Suicide or murder at Guantánamo? The shortcomings of a Harper's magazine "exposé."

Media criticism.
Jan. 28 2010 6:42 PM

Suicide or Murder at Guantánamo?

The shortcomings of a Harper's magazine "exposé."

(Continued from Page 1)

But maybe the CIA is capable of such a crime and the entire U.S. government—across two administrations—is willing to devote its energies to a cover-up. So, again, for the sake of argument, let's assume that the CIA had a terrible night on June 9, 2006, and bumped off three prisoners, as Horton would have it. But arguing against that scenario are the many statements given to NCIS investigators by other eyewitnesses to the events of June 2006. In his blog, Carter annotates the NCIS documents (large PDF, heavily redacted) to establish that dozens of individuals—nurses, other prisoners, guards, and civilian employees—saw the prisoners in their cells at 8:30 p.m., saw guards transporting the prisoners to the clinic between 12:45 a.m. and 1 a.m., or saw the dead prisoners in their cells.

If the government's witnesses are telling the truth, then Horton's great faith in Hickman, Penvose, and Caroll is misplaced. If the government's witnesses are lying, then they've established some sort of world record for collusion.

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I could go on, as I've only grazed the surface of Horton's protests. He seems to believe that the prisoners did not hang themselves, preferring to speculate that they were suffocated with a violent technique allegedly applied to Guantánamo prisoner Shaker Aamer when he allegedly refused to be fingerprinted and have his retinal scan taken. He seems to believe that Col. Michael Bumgarner, the commander of the camp, helped to engineer the cover-up by assembling at least 50 guards on the morning of June 10 to tell them, as Horton puts it, to "make no comments or suggestions that in any way undermined the official report." He believes that the FBI and Justice Department have not taken Hickman's account as seriously as they should have and quarrels with the current administration's Justice Department's decision to "leave the NCIS conclusions in place."

Based on what I've read about Guantánamo, I'm prepared to believe that derelict or lax guards made the suicides possible and stalled their immediate detection. Joining me in that assessment is former Guantánamo prisoner Tarek Dergoul of Great Britain, who was freed in March 2004 and returned to his country.

In 2006, days after the deaths, Dergoul told reporter David Rose, "I just can't believe [Al-Utaybi] would take his own life. He would have had to be really desperate."

Yet Dergoul did not consider suicide a mission impossible at Guantánamo. Instead of patrolling the cell blocks as they were supposed to, Dergoul said, the guards

used to sit in their room at the end. It's a long walk from end to end of the block and some nights they didn't feel like it: they'd sit in their room, smoking and playing cards. You'd need toilet paper or something and you'd yell "MP, MP!" But they wouldn't come—it could be as long as an hour.

I encourage you to read the Harper's piece yourself, preferably with a red pen in hand, to note its slipperiness and many flights of illogic. Drop me an e-mail, and let me know what you think.

Addendum: Harper's criticizes this piece. Shafer responds.

******

For a sense of what Guantánamo was like in 2006—prisoner cunning, hunger strikes, riots, suicide attempts—see Tim Golden's stunning 10,000-word feature from the New York Times Magazine. I answer all civil mail sent to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. I tweet on Twitter. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type suicide in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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