Three detainees in Guantanamo hanged themselves in June 2006.

But a January 2010 Harper’s Magazine piece by lawyer Scott Horton made the incendiary claim that the three deaths “most likely” were not suicides, but rather deaths caused by U.S. personnel (probably special forces, he suggests) conducting interrogations at “a previously unreported black site at Guantanamo.”  The article essentially accuses U.S. government personnel of murder and, if believed, would indicate that dozens of servicemembers who provided sworn statements to investigators were lying.  Quite simply, it libeled a large number of servicemembers who served at Guantanamo, some of whom I know.  Contrary to Horton’s suggestions, none of the servicemembers who made sworn statements–including medical professionals–lied under oath to cover up murders.  And to think they did would be crazy.  Conspiracy theory crazy.  Birther/Truther crazy.  Yet not content with that crazy libel, Horton goes on to oh-so-casually suggest that Justice Department lawyers might have intentionally “deceive[d] the court” about the cause of the three detainees’ deaths, in which case “they could face disciplinary proceedings or disbarment.” Oh, what a large conspiracy it must be.

Horton’s article made at least one significant mistake that would be obvious to anyone familiar with the Guantanamo detention camps.  A major contention of Horton’s piece is that a van used to transport detainees went down a road leading to what he labels “Camp No” — the alleged special forces black interrogation site.  His article alleges:  “When the van reached the first intersection to the east, instead of heading right — toward the other camps or toward one of the buildings where prisoners could meet with their lawyers — it made a left.  In that direction, past the perimeter checkpoint known as ACP Roosevelt, there were only two destinations.  One was a beach where soldiers went to swim.  The other was Camp No.”  Wrong.  I’ve driven on the road he describes many times.  That road leads to  everything on Naval Station Guantanamo other than the detention camps.  That road leads to the hospital.  That road leads to the commissary.  That road leads to the military commission complex.  That road leads to a high school.  That road leads to housing areas.  That road leads to the ferry to the airport.  The road leads to a McDonald’s, a coffee shop, and my favorite Guantanamo eating establishment, the Jerk House.  You get the point.  So drawing the conclusion that there must be a camp where detainees were interrogated to death because a van left Camp Delta and drove down that road is, well, guano-crazy.

When the article first appeared online but before it was printed, I contacted the article’s editor at Harper’s to let him know of the mistake.  The whole of the article was so incredible that blowing a detail like that should have led people to pause and ask, “Are these claims really supported by the evidence?”  I identified myself as a former Chief Defense Counsel of the military commission system, which might have suggested that I was hardly an apologist for Guantanamo.  And after I called this error to the editor’s attention . . . crickets.  I never heard a word from Harper’s and the piece as subsequently published included the same error.  It seems likely that Horton never visited Guantanamo.  And he relied on a flawed description of its layout.  But that flaw would have been easily identified by anyone who had ever been to the camps at Guantanamo.  Even the most minimal fact-checking should have discovered the flaw and should have led to questions concerning the overall veracity or accuracy of Horton’s sources of information.

Jack Shafer at Slate published this article analyzing shortcomings in Horton’s piece.  This exchange between the piece’s editor and Shafer followed.  [Disclosure:  in his exchange with the Harper’s editor, Shafer quotes me.]  Shafter also noted that Joe Carter of First Things (who served in the Marine Corps for 15 years) did an outstanding job of rebutting the article here, herehere, and especially here.

Curiously, Horton’s piece provides no information from former Guantanamo detainees.  In June 2008 — more than a year and a half before Harper’s published Horton’s piece —  McClatchy Newspapers quoted from an interview conducted in Afghanistan with former Guantanamo detainee Abdul Zuhoor:

In June 2006, Zuhoor said, a Taliban member at Guantanamo bragged to him that there soon would be three “martyrs.”

“The Arabs and some Taliban sat together and issued a verdict,” Zuhoor said. “Three of the men volunteered to kill themselves to get more freedom for the other detainees.”

The next morning, Zuhoor said, the news spread across Guantanamo:  Three Arabs had committed suicide.

Even though that article was freely available on the Internet, Horton’s readers would never know it existed.  Obviously it’s devastating to his theory.  Did Horton not know about the article, in which case we may safely question his research skills?  Or did Horton know about the article but choose not to share it with his readers, in which case we may safely question his candor?  One or the other would seem to necessarily be true.  Neither speaks well of Horton.

What possible motive could a former Guantanamo detainee living in Afghanistan have in 2008 for supporting a false U.S. government-inspired narrative that three detainees hanged themselves when they were actually killed under interrogation?  To attribute any credibility to Horton’s theory, one would have to believe that there was an international conspiracy spanning two U.S. presidential Administrations and encompassing dozens of U.S. servicemembers, DOJ lawyers, and even former Guantanamo detainees to torture, kill, and cover up.  We usually label people who advance such theories as crackpots.  But instead, Horton received a journalism award.  Yes, a journalism award.

You can imagine my shock when I learned today that earlier this week, Horton’s guano-crazy conspiracy tale received the American Society of Magazine Editors’ National Magazine Award for Reporting.  What next, a Pulitzer Prize for WorldNetDaily?  As Joe Carter observed in January 2010, “It is shocking that someone who is as committed to the promotion of journalism—especially investigative journalism—as [Conor Friedersdorf] is would give any credence at all to such an embarrassingly shoddy story.”  Yet the American Society of Magazine Editors gave not merely credence, but an award to that embarrassingly shoddy story.

I’m disgusted by Horton’s piece.  And I’m disgusted that anyone would see fit to give it an award, much less a “reporting” award for what is largely a collection of wild speculation.  There are no FEMA camps.  The Bush Administration was not complicit in 9/11. President Obama was born in Hawaii. Osama Bin Laden is dead.  And three detainees in Guantanamo hanged themselves in June 2006.

13 Responses to “Scott Horton’s guano-crazy Gitmo suicide article wins major journalism award”

  1. Jim Richardson says:

    This reminds me of the case of the Beaumont Enterprise which won a Pulitizer Prize for its “investigative reporting” on the death of Marine recruit Lynn Mc Clure in 1975. For the youth among you PVT McClure died as a result of being forced to fight repeated opponents in a series of pugil stick fights while in recruit training, at MCRD San Diego. The incident was widely publicized with much grandstanding by the political establishment. Several court-martial were held and several officers received Office Hours for their failure to properly supervise the drill instructors involved. The Beaumont newspaper basically picked up wire copy and republished it. It recevied a Pulitzer even though no one ever saw a reporter from the paper in San Diego. The award committee apparently did not even consider the very good work done by local reporters from the San Diego Union and the LA Times. This article appears to suffer from the same lack of research. No wonder that the more conservative portion of the public has little trust in the media.

  2. Anonymous Air Force Appellate Defense Lawyer with the Initials NM says:

    Political belief, like religious belief, does not require facts.

  3. Stewie says:

    Jim, the conservative media is no more accurate and the conservative portion of the public has plenty of trust in them. One believes the facts that support their preconceived notions with little skepticism.

  4. Dwight Sullivan says:

    Anonymous Air Force Appellate Defense Lawyer with the Initials NM, let’s chat about that at 1801 on 21 May.

  5. BigRed24 says:

    ForeignPolicy’s “six question” for Horton, after he won the award, include:
    FP:”One issue is going along with a coverup from the Bush period, but you think that similar highly suspicious suicides have occurred on Obama’s watch as well. Do the cases in the two administrations match up? And how the Justice Department talks about them?”

    Horton: “…….. The deaths in detention are particularly worrisome. On one hand, suicides are a problem common to prisons everywhere, and particularly so when the conditions of internment heighten despair (as when there is no prospect of release). On the other hand, prisons around the world routinely press claims of suicide to cover deaths in detention since that may be the least horrible explanation for the deaths. These two considerations have to be held in balance when deaths in detention are studied”

    So, the three deaths weren’t suicides, the detainees weren’t in despair they would never be released?

    FP:”Osama Bin Laden was just killed. Obama says he got justice. Your take?”
    Horton: “I am immensely proud of the SEALs Team Six members whose assault on the Bin Laden compound bore fruit. I am also especially proud of my high school friend Bill McRaven, who organized the mission. John Yoo says that Bin Laden should have been taken prisoner. Of course that would have been desirable…I don’t think [I am]in a position to second-guess the SEALs and the split-second decisions they took on the ground in Abbottabad.”

    Who knew, he’s buddies with the JSOC commander? But he’s not in a position to “second guess the SEALs”

    “What more do we know now about Camp No, the black site at Guantanamo where the men appear to have been taken? Is this a CIA-run section of the camp?”

    Horton: “I am still investigating Camp No. In the meantime I have developed more evidence that Camp No was used by the intelligence community in connection with interrogations — including by the CIA from 2003 through 2006. But it’s not clear that the CIA was the only agency authorized to use Camp No”

    Do others authorized to “use” this area include the cooks at the Jerk House? Maybe Horton will investigate them next

  6. Dew_Process says:

    The truth be damned! But, then again… Horton also wrote this:

    On Thursday in the National Press Club in Washington, a crowd gathered to witness the presentation of the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling to Lieutenant Commander Matthew Diaz. The story of Matthew Diaz was chronicled in this space repeatedly (also here and here). It is a story of courage, fortitude, conviction and suffering.

  7. publius says:

    Interesting. Question: “But, then again…” Horton has an agenda, as evidenced by the Diaz piece too, so we shouldn’t be surprised? Or, “But, then again…” Horton was onto something in the Diaz piece, and so might be onto something here too?

  8. Dwight Sullivan says:

    The Horton article Dew Process posts above calls the DOD General Counsel “the man at the apex of the Pentagon’s military justice system that tried, convicted and sentenced Diaz.” That demonstrates quite a lack of familiarity with the military justice system.

  9. Dew_Process says:

    Publius – as usual, Col Sullivan is spot on. Horton may be a lawyer, but military justice is not his forte, nor is “fact checking.”

  10. publius says:

    The articles seem consistent to me too: poorly informed, tendentious, and partisan.

  11. Jim Richardson says:

    Stewie – I Did not intend to imply that either end of the spectrum had any monoply on truth. Quite frankly this article and the one I referred to are prime examples of the failure of the current crop of journalists (without regard to political leaning) to follow the “two source” rule taught by most journalism schools. As Dwight notes the entire “birther/truther” controversy along with the ramblings of many commentators on the rights goes away when that rule is invoked. I merely meant that this type of writing only underscores the preconceived notions of that end of the spectrum that the press has it “in” for certain political belief. As with Pete Seeger, I subscribe to both the WAPO and the WSJ. I find informatin in both that is of great value.

  12. Ed White says:

    Dwight — well said.

  13. Lohengrin says:

    I am a flaming liberal and basically the target audience for a piece like this, and was impressed by it upon first reading it. However, I think you’ve basically blown it out of the water. Unless these “discrepancies” are explained, and they don’t seem explicable, it sounds like a major media award has been awarded to arrant nonsense. I am also not impressed by the non-response from [i]Harper’s[/i], which owes its readers better.