Harper's magazine disputes Shafer's critique of its Guantánamo expose.

Media criticism.
Feb. 2 2010 5:32 PM

Harper's to Shafer: You're All Wet on the Gitmo Story

And Shafer responds.

Harper's Senior Editor Luke Mitchell—who edited the Guantánamo feature by Scott Horton I criticized last week—takes sharp issue with that assessment in an e-mail that he sent me and has posted at the Harper's site. My response follows his e-mail.

From: Luke Mitchell
To: Jack Shafer
Date: Jan. 29, 2010

Dear Jack,

I just read your piece about Scott Horton's article, which I edited. I was surprised by the tone. I've enjoyed reading your skeptical take on various news reports in the past, but here I can't quite figure out what's got you so worked up. You have not refuted any of the facts in the piece, nor have you provided a specific example of what you call a "flight of logic." Basically, you seem to be arguing that the whole thing just sounds crazy.

Your first specific complaint regards the existence of Camp No. The place obviously exists. You reprinted a satellite photo of it. We have several named witnesses who describe it in detail. Since we published the story, we have also heard from another witness, a marine biologist who worked at Guantánamo, who corroborates those details. So what is it for? We don't know. As Scott reported, the people who saw it all thought it was a prison. Four of them were prison guards, so they have some expertise in the matter. But, as Scott also reported, they also don't know for sure.

You object that "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." It is difficult to parse your concern here. Are you suggesting that Hickman was lying about what he heard? That Horton was lying about what Hickman told him? That Hickman was telling the truth, but Horton somehow subverted that truth by failing to explain precisely how Hickman went about approaching the camp? (Or the "restricted space," as you have oddly deemed it.)

So far, this doesn't amount to much more than you wiggling your eyebrows and saying "sounds fishy to me." Next, you expand your vague concern about Camp No's accessibility into an accusation that Scott has designs to "lull" his readers, who are "gullible," into thinking that Camp No not only exists, but is used as a torture site. As I mentioned, Scott does report many facts that support the proposition that Camp No exists. He also reports many facts that—and here I use the word Scott uses throughout the piece—suggest torture took place there. I think most readers understand the difference between "suggest" and "prove." I assume you do as well, and so it's not clear to me what sort of Mephistophelian game you think is afoot.

Your next complaint has to do with the illogical nature of the proceedings of the night of June 9. First, you envision a nutty scenario—"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"—and then you knock it down by noting how nutty it is. Perhaps it is nutty. But that scenario is your own invention.

It is worth noting that Human Rights First and others have reported many cases in which prisoners have died in connection with the use of Justice Department-sanctioned "harsh interrogation techniques." Last summer, General Barry McCaffrey expressed this quite forthrightly. "We tortured people unmercifully," he said. "We probably murdered dozens of them during the course of that, both the armed forces and the C.I.A." So the phenomenon is hardly unknown.

Nonetheless, and contrary to your implication, Scott does not advance a clear theory as to how the deaths occurred. He questions the validity of the official government narrative, and he points to significant new evidence that suggests that the deaths occurred at another location and in other circumstances. But too few facts are available to say for certain what happened that night, which is precisely why Scott does not attempt to do so.

Your next complaint brings your larger concern into focus. You suggest that, even if "the CIA is capable of such a crime," readers should not be asked to believe that "the entire U.S. government—across two administrations—is willing to devote its energies to a cover-up." And with that suggestion—again drawn entirely from your own imagination—we have reached the dread conspiracy moment. I say dread because calling a news report a conspiracy theory is the press critic's version of comparing a politician to Hitler. It's less than a straw man. It's not even an argument, and so it is nearly impossible to refute.

Still, let's be clear: Scott has not posited a grand conspiracy. What he has reported is that there is strong evidence to suggest that some—perhaps even many—government officials are not telling the truth about what happened on June 9, 2006. Now perhaps your life experience has taught you that it's just la-la crazy to think government officials would ever lie about anything. But I hope you can at least recognize that there is some precedent for an alternative view.

Finally, taking your leave with a somewhat unpersuasive "I could go on," you recite many other elements of the piece, but rather than dispute them, you simply bracket them with dismissive terms like "Horton seems to believe," and "as Horton puts it," and—inevitably—"allegedly." This is just a mockery of serious criticism.

It's fun to knock down stories, and when the stories are false, it's important to knock them down. But Scott's story is not false. You may think he has put too much spin on the presentation. Fine. But your attempt to transform a stylistic concern into a factual concern is a disservice to your readers.

As Scott wrote, "Nearly 200 men remain imprisoned at Guantánamo. In June 2009, six months after Barack Obama took office, one of them, a thirty-one-year-old Yemeni named Muhammed Abdallah Salih, was found dead in his cell. The exact circumstances of his death, like those of the deaths of the three men from Alpha Block, remain uncertain." These facts alone create a certain urgency about this case that is belied by your normally welcome insouciance.

Scott does not claim to know precisely what happened at Guantánamo in 2006. But we believe he has made a strong case that the NCIS narrative is contradictory on its own terms, that new witnesses have presented compelling new testimony, and that this new testimony cries out for further investigation.

We stand by his story.

You obviously are welcome to quote from this, or to write or call with any follow-up questions.

All best,

Luke Mitchell
Senior Editor
Harper's Magazine

Jack Shafer replies:

Luke,

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Thanks for the kind words at the top of your letter, but I think you're wrong about my "tone." If you've read much of my work, you would know that Horton's piece didn't get me "worked up" at all. I did my best to describe Horton's shortcomings in a measured fashion. Now, on to the main event.

You're deliberately misreading my column if you think I dispute the existence of a Guantánamo building that the Horton piece repeatedly calls "Camp No." I can see it in the map you published, and I can see it on Google Earth. What I dispute is 1) that the building's name is "Camp No" and 2) that we have good reason to believe that it is a prison or torture chamber.

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