was determined to find out.
“It had this weird resonance for me,” he said. Not only because the two had the same uncommon name, but because Abdul Latif Nasser had apparently been just like him in some ways — a “nerdy, suburban kid” before the events that led to his detention.
Despite government roadblocks, no access to the main character of the story, and initial skepticism from his editors, Nasser and his Radiolab team dug in for three years of labyrinthine reporting to ultimately produce a podcast called The Other Latif. Like most journalism to come out of Radiolab, the series doesn’t come to a neat ending. It isn’t clear in the end who the listener should believe — or even who Nasser himself believes. Then on July 19th, 2021, more than a year after the final episode of the series aired, a two-minute bonus episode appeared in the Radiolab feed. A breathless Nasser shared the news that the subject had been released, and there would be “more to come.”
Nasser and his team don’t take any credit for Abdul Latif Nasser’s freedom; he was, after all, already technically free before they began their reporting. But, the publicity doesn’t seem to have hurt. While waiting to hear whether he’d finally get to interview the man who inspired the series, Nasser answered some questions about how and why he pushed so hard to make this podcast happen.
How did you go from that weird moment on Twitter to spending three years reporting this story?
Nasser: To kind of pull the curtain back a little bit, I pitched it to Radiolab and it was a dud in the pitch meeting, for reasons that I can completely understand now. I look back on our meeting notes and there were five comments on that pitch in the room — three of them were me trying to gin up interest. One of them was from our former cohost, Robert Krulwich. He was like, “this sounds dangerous, don't do it.” And then one was from one of my colleagues, who would end up being a producer on the series, actually. She said: “The injustice at Guantanamo Bay doesn't feel super surprising, you know, this would have been an interesting story 13 years ago.” And the second thing she pointed out, which was very true, was that I didn't have access to the main character.
But I was still sort of obsessed with this guy, and I didn’t know what to do, and then I was very lucky that one of my colleagues, Suzie Lechtenberg, she kind of got obsessed [along] with me. And together we doubled down like, OK, what if this wasn't an episode? What if it was a series? Like, what if we took a thing that we don't know how to make it a one episode thing and we commit to six episodes?
But what a great situation to be in to say, “well, everyone said no, but let's do something even crazier.”
Nasser: Yes, exactly. And this is not the kind of reporting I or we do at Radiolab. I'm much more accustomed to science reporting or culture reporting. I've even done some sports reporting, but I've never done anything anywhere close to national security or terrorism or anything like that. I just happened to be the guy with the same name. We were sort of just making it up as we went along, seeking out other people in the field who we really respected, people like [investigative journalist] Carol Rosenberg. We just called them like: “Here’s what we got, like, what do we do?” And so many people were so kind to us, but it really did at the beginning feel like an impossible story.
I can’t help but wonder, like Robert said, “that's dangerous, don't do it….” How did your family feel about it once you got into it?
Nasser: I didn't really tell them, to be honest. At the beginning, I remember I was at a family gathering around Christmas, and I was gonna bring it up because obviously they all have the same last name too. But I think Muslim Americans, not to speak broadly, but the American Muslim community is tired of these stories, Muslim terrorist stories. I wasn’t, like, proudly doing this story. It just had grabbed me, and we were like, how do we do this in a way that we feel good about?
And how did you answer that question?
Nasser: It was slow, we spent years on it. A lot of that time was in the background while we were doing other stories, and we would be like, really, really banging our heads against it. Three years of just sort of groping in the dark and doing interviews, so many marathon interviews, hours long, where you’d have, like, one tiny nugget of information out of it. And you’d be so grateful for that. And then we’d go to sleep, and then wake up in the morning thinking: “I don’t even know if I believe that. There’s 10 reasons to distrust that thing that I worked so hard to get yesterday.” And then am I back at square one or not? It was a kind of reporting, I think, where everyone was trying to spin me, sources were so hard to get on the record. It was using so many different muscles as a journalist that I wasn’t used to using as a science journalist or in my normal stories.
I'm glad you went there about not being sure what to believe. It seemed like a major theme of the series was the slipperiness of the truth. I was curious how that affected your reporting.
Nasser: I was lucky that the way we ended up doing it sort of fit with the house style of Radiolab, which is that so much of it is about the journey. Every story is, in a way, a reporter’s journey to learn about that story, and, in this case, if it wasn’t for that frame, it would be a way harder story to tell.
Logistically, what was it like trying to interview someone in Guantanamo?
Nasser: We weren’t allowed to interview [Abdul Latif Nasser] because the government basically cites the Geneva Convention, which felt very ironic. So that was frustrating, especially because he’s cleared on paper. We had to use all these sorts of tricks to try to get around that: we talked to his family, we talked to former [inmates] who knew him. Then we would try to talk to him in this indirect way through his lawyers.
Basically, anything that comes out of his mouth, or he writes down on paper, is immediately classified, so any communication we get is censored and monitored. I would write a letter, send it to his lawyer, and his lawyer would basically give him the gist of it. She would have a conversation with him, he would talk to her, she would then kind of take notes, and those notes would have to be declassified. She had every reason to kind of filter it in one way. And then the government had every reason to filter the other way. So it was passing through two completely opposite filters, and then what even came out the other end? It was such an absurd way to correspond with somebody.
When we did get one letter, it was actually so beautiful, and so personal seeming and so intimate that it was kind of a shock, knowing that it had gone through these crazy steps, and yet it came out sounding like it came from a human being. That was the moment when it became clear that oh, this is a series, like there is a human being in the middle of all of this. And that’s the thing that I used to sort of persuade my editors, like, this is for real. Three years of that, and not just with [his lawyer], with everybody. It felt like everybody we were talking to, that was the exact experience over and over.
And you had three years of that. Where did you get that persistence from?
Nasser: I turned out to be wrong in this belief, but it just felt to me at the time that, if I don’t do this, nobody’s gonna do it. This guy’s been in there for 15 years. Nobody’s written about it really, besides activists basically, and his lawyer, and even then in a sort of flat way. And then it turns out that there were other reporters who did stories about him that were quite good. But still, I felt like I had to persist through that, because I had this curiosity about this guy who has my name.
We would often joke that this was the closest thing that this guy has gotten to a trial in 20 years. Us doing our podcast without him was the closest thing this guy got to a trial. That felt like this burden where I was like, OK, we need to do this right, because otherwise this guy is an abstraction of the world that is that way on purpose.
If people right now know the name of anybody at Guantanamo, it’s probably Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, and I think the reason is that there were almost 800 guys there. Could you name even two of them? These guys, they were not allowed to speak for themselves. They were not allowed to get their stories out there. They were painted as the worst of the worst, and then you never heard anything else after that.
What was it like to interview former detainees and hear about their experiences?
Nasser: Those interviews were kind of devastating. They were so hard. And we worked so hard to get them. I’m sure you know, as a journalist, there are times when you do an interview, and you’re like, “oh, that bombed.” Like: “That couldn't have gone worse. Now I’m going to be up all night, thinking of how I could have done that differently.” We had someone come in from the Poynter Center to talk about trauma-informed journalism, and in hearing her talk about how to talk to torture victims and things like that I was like, “oh, yeah, this is exactly what happened.”
First of all, it was so hard to find these guys. They’re sort of all over the world. They’re just in a lot of different countries and in a lot of different situations. A lot of them, they just didn’t want to talk. And if they did want to talk, they didn’t want to talk on the record. If they did want to talk on the record ... it became very instantly clear that I was sort of asking them questions in the same ways that their interrogators were. I was trying to be nice and friendly and gentle, sort of a lot of the same tactics [an interrogator would use]. I was asking them very, very difficult, personal questions and that was putting them through a lot of the trauma that they had already been through from torture, or from prolonged detention and solitary confinement. We did several of these that were so tender, so difficult. One of them, I was interviewing somebody and he told me that, for the 48 hours before I talked to him, he had extreme diarrhea, vomiting, at the prospect of even just talking to me. It was so difficult for him. But he realized why it was valuable, you know, how many people can talk to you about what it’s like to be imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay? [Some former detainees] decided they didn’t want to talk after all. I don’t blame them. Some of them are in very precarious positions. For the few that did, I’m still really impressed that they would do that.
Where were you when you heard that the other Latif had been released, and how did that feel?
Nasser: We’ve been hearing rumors about it for so long, and then I finally got a call from a credible government source who told me: “It’s about to happen.” And I was still like: “I don’t believe it. Let me know when he touches down, and then I will believe it.”
So that whole night when it was supposed to happen, my colleagues and I were texting all night long, and most of the time I was in my office or pacing through my living room while my kids were sleeping, and the lights were all off. And I’m just texting furiously, trying to figure out what is happening. And by that moment, it was around 7 a.m. Morocco time, which was like the middle of the night here in L.A. When he actually landed and we heard from our Moroccan colleague that he was there, it was just amazing. It just felt like a thing that had been impossible for the prior five years, and all of a sudden it just happened.
Based on my reporting, based on the promise that the U.S. government has made to him, this guy does not belong in [Guantanamo] anymore. And so for him to get out, I was happy for him. I was happy for his family, I was happy for this country. I was like: “Oh, this is good. We’re making good on a promise we made five years ago. Five years too late, but still, we’re making good on it.” But I did feel sort of shocked.
Do you feel like you and your team played any role in this? Or was it just the timing?
Nasser: He was cleared for transfer home to Morocco before we even started recording the story. So on paper he was a free man already. Did we have anything to do with that? I don’t know. Although, it’s funny, I got a message shortly after his release from a friend of mine who works in the Department of Justice telling me: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease. It couldn’t have hurt that you brought all this attention to his case.” And there’s a kind of a bittersweetness in that, in that there’s 10 other guys that are in this same situation. You know, there’s 10 other guys who are cleared on paper basically, and should be allowed to just walk out of Guantanamo Bay, but they can’t.
Stories That Matter is a series of interviews with the people behind some of the best and most influential journalism being done today, focused on reporting, writing, and lessons we can learn from the process of creating great work.
Additional content and context, added to everything we do.
Predict: What Happens Next?
Latif Nasser plans to visit “the other Latif” in Morocco as soon as possible, and he’s hopeful the man will finally sit down for an interview. Shortly after his release, Abdul Latif’s lawyer told Nasser that her client hadn’t made a decision yet — he’d been a little busy. Plus, he hadn’t been allowed to listen to the show while detained, and he’d like to do that first. Nasser wants to report on this part of Abdul Latif’s story, but he also wants to hear from the source about what he and his team might have gotten wrong.
It’s hard to get people interested in stories about Guantanamo Bay in 2021. Nasser doesn’t share a name with any of the 10 men who remain there, and he isn’t sure how to make their stories newsworthy, but he hopes to be able to tell them someday.
“There are a few of them with stories I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since we made this series,” Nasser said. “There are still a few stories there that I find so interesting, and surprising, and actually quite different from this story.”
Read: More on Guantanamo Bay
Described as the “Switzerland of South America,” Uruguay has served as a refuge for many without a place to call home, including a number of former detainees at Guantanamo: “After Years in Guantanamo, Ex-Detainees Find Little Solace in Uruguay,” March 21, 2015
Ten years after the first detainees arrived at Guantanamo Bay, Todd Purdum interviewed dozens of lawyers, soldiers, and others to assemble an oral history of the facility: “Guantanamo: An Oral History,” January 11, 2012
After more than a dozen years behind bars, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee spent two days telling his story to the Toronto Star: “In His Own Words: Omad Khadr,” May 27, 2015
Meet: About the Author
Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips is a journalist, editor, and health and science communicator based in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is the author of The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World.