No Comment — April 26, 2011, 10:30 am

The Times’s Guantánamo Skew

Sunday evening, WikiLeaks published a number of new Guantánamo-related government documents, putting the spotlight back on detention policies at the military prison, and on the unsettled questions surrounding the deaths of three prisoners in June 2006 that I wrote about in the March 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The New York Times’s coverage of the release included an article on suicide at Guantánamo that linked online to my Harper’s piece, in reference to “skeptics” who believe the June 2006 deaths might have been homicides.

Below the print article, the paper ran excerpts from some of the released documents, including three comments from the file of Yasser Talal Al Zahrani, one of the deceased. In keeping with the rest of the Times‘s reportage, which focused on the suspicious and dangerous characters among the prisoners, the Al Zahrani excerpts emphasized his hostile behavior at Gitmo. However, the paper failed to note that another of the released documents, dated March 20, 2006, establishes that Al Zahrani had been cleared for release. The text reads, “If a satisfactory agreement can be reached that ensures continued detention and allow access to detainee and/or to exploited intelligence, detainee can be Transferred Out of DoD Control.” (The Times did post the full set of Al Zahrani documents online.)

Al Zahrani’s family members—including his father, a Saudi general—were convinced Talal knew he was approaching release, which fueled their rejection of the U.S. government’s claim that he committed suicide. Strikingly, the Times does not refer to Al Zahrani’s transfer clearance, nor to other evidence that contradicts or undermines the suicide hypothesis. This evidence includes the on-the-record statements of four Army perimeter guards on duty that evening, the gross irregularities surrounding the pathological examination of Al Zahrani, the fact that his father firmly stated that the suicide note found on him was a forgery, and the credulity-straining official narrative of how the alleged suicides occurred. The Times also failed to speak with defense lawyers, any freed detainees or their family members, or alumni of the Gitmo intelligence community.

By contrast, Carol Rosenberg and Tom Lasseter, of the McClatchy papers, demonstrated how serious reporters deal with such matters. They reminded readers that many of the analyses contained in the documents relied upon statements extracted under torture or other forms of coercion, pointed out internal contradictions in the analyses themselves, and showed that Guantánamo produced many snitches, but little useful evidence. The world press—including Britain’s Guardian and Daily Telegraph, France’s Le Monde, Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, Italy’s Repubblica, and Spain’s El País—took a similarly critical approach, highlighting evidence that the US government held at least 150 prisoners it believed to be innocent, often under unconscionable circumstances. (Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald offers his analysis of the international coverage here.)

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