I’ve written several times about Scott Horton’s award-winning Harper’s magazine article declaring that it’s “most likely” that the three Guantanamo detainees who hanged themselves in June 2006 actually died at an interrogation site. To believe Horton’s thesis, one would have to believe that at least three dozen members of the U.S. military — including medical professionals — made false official statements, that two U.S. Administrations — Republican and Democratic — conspired to cover up the actual cause of death, and that the conspiracy extended to both detainees in Guantanamo at the time of the suicides and a released Guantanamo detainee living in Afghanistan in 2008. Occam’s razor would suggest that a better explanation of why two U.S. administrations, at least 36 U.S. military personnel, and a released Guantanamo detainee would indicate that the deaths were caused by suicide is because they were caused by suicide.
After the American Society of Magazine Editors recently decided to bestow its prestigious National Magazine Award for Reporting on Horton’s piece, Adweek ran this critique by Alex Koppleman. In the wake of Koppelman’s piece, several other commentators — including both my CAAFlog colleague Cully Stimson and me — also criticized (or, in my case, recriticized) Horton’s article.
Now, in one piece published Wednesday on Truthout.org and another on Firedoglake.com, Dr. Jeffrey Kaye has criticized Horton’s critics, including me. That led to an email exchange between Dr. Kaye and me on Thursday. I found the exchange to be informative, professional, and worthwhile. But I disagree with Dr. Kaye on several important matters, which I’ll discuss below.
First, Dr. Kaye criticizes Koppelman’s discussion of Swiss pathologist Patrice Mangin’s autopsy report concerning one of the dead detainees. The autopsy report is available, in French, here. It ends with a “Conclusions” section, which includes the following: “2) La cause du décès est selon toute vraisemblance la conséquence d’une asphyxie mécanique par une violence exercée contre le cou dans le cadre d’une pendaison, sans pouvoir exclure formellement un autre mécanisme.” I believe a fair translation is: “2) The cause of death is in all likelihood the result of mechanical asphyxiation by violence against the neck as part of a hanging, without formally excluding another mechanism.”
Here’s what Koppelman wrote:
Horton also spends a paragraph detailing the concerns that Swiss pathologist Patrice Mangin, who led the team that conducted the independent autopsy on Salami, had after concluding his report: injuries in the “oral region” that were too severe to be caused by resuscitation efforts and marks on the prisoner’s neck that were not related to hanging.
Yet Horton left out a key conclusion of Mangin’s report. “The cause of death is most likely the consequence of mechanical asphyxia by violence exercised against the neck as part of a hanging, without being able to formally exclude a different mechanism,” said the report, which was written in French. Mangin reiterated this point in a press conference.
That strikes me as an accurate report. Koppelman’s article then gives Horton’s explanation for not quoting that portion of Mangin’s report. Here’s how Dr. Kaye deals with that portion of Koppelman’s article in his Truthout piece:
Koppelman’s fudging of the facts regarding Mangin’s autopsy is egregious. In fact, the autopsy report says that the cause of death is mechanical asphyxiation consistent with a hanging, but also “sans pouvoir exclure formellement un autre mécanisme,” that is, unable to formally exclude another mechanism or cause.
Right, just as Koppelman noted in his article when he reported that Mangin’s report said the cause of death was most likely the consequence of a hanging “without being able to formally exclude a different mechanism.” Koppelman’s article includes the very language that gives rise to Dr. Kaye’s charge of egregious fudging.
Dr. Kaye renews his attack by asserting that at his press conference, “Mangin did not definitively rule the cause of death as suicide by hanging . . . as maintained by Koppelman.” But as we’ve seen Koppelman didn’t state or even suggest that Mangin “definitively” ruled “the cause of death as suicide by hanging.” Rather, Koppelman reported that Mangin concluded that the “most likely” cause of death arose from hanging but that he couldn’t rule out other means.
Then Dr. Kaye’s Truthout critique turns to me. I’ve repeatedly raised the point that Horton’s article draws inferences from the proposition that a road in Guantanamo leads to only two destinations when that road is actually the main drag between the Naval Station side of the base and the detention camps. Dr. Kaye argues that “the objections Sullivan raises do not pass the logic test” because a different road purportedly leads to only two destinations. Let me explain.
According to Horton’s article, SGT Joe Hickman grew suspicious about a van’s destination because of a particular left turn that it frequently made:
The paddy wagon was used to transport prisoners to medical facilities and to meetings with their lawyers. But as Hickman monitored the paddy wagon’s movements from the guard tower at Camp Delta, he frequently saw it follow an unexpected route. 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.
So according to Horton, it was suspicious that the van made a left at that particular intersection because “[i]n that direction, past the perimeter checkpoint known as ACP Roosevelt, there were only two destinations.” That’s false and I firmly believe that anyone who has ever been to the detention camps would know that it’s false. Because each of those individuals has almost surely passed though ACP Roosevelt while neither going to or from a beach or what SGT Hickman dubbed “Camp No.” A vehicle going from the camps to almost anywhere else on the base would have made that turn. And beyond ACP Roosevelt lies every destination on the Naval Station side of the base. It’s not just that one could get to those destinations by going from the camps through ACP Roosevelt, that’s how people actually did reach those destinations. So, in fact, SGT Hickman wouldn’t have seen a van making that turn and thought to himself, “Gee, that van must either be going to the beach or to that strange building I saw.” Rather, he would know that the van might be going to the military commission complex, the base hospital, the Subway sandwich shop, the base gym, the golf course, the ferry to the airport, or hundreds of other potential destinations. If SGT Hickman told Horton that he saw the van make that left turn and concluded it could only be going to the beach or the building Hickman dubbed “Camp No,” then Hickman’s account wasn’t credible. Had Horton done the slightest amount of fact checking with anyone who has ever been to the camps, he would have learned this. If, on the other hand, SGT Hickman didn’t tell Horton that his suspicions were aroused for this fictitious reason, then why is the claim in Horton’s article?
Here’s what Dr. Kaye has to say about Hickman’s suspicions being aroused by a van driving down a road that purportedly leads to only two destinations but that actually leads to hundreds:
Horton’ s own reply to Koppelman appears to answer the charge, explaining. “It’s true, of course, that when you drive out and you get on roads, you could take roads almost anywhere, there were connections that went on, but everyone I spoke with said ‘No, you would not have driven to that part of the base using that road, there were other roads that would have taken you there much more directly.'”
A look at the map of Guantanamo provided with the original Harper’s article shows Camp No to be quite isolated along a road running north of the main prison camp. There is nothing else along that road, and certainly nothing like a McDonalds, or any housing areas. The areas to the east of Camp No, which include some of the areas to which Sullivan alludes, including the camp headquarters, the chapel, the post office, and other buildings from the camp, are eminently reachable and in a much more direct fashion from Camp Delta from a road running west by northwest out of the camp area. (See also this map from The Guantanamo Testimonials Project.) It is difficult to imagine that multiple paddy wagon trips took a long way around to get to other parts of the camp, along a long empty road passing the Camp No area each time. In short, the objections Sullivan raises do not pass the logic test.
Regarding Horton’s response, if that’s what his sources told him, then they’re deceiving him. I assume that Horton has never been the detention camps, if he’s ever been to Guantanamo Bay at all. The road that went through ACP Roosevelt was the main drag between the Naval Station side of the base and the camps. If his sources told him that one would never go from the camps to the Naval Station side of the base through ACP Roosevelt, then they are lying to him. And, again, the slightest bit of fact checking with anyone else who has even been to the camps would have revealed that lie.
Dr. Kaye misunderstands Guantanamo’s geography. There was no more direct route between the Naval Station headquarters (which is what he obviously meant when he wrote “camp headquarters”), the Naval Station chapel, or the Naval Station post office and the camps than the road passing through ACP Roosevelt. Dr. Kaye appears to have looked at an aerial photo and assumed that any visible roads were passable. But, in reality, many of the roads on Guantanamo are blocked and completely impassable. Presumably unlike Dr. Kaye and Horton, I’ve actually driven between locations in the camps and the Naval Station side of the base. I’ve ridden in vehicles driven by others traveling between the camps and the Naval Station side of the base. Every single time, we went both ways on the road that goes through ACP Roosevelt. And I’ve confirmed with others stationed at Guantanamo — including in the Joint Task Force — that they did the same. The whole point of operating an access control point is to control access. And Guantanamo was designed to funnel traffic between the Naval Station side of base and the detention camps through ACP Roosevelt.
Dr. Kaye also argues that there’s nothing else on the road on which “Camp No” sits. But that’s not the road that led to SGT Hickman’s alleged suspicions. Remember, according to Horton, Hickman became suspicious when the van turned left because in “that direction, past the perimeter checkpoint known as ACP Roosevelt, there were only two destinations.” That left wasn’t onto the road the leads to what SGT Hickman dubbed “Camp No.” Rather, that left was onto the road that passes through ACP Roosevelt. And, from his post at Camp Delta, SGT Hickman couldn’t have seen where the van went after it passed through ACP Roosevelt. Had SGT Hickman said that he originally became suspicious because he saw the van go through ACP Roosevelt and then make a left onto the road where what he dubbed “Camp No” was located, then Dr. Kaye would have a point (assuming that SGT Hickman could credibly claim he was in a position from which he could see that road). But that’s not what the article reports. According to Horton’s article, SGT Hickman did later say that he saw the van turn left onto that road. But he says he was in a position to see that only because he was already suspicious because of the left-hand turn the van made onto the road that leads through ACP Roosevelt. If the purported basis for his suspicions was false, then I give no credibility to his account of what he saw next.
Next is the issue of Abdul Zuhoor. As I’ve previously noted, on 17 June 2008, 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.
This article is devastating to Horton’s thesis. Why would a released Guantanamo detainee make that claim if the three detainees were actually killed during an interrogation? In response, Dr. Kaye attacks me because “Sullivan never mentions that the McClatchy reporter cautioned Zuhoor’s story ‘must be taken with some skepticism’ as Zuhoor ‘admitted lying to the tribunal at Guantanamo about a host of things.'” Two days before McClatchy ran the article from which I quote above, it ran this article about its interview with Zuhoor that included the following caution: “Zuhoor’s story illuminates the workings of these leadership meetings, though it must be taken with some skepticism. He admitted lying to the tribunal at Guantanamo about a host of things.” Dr. Kaye faults me for not mentioning that cautionary note. Fair enough. I wasn’t aware of the article containing that caution when I posted my previous pieces. Dr. Kaye writes that because I didn’t find that article, my “follow-through in terms of researching this point remains problematic,” which is a fair criticism. But, as my wife is fond of telling me in a variety of contexts, this isn’t about me. The point remains that Scott Horton told his readers nothing of Abdul Zuhoor’s allegation, which would have severely undercut his thesis.
Let’s examine this point further by considering what Zuhoor admitted to lying about. Here’s what McClatchy wrote in the 15 June 2008 article:
He is also a man who admits to lying.
For one, he told the military judges there that he didn’t lead any groups of armed men. The truth, he said in an interview with McClatchy, is that he led some 350 men. He also told the judges that he was a farmer. He wasn’t.
“I denied everything they said,” Zuhoor said.
Not that it makes it right — and not that it shouldn’t be considered in evaluating Zoohar’s credibility — but I can understand why a Guantanamo detainee would lie to a Combatant Status Review Tribunal concerning his leadership role in a militia. But what would explain him lying to a reporter, after being released from Guantanamo and returned to Afghanistan, concerning the cause of the three detainees’ deaths in June 2006? And while Dr. Kaye quite rightly criticizes me for not finding and mentioning the 15 June 2008 article raising concerns about Zuhoor’s credibility, why is he willing to give Horton a pass for not telling his readers anything about Zuhoor’s statements? If my “follow-through in terms of researching this point” for a blog posting is “problematic,” what does that say about Horton’s failure to either find or reveal Zuhoor’s statement in the course of writing a 7,900-word magazine article?
Dr. Kaye also touts two Seton Hall Law School reports concerning the investigation into the suicides, which he contends “have not been the subject of detailed critique by these same critics.” Actually, First Thing’s Joe Carter — who Dr. Kaye mentions in his article — did. In the comments following this post by Conor Friedersdorf, Carter discusses the Seton Hall study at length and explains why it doesn’t support Horton’s conclusions that the June 2006 deaths were most likely the result of interrogations and not suicides.
Dr. Kaye’s Firedoglake post ends with this: “Wittes, Koppelman and a host of others, have chosen to do the bidding of the Department of Defense for reasons of their own. Truth is the victim, and truth-seekers are vilified. That’s the way it is in 21st Century Obama’s America.”
Truth has been victimized, but not in the way that Dr. Kaye suggests. Horton’s article is not truth. It includes demonstrable falsehoods. Most of its text is presented as supposition, not fact. The article ignores contrary evidence, such as Abdul Zuhoor’s statement. And it vilifies dozens of DOD personnel, including medical professionals, as well as DOJ personnel working under Attorney Generals from two different political parties. Horton and Dr. Kaye may believe in a grand conspiracy encompassing two presidential administrations and reaching across the globe. But, hey, isn’t belief in grand conspiracies the way it is in 21st Century Obama’s America?