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, here, here, 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.