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."

Harper's.

Why aren't more journalists writing about Harper's Guantánamo exposé, which the magazine's editors pushed onto the Web last week in advance of its publication in the March issue?

Except for an Associated Press story, coverage in the British press (the Guardian, the Independent), a piece on television (Countdown With Keith Olbermann), and scattered articles on top Web sites (Slate, Salon, Andrew Sullivan's blog), the major press has largely snubbed the Harper's scoop.

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And what a scoop. Writer Scott Horton declares that "evidence … suggests the current administration failed to investigate seriously—and may even have continued—a cover-up of the possible homicides of three prisoners at Guantánamo in 2006." Drawing on a Seton Hall University School of Law critique of the official inquiry of the deaths (which was heavily redacted by the government) and interviews with former Guantánamo guards, Horton further claims the existence of a "previously unreported black [secret] site at Guantánamo where the deaths, or at least the events that led directly to the deaths, most likely occurred."

Horton should be grateful for the relative silence greeting his 8,000-word article. While rich in detail, the piece never comes close to making its case that prisoners Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi, and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani may have been murdered at a secret CIA installation at Gitmo, nor does it present persuasive evidence to show that multiple branches of the military, the FBI, the Justice Department, and two White Houses have deliberately concealed the true nature of the deaths.

Horton, a lawyer and human-right advocate, lends unwarranted credence to the eyewitness testimony of Guantánamo guards-turned-whistleblowers and conflates hearsay and speculation into "evidence" while blithely ignoring facts and statements collected by the government. Time and space don't allow me to knock down every dubious assertion in the Horton piece, so I'll limit myself here to his grandest claims.

(While assembling my case against Horton's piece I came upon the work of First Thingsblogger Joe Carter, who shreds the article with Occam's Razor on Jan. 21, Jan. 22, Jan. 26, and Jan. 27. He did a great job and deserves credit, which I'm happy to bestow.)

Horton's primary witness, Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Hickman, alleges on the early evening of June 9, 2006, while providing security for Guantánamo's Camp 1 from an observation tower, he saw a "paddy wagon" manned by Navy guards ferry a single prisoner out of Camp 1. The paddy wagon returned 20 minutes later to pick up a second prisoner. When the van reappeared following a second 20 minute interval, Hickman left the tower, drove three-quarters of a mile down the road toward a checkpoint, and waited for the van to see where it might be going. The van appeared, cleared the checkpoint, and made a turn toward a facility Hickman calls "Camp No," a facility we'll hear more about in a moment. "All three prisoners would have reached their destination before 8 p.m.," Horton writes.

Hickman claims that the paddy wagon returned at 11:30 p.m. but that the Navy guards did not exit the vehicle to enter Camp 1. "Instead, they backed the vehicle up to the entrance of the medical clinic, as if to unload something," Horton writes.

Another eyewitness, Army Spc. Christopher Penvose,tells Horton that from his guard tower perch he did not observe the three prisoners being moved on the walkway between Camp 1 and the medical clinic, either dead or alive. Another soldier in a position to observe the area late that night, Army Spc. David Caroll, told Horton that he saw no prisoners moved into the clinic, either. Both of these statements support Hickman's conjecture that the paddy wagon deposited the prisoners at the clinic when it backed up to the entrance.

So, in Horton's take, the three prisoners were delivered to Camp No one at a time by 8 p.m., killed, and then driven back to the medical clinic at Camp 1 by 11:30 p.m., at which point the cover-up of their killings commenced. (You'll see later that Horton's chronology quarrels with that of the official record.)

Map from the Harper's magazine.
Guantánamo map reproduced from Harper's

Horton's narrative depends heavily on the existence of Camp No. But is the place real? The first mention of Camp No in the body of the piece comes when Horton states that a friend of Hickman's had nicknamed a mysterious compound off the main Guantánamo road "Camp No"—as in "No, it doesn't" exist. Horton writes that other soldiers had speculated that the facility, which is said to be encircled by concertina wire, may have been used by personnel believed to be CIA agents. But that's all conjecture. Hickman further claims to have once heard a "series of screams" emanating from Camp No, but Horton doesn't explain how Hickman got close enough to the restricted space to hear the screams.

Now, it's possible that the compound viewed by Hickman and others is a CIA facility. Many military bases host buildings whose uses are classified. Plus, we know from a Dec. 17, 2004, Washington Post article that the CIA maintained "a detention facility for valuable al Qaeda captives that has never been mentioned in public" at Guantánamo. But the Post's sketch of that facility does not accurately describe the Camp No that Hickman talks about.

Although Horton has no proof that the building nestled into the Guantánamo hills houses a CIA operation, he proceeds on the basis of a rumor and a cute nickname to write as if the place is a CIA installation called Camp No. The nine additional references the piece makes to Camp No (not counting its placement on a map) are designed to lull gullible readers into thinking that 1) Camp No exists and 2) that one of its uses is to torture prisoners. Camp No has already become "real" enough to deserve a Wikipedia entry.

For the sake of argument, let's say that the CIA or some other agency did run a secret site at Guantánamo known colloquially to some as Camp No, and that three prisoners were killed there on June 9, 2006, as Horton surmises. But if you were going to torture prisoners to the point of death in interrogations, would you really draw three prisoners from the same cell block, inside the same hour, for that punishment? It would make more sense to torture one to death, cover up that murder, and after a decent interval proceed with the gained information to torture the second prisoner to death. Or, if your aim was to execute them and cover up the murders, why bring the bodies back to a medical clinic where scores of people would examine them and an investigation would be started. Killing three prisoners on one night and then attempting to cover it up is a mission that not even the combined powers of Jack Bauer, James Bond, and Jack Ryan could pull off.

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.

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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