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

Share
Single Page

More from Luke Mitchell:

From the July 2009 issue

We still torture

The new evidence from Guant??¡namo

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2019

Men at Work

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To Serve Is to Rule

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bird Angle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The K-12 Takeover

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The $68,000 Fish

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Men at Work·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“You’re being reborn,” the voice says. “Exiting the womb of your mother. Coming into the earth as a small baby. Everything is new.” It is a Saturday morning in mid-March, and right now I’m lying on a yoga mat in a lodge in Ohio, surrounded by fifty other men who’ve come to the Midwest for a weekend of manhood-confirming adventures. The voice in question belongs to Aaron Blaine, a facilitator for Evryman, the men’s group orchestrating this three-day retreat. All around me, men are shedding tears as Blaine leads us on a guided meditation, a kind of archetypal montage of Norman Rockwell boyhood. “You’re starting to figure things out,” he says, in somniferous baritone. “Snow, for the first time. Sunshine. Start to notice the smells, the tastes, the confusion. The fear. And you’re growing. You’re about ten years old. The world’s huge and scary.”

Even though it’s only the second day of the Evryman retreat, it’s worth noting that I’ve already been the subject of light fraternal teasing. Already I’ve been the recipient of countless unsought hugs. Already I have sat in Large Groups and Small Groups, and watched dozens of middle-aged men weep with shame and contrition. I’ve had a guy in the military tell me he wants to be “a rock for his family.” I’ve heard a guy from Ohio say that his beard “means something.” Twice I’ve hiked through the woods to “reconnect with Mother Nature,” and I have been addressed by numerous men as both “dude” and “brother.” I have performed yoga and yard drills and morning calisthenics. I’ve heard seven different men play acoustic guitar. I’ve heard a man describe his father by saying, “There wasn’t a lot of ball-tossing when I was growing up.” Three times I’ve been queried about how I’m “processing everything,” and at the urinal on Friday night, two men warned me about the upcoming “Anger Ceremony,” which is rumored to be the weekend’s “pièce de résistance.”

Article
To Serve Is to Rule·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The WASP story is personal for me. I arrived at Yale in 1971 from a thoroughly mediocre suburb in New Jersey, the second-generation hybrid of Irish and Italian stock riding the postwar boom. Those sockless people in Top-Siders, whose ancestors’ names and portraits adorned the walls, were entirely new to me. I made friends with some, but I was not free of a corrosive envy of their habitus of ease and entitlement.

I used to visit one of those friends in the Hamptons, in the 1970s, when the area was about wood-paneled Ford station wagons, not Lamborghinis. There was some money in the family, but not gobs, yet they lived two blocks from the beach—prime real estate. Now, down the road from what used to be their house is the residence of Ira Rennert. It’s one of the largest private homes in the United States. The union-busting, pension-fund-looting Rennert, whose wealth comes from, among other things, chemical companies that are some of the worst polluters in the country, made his first money in the 1980s as a cog in Michael Milken’s junk-bond machine. In 2015, a court ordered him to return $215 million he had appropriated from one of his companies to pay for the house. One-hundred-car garages and twenty-one (or maybe twenty-nine) bedrooms don’t come cheap.

Article
The Bird Angle·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I slept for a good seven hours on the overnight flight from Spain to Peru, and while I slept I dreamed that I was leading American visitors around a park in Berlin, looking for birds on a hazy, overcast day. There wasn’t much to see until we noticed a distant commotion in the sky. Large raptors were panicking, driven back and forth by something threatening them from above. The commotion moved closer. The clouds parted, an oval aperture backed with blue. In it two seraphim hovered motionless. “Those are angels,” I told the group.

They were between us and the sun, but an easy ­I.D. Size aside, no other European bird has two sets of wings. The upper wings cast their faces into shadow. Despite the glare I could make out their striking peaches-­and-­cream coloration. Ivory white predominates, hair a faint yellow, eyes blue, wings indescribably iridescent. Faces blank and expressionless, as with all birds.

Article
The K-12 Takeover·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Last May, the families of students at Cypress Academy, an independent charter school in New Orleans, received an email announcing that the school would close when classes ended the following week and that all its students would be transferred to another nearby charter for the upcoming year. Parents would have the option of entering their children in the city’s charter-enrollment lottery, but the lottery’s first round had already taken place, and the most desirable spots for the fall were filled.

Founded in 2015, a decade after New Orleans became the nation’s first city to begin replacing all its public schools with charters, Cypress was something of a rarity. Like about nine in ten of the city’s charter schools, it filled spaces by lottery rather than by selective admission. But while most of the nonselective schools in New Orleans had majority populations of low-income African-American students, Cypress mirrored the city’s demographics, drawing the children of professionals—African-American and white alike—as well as poorer students. Cypress reserved 20 percent of its seats for children with reading difficulties, and it offered a progressive education model, including “learning by doing,” rather than the strict conduct codes that dominated the city’s nonselective schools. In just three years, the school had outperformed many established charters—a particular feat given that one in four Cypress students had a disability, double the New Orleans average. Families flocked to Cypress, especially ones with children who had disabilities.

Article
Five Stories·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

how high? that high

He had his stick that was used mostly to point at your head if your head wasn’t held up proudly.

I still like that man—Holger! He had been an orphan!

He came up to me once because there was something about how I was moving my feet that wasn’t according to the regulations or his expectations.

The room was a short wide room with a short wide window with plenty of artificial light.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The limited edition Nike Air Max 97s, white sneakers that have holy water from the Jordan River in their soles and have frankincense-scented insoles, sold out in minutes.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today