Did the three Guantánamo prisoners who died the evening of June 9, 2006, succumb to the misapplication of a controlled-suffocation technique called “dryboarding?” That prospect was raised last week in a report by Almerindo Ojeda, a linguistics professor who heads the University of California at Davis’s Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas, and who is the principal investigator for the center’s Guantánamo Testimonials Project. Earlier this year, after reading the “Guantánamo ‘Suicides,’” reports from Seton Hall Law School and the responses from the U.S. government and its defenders, Ojeda decided to undertake his own review of the case. After combing through published accounts and prisoner interviews, and meticulously reconstructing heavily censored government investigative materials, he emerged skeptical of the conclusion advanced by the Pentagon that the prisoners committed a perfectly synchronized triple suicide.
Ojeda’s report on his findings, published on Truthout, focused on one key fact: the deceased prisoners were found with cloth stuffed down their throats. This information had appeared in a Charlotte Observer story long before the Naval Criminal Investigative Service had even begun its investigation: “[Camp commander Colonel Michael] Bumgarner said each [of the three prisoners] had a ball of cloth in their mouth.” The article spawned a leak investigation that drew in the FBI; Bumgarner was ultimately dismissed from his position.
A story in a second Carolina paper also caught Ojeda’s attention: a study by the Charleston Post & Courier‘s Tony Bartelme of the struggle by naval commanders to get their “special” prisoner, Ali Saleh Al-Marri, who had been held for six years in the special housing unit of the Charleston brig, moved to Guantánamo.
In early 2004, a group of interrogators dubbed “the contractors” spent day after day inside a special wing in the Navy’s brig in Hanahan. Their goal: Squeeze information out of a suspected terrorist from Qatar named Ali Saleh al-Marri…
Al-Marri later told his attorneys that interrogators stuffed a sock in his mouth and taped his lips shut with duct tape. Al-Marri said he loosened the tape; the interrogators taped it more tightly. When he started to choke, the interrogators ripped off the tape. Al-Marri’s attorney in Charleston, Andy Savage, calls this technique “dryboarding.”
Ojeda then reviewed al-Marri’s court records and interviewed Andy Savage. Logbooks and other documents that Savage obtained from the government validated his client’s account; evidently, the government also had a tape recording of the incident, which it tenaciously refused to turn over. However as Ojeda recounts, al-Marri’s description of the events “is apparently undisputed. Ms. Joanna Baltes, who appeared on behalf of the government in the sentencing of Mr. al-Marri, seems to have acknowledged that this incident took place. She also recognized that this procedure was inconsistent with the Army Field Manual.”
Ojeda goes on to draw the obvious parallel to the Guantánamo deaths:
The dryboarding of Mr. al-Marri raises an unavoidable question: Did the three individuals found hanging in Guantánamo die from dryboarding rather than by hanging? If so, they would be cases not of multiple suicide, but rather of torture leading to multiple loss of life.
Andrew Sullivan picked up the report, and focused on how the dryboarding technique was implemented:
Two of the documents in the NCIS report affirm that the rags in the mouths of the deceased were socks. One of these socks was described as white athletic; the other as white nylon (NCIS1073f, NCIS1091). Interestingly, the cloth used in the dryboarding of Mr. al-Marri was also a sock.
Under the Guantánamo standard operating procedures disclosed to date, prisoners are not permitted to have socks unless they are set for release, or the socks have been issued for medical reasons — raising the question of how the prisoners would have come by the ones found, alongside other unauthorized linen, in their cells at the time their bodies were discovered. The application of the dryboarding procedure would furnish an answer, and would corroborate the report of Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman and his colleagues, who were on guard that evening, about the movement of prisoners from the A block. “It is clear,” Ojeda writes, “that dryboarding can dispose, single-handedly, of all the questions we have raised thus far.”
There is no reason to believe, in the event “dryboarding” was involved at Guantánamo, that the three deaths would have been intentional (though the fact that three prisoners died in the same fashion at the same time is disturbing). Al-Marri stated that as he began to suffocate, his interrogators reacted in alarm, and that the tape had to be removed to prevent his death. The technique would depend on timely intervention in order to prevent simulated suffocation from becoming the genuine article.
“Dryboarding” is not among the techniques shown to be officially approved in hitherto-exposed Justice Department and Department of Defense memoranda. On the other hand, the CIA Inspector General’s report on the Agency’s interrogation activities is filled with accounts of techniques that didn’t comply with the Justice Department’s torture guidelines — and yet no cases involving their use have so far resulted in prosecution. Indeed, an Associated Press investigation showed that many of the transgressors identified in the CIA inspector general’s report had actually been promoted, and now occupy some of the most senior postings in the agency. More to the point, even though the interrogators who applied the “dryboarding” technique to al-Marri came close to suffocating him, there is no evidence that any of them were disciplined or investigated over what may have been a criminal act. Under the doctrine of command responsibility, this would be taken as evidence that those in control of his detention arrangements approved the “dryboarding” of al-Marri.
The “dryboarding” disclosures do not resolve the questions about the Guantánamo deaths, but they give rise to important new questions about interrogation practices that may also have been used at Guantánamo. They also further justify the call for a thorough and independent investigation of the three deaths and underscore the severe credibility issues with the government’s claims about “suicides.”