Commentary — January 31, 2010, 11:08 am

Reply

TO: Major Shawn Turner, Osd.mil
FROM: Luke Mitchell, Harpers.org
DATE: January 26, 2010
SUBJECT: Office of the Secretary of Defense claims regarding “The Guantánamo ‘Suicides’”

Dear Shawn -

Your response is extremely disappointing.

I asked that you name specific errors in our report. Despite your claims to the contrary, you have yet to do so. Instead, you have reasserted, and in many cases misstated, claims from the NCIS report.

You have also simply invented claims from Harper’s Magazine, only to then assert that these invented claims are false.

This is beneath the dignity of the United States military.

I must assume at this point that you have not actually read the story. Therefore, in the hope that a fair representation of our reporting might persuade you to cease making false assertions, I have responded to each of your claims.

1. NCIS special agents who investigated this case found no evidence to suggest that the three detainees died by means other than suicide. On the contrary, it was clear from interviews and forensic evidence that these detainees wanted to end their lives and methodically took steps to accomplish that goal. To hang themselves, they did not need to jump off the sinks as suggested by the author, but only had to apply the necessary pressure to the neck to cut off blood flow. The knots, which bound their hands (and in one case, the decedent’s feet), were not elaborate, but were indeed possible to make by each of the detainees who died. In addition, a short written statement declaring their intent to be martyrs was found in the pockets of each of the detainees. Lengthier written death declarations were also found. The rulings of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), which determined the cause and manner of death, were wholly consistent with the NCIS investigative findings.

This simply reasserts prior NCIS claims, all of which are noted in Harper’s Magazine, and with great fidelity to the language of the reports. Scott Horton found those reports to be unconvincing. You may dispute his analysis, but—as I am sure you must know—that is not the same as identifying a factual error.

You do make one factual claim, regarding the use of sinks. However, that claim itself is not in accordance with the NCIS report. Affidavits gathered by the NCIS assert that all three prisoners were found with their feet hanging from above the ground. As Scott wrote, the only obvious means by which a prisoner could achieve such a state is by climbing up on the only object available to him in his cell—the sink—and only then placing his head through the noose. A guard cited in the report makes precisely this assessment. If the office of the secretary has a new theory of the case, we would of course like to know more about it.

2. Regarding rags found in the mouth, there was only one rag lodged down the throat of one of the detainees. Rather than being “proof” of homicide, this was due to the detainee himself positioning the rag in his mouth in order not to make any noise so as to alert the guards. The rag was inhaled as a natural reaction to death by asphyxiation.

This is simply false. The NCIS report contains affidavits from several witnesses who saw rags in the throats of all three men. Our independent reporting supports those affidavits, as do the autopsies.

Your use of quotation marks around the word “proof” is of special concern. They suggest you are quoting Harper’s Magazine. To be clear: this quote is your own invention. It is a false quote. At no point has Harper’s Magazine claimed to possess “proof” that homicide occurred at Guantanamo. As we have noted repeatedly, what we do have is new evidence, from new witnesses, that contradicts the findings of the NCIS report.

3. Blankets and sheets had been used to obstruct the guards’ views and to create the appearance that the detainees were asleep in their cells. During its investigation, NCIS discovered that detainees were allowed to hang sheets for privacy; they were allowed to have extra linens and/or blankets; some of the lights in the detention facility were dimmed at night to permit better sleep. This explains how the detainees were able to obscure their actions and why the guards did not discover the deceased detainees right away. All available video footage was reviewed by NCIS, and nothing of evidentiary value was discovered.

This again fails to cite any factual errors. In addition, it fails to address one of the central mysteries of the NCIS report. How was it that these men could hang dead in their cells for more than two hours before anyone took note of them? As Harper’s Magazine reports, this would indicate a critical failure on the part of the guards on duty that night. And yet none of these guards was disciplined. Why not?

4. According to the Harper’s article, Sergeant Hickman was stationed on the exterior perimeter of the Camp, including Tower 1, the night of the detainees’ deaths. From this location, he had no visibility into the cellblock and cells where the deaths occurred, a fact confirmed by FBI and DOJ investigators who were specifically tasked to look into Sergeant Hickman’s allegations. NCIS conducted over 100 interviews during the first three days of the investigation, including interviews with all the guards who worked in the cellblock that day and all the detainees who were housed there. None of those interviewed told of any detainees being taken away or alleged homicide.

This is false. Harper’s Magazine never reported that Staff Sergeant Hickman witnessed events in Alpha Block on the evening of the deaths. His testimony, in a sworn affidavit, concerns the removal of prisoners from Camp Delta altogether. His position at Tower 1, and later at ACP Roosevelt, provided him a perfect vantage from which to witness that removal.

The failure of the office of the secretary to understand this crucial distinction is disturbing, and suggests the review of these matters has not been performed to the standard one might ordinarily expect of officials charged with national defense.

I again ask: Is it the position of the office of the secretary that Staff Sergeant Hickman has filed a false affidavit?

5. AFIP sent a senior medical examiner to Guantanamo to perform the autopsies. In addition, an independent, state-level, senior medical examiner flew to Guantanamo to observe the autopsies, standard operating procedure for AFIP in high profile cases.

This addresses no errors. Harper’s Magazine has never disputed the claim that autopsies took place. It is worth noting, however, that the names of the doctor or doctors who performed the autopsies have been redacted. The Pentagon has yet to advance a serious justification for withholding this information.

6. All the materials released to date have been highly redacted. While Seton Hall students may have done the best they could with what they had, the fact is they only had available to them a small fraction of the reports.

This again addresses no errors. If the office of the secretary believes the redacted documents will shed important light on the events of June 9-10, 2006, then I strongly encourage the secretary to order that they be opened to public scrutiny.

In the end, the theory of a “grand conspiracy”—the participants of which include the Obama and Bush Administrations as well as the Army, the Navy, U.S. Southern Command, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, NCIS, the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the CIA—is not supported by the facts.

As I previously noted, Harper’s Magazine has never suggested a “grand conspiracy.” What we reported, with great fidelity to the facts, is that the available evidence suggests the NCIS report is incoherent, that previously unreported eyewitness accounts suggest that the prisoners did not die in their cells, and that various investigators have failed to address this new evidence.

You note in closing that Harper’s Magazine has done “a serious disservice to the honorable men and women who serve at Guantanamo Bay and in the U.S. military.” In fact, it is the office of the secretary that is performing a disservice, both to the soldiers who came forward, and to the people of the United States, who are owed the truth.

You may of course make airy claims about the “speculative and unfounded” nature of our reporting. But I must insist that you immediately cease making false claims that the story contains factual errors. On the evidence of your own error-riddled rebuttal, that simply is not the case.

As I noted, we have a great many other questions about these matters, and so I again ask: Will the Pentagon make Carol Kisthardt or other officials available for interviews?

All best,

Luke Mitchell
Senior Editor
Harper’s Magazine

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