Commentary — January 29, 2010, 3:41 pm


TO: Jack Shafer,
FROM: Luke Mitchell,
DATE: January 29, 2010
SUBJECT: Suicide or Murder at Guantánamo? The shortcomings of a Harper’s Magazine “exposé”

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

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

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