from Harpers Website
1. “Asymmetrical Warfare”
Toward that end, the president issued an executive order declaring that the extra-constitutional prison camp at Guantánamo Naval Base,
Obama has failed to fulfill his promise. Some prisoners there are being charged with crimes, others released, but the date for closing the camp seems to recede steadily into the future.
Furthermore, new evidence now emerging may entangle Obama’s young
administration with crimes that occurred during the
George W. Bush
presidency, evidence that suggests the current administration failed to
investigate seriously - and may even have continued - a cover-up of the possible
homicides of three prisoners at Guantánamo in 2006.
None of the men
had been charged with a crime, though all three had been engaged in hunger
strikes to protest the conditions of their imprisonment. They were being
held in a cell block, known as Alpha Block, reserved for particularly
troublesome or high-value prisoners.
In an unusual move, he also used the announcement to attack the dead men.
Reporters accepted the official account, and even lawyers
for the prisoners appeared to believe that they had killed themselves. Only
the prisoners’ families in Saudi Arabia and Yemen rejected the notion.
The NCIS documents were carefully
cross-referenced and deciphered by students and faculty at the law school of
Seton Hall University in New Jersey, and their findings, released in
November 2009, made clear why the Pentagon had been unwilling to make its
conclusions public. The official story of the prisoners’ deaths was full of
unacknowledged contradictions, and the centerpiece of the report - a
reconstruction of the events - was simply unbelievable.
The NCIS report also proposes that
the three prisoners, who were held in non-adjoining cells, carried out each
of these actions almost simultaneously.
Still others discovered Al-Salami a few minutes later. Although rigor mortis
had already set in - indicating that the men had been dead for at least two
hours - the NCIS report claims that an unnamed medical officer attempted to
resuscitate one of the men, and, in attempting to pry open his jaw, broke
The report claimed that the prisoners had hung sheets or blankets to hide their activities and shaped more sheets and pillows to look like bodies sleeping in their beds, but it did not explain where they were able to acquire so much fabric beyond their tightly controlled allotment, or why the Navy guards would allow such an obvious and immediately observable deviation from permitted behavior.
Nor did the report explain how the dead men managed to
hang undetected for more than two hours or why the Navy guards on duty,
having for whatever reason so grievously failed in their duties, were never
According to Harris, even had standard operating procedures been followed,
This is the official story, adopted by NCIS and Guantánamo command and reiterated by the Justice Department in formal pleadings, by the Defense Department in briefings and press releases, and by the State Department.
four members of the Military Intelligence unit assigned to guard Camp Delta,
including a decorated non-commissioned Army officer who was on duty as
sergeant of the guard the night of June 9, have furnished an account
dramatically at odds with the NCIS report - a report for which they were
neither interviewed nor approached.
The guards’ accounts also reveal the existence of a previously unreported black site at Guantánamo where the deaths, or at least the events that led directly to the deaths, most likely occurred.
Camp Delta was at the time the largest of these compounds, and within its walls were four smaller camps, numbered 1 through 4, which in turn were divided into cell blocks. Life at Camp America, as at all prisons, was and remains rigorously routinized for both prisoners and their jailers. Navy guards patrol the cell blocks and Army personnel control the exterior areas of the camp.
incidents must be logged. For the Army guards who man the towers and “sally
ports” (access points), knowing who enters and leaves the camp, and exactly
when, is the essence of their mission.
When I interviewed him in January at his home in Wisconsin, he told me he had been inspired to enlist by Ronald Reagan,
He worked in a military intelligence unit and was eventually tapped for Reagan’s Presidential Guard detail, an assignment reserved for model soldiers.
When his four years were up, Hickman
returned home, where he worked a series of security jobs - prison transport,
executive protection, and eventually private investigations. After September
11 he decided to re-enlist, at thirty-seven, this time in the Army National
When they arrived at Camp Delta, Davila told me, soldiers from the California National Guard unit they were relieving introduced him to some of the curiosities of the base. The most noteworthy of these was an unnamed and officially unacknowledged compound nestled out of sight between two plateaus about a mile north of Camp Delta, just outside Camp America’s perimeter.
One day, while on patrol, Hickman and Davila came across the compound. It looked like other camps within Camp America, Davila said, only it had no guard towers and it was surrounded by concertina wire. They saw no activity, but Hickman guessed the place could house as many as eighty prisoners.
One part of the compound, he said, had the same appearance as the interrogation centers at other prison camps. The compound was not visible from the main road, and the access road was chained off.
The Guardsman who told Davila about the compound had said,
Nevertheless, Davila said, other soldiers - many of whom were required to patrol the outside perimeter of Camp America - had seen the compound, and many speculated about its purpose.
One theory was that it was being used by some
of the non-uniformed government personnel who frequently showed up in the
camps and were widely thought to be CIA agents.
Davila made a point of stopping by whenever they had the chance; once,
Hickman said, he heard a “series of screams” from within the compound.
However, Hickman was instructed to make no record whatsoever of the movements of one vehicle in particular - a white van, dubbed the “paddy wagon,” that Navy guards used to transport heavily manacled prisoners, one at a time, into and out of Camp Delta.
The van had no rear
windows and contained a dog cage large enough to hold a single prisoner.
Navy drivers, Hickman came to understand, would let the guards know they had
a prisoner in the van by saying they were “delivering a pizza.”
When the van reached the first intersection to the east, instead of heading right - toward the other camps or toward one of the buildings where prisoners could meet with their lawyers - it made a left. In that direction, past the perimeter checkpoint known as ACP Roosevelt, there were only two destinations.
One was a beach where soldiers went to swim. The other was Camp No.
Later he would make his rounds.
He assumed the guards and their charge
were bound for one of the other prison camps southeast of Camp Delta. But
when the van reached the first intersection, instead of making a right,
toward the other camps, it made the left, toward ACP Roosevelt and Camp No.
Shortly thereafter, the van passed
through the checkpoint for the third time and then went another hundred
yards, whereupon it turned toward Camp No, eliminating any question in
Hickman’s mind about where it was going. All three prisoners would have
reached their destination before 8 p.m.
me that the NCO - who, following standard operating procedures, wore no name
tag - appeared to be extremely agitated. He instructed Penvose to go
immediately to the Camp Delta chow hall, identify a female senior petty
officer who would be dining there, and relay to her a specific code word.
Penvose did as he was instructed. The officer leapt up from her seat and
immediately ran out of the chow hall.
He asked a
distraught medical corpsman what had happened. She said three dead prisoners
had been delivered to the clinic. Hickman recalled her saying that they had
died because they had rags stuffed down their throats, and that one of them
was severely bruised. Davila told me he spoke to Navy guards who said the
men had died as the result of having rags stuffed down their throats.
In Tower 4 (it should be noted that Army and Navy guard-tower designations differ), another Army specialist, David Caroll, was forty-five yards from Alpha Block, the cell block within Camp 1 that had housed the three dead men. He also had an unobstructed view of the alleyway that connected the cell block itself to the clinic.
He likewise reported to Hickman, and confirmed to me, that he had seen no prisoners transferred to the clinic that night, dead or alive.
United States authorities insist that he carried a gun and served Osama bin Laden as an interpreter. Aamer denies this. At Guantánamo, Aamer’s fluency in English soon allowed him to play an important role in camp politics. According to both Aamer’s attorney and press accounts furnished by Army Colonel Michael Bumgarner, the Camp America commander, Aamer cooperated closely with Bumgarner in efforts to bring a 2005 hunger strike to an end.
He persuaded several prisoners to break their strike for a while, but the
settlement collapsed and soon afterward Aamer was sent to solitary
confinement. Then, on the night the prisoners from Alpha Block died, Aamer
says he himself was the victim of an act of striking brutality.
The treatment Aamer describes is noteworthy because it produces excruciating pain without leaving lasting marks.
Still, the fact that Aamer had his
airway cut off and a mask put over his face “so he could not cry out” is
alarming. This is the same technique that appears to have been used on the
three deceased prisoners.
In denying this request, U.S. authorities have cited unelaborated “security” concerns. There is no suggestion that the Americans intend to charge him before a military commission, or in a federal criminal court, and, indeed, they have no meaningful evidence linking him to any crime.
American authorities may be concerned that Aamer, if released, could provide evidence against them in criminal investigations. This evidence would include what he experienced on June 9, 2006, and during his 2002 detention in Afghanistan at Bagram Airfield, where he says he was subjected to a procedure in which his head was smashed repeatedly against a wall.
This torture technique, called “walling” in CIA documents, was expressly approved at a later date by the Department of Justice.
But then Bumgarner told those assembled that the media would report something different. It would report that the three prisoners had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells. It was important, he said, that servicemen make no comments or suggestions that in any way undermined the official report. He reminded the soldiers and sailors that their phone and email communications were being monitored.
The meeting lasted no more than
twenty minutes. (Bumgarner has not responded to requests for comment.)
When he finished praising the guards and the medics, Harris - in a notable departure from traditional military decorum - launched his attack on the men who had died on his watch.
A Pentagon press release issued soon after described the dead men, who had been accused of no crime, as Al Qaeda or Taliban operatives.
Lieutenant Commander Jeffrey Gordon, the Pentagon’s chief press officer, went still further, telling the Guardian’s David Rose,
The Pentagon was not the only U.S. government agency to participate in the assault.
Colleen Graffy, a deputy assistant secretary of state, told the BBC that,
The same day the three prisoners died, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly completed a reporting trip to the naval base, where, according to his account on The O’Reilly Factor, the Joint Army Navy Task Force “granted the Factor near total access to the prison.”
Although the Pentagon began turning away reporters after news of the deaths had emerged, two reporters from the Charlotte Observer, Michael Gordon and photographer Todd Sumlin, had arrived that morning to work on a profile of Bumgarner, and the colonel invited them to shadow him as he dealt with the crisis.
A Pentagon spokesman later told
the Observer it had been expecting a “puff piece,” which is why, according
to the Observer, “Bumgarner and his superiors on the base” had given them
permission to remain.
As Gordon reported in the June 13, 2006, issue of the Observer, the colonel seemed to enjoy putting on a show.
Referring to the naval base’s prisoners, he said,
In the same article, Gordon also noted what he had learned about the deaths.
The suicides had occurred,
Something about Bumgarner’s Observer interview seemed to have set off an alarm far up the chain of command.
No sooner was Gordon’s story in print than Bumgarner was called to Admiral Harris’s office. As Bumgarner would tell Gordon in a follow-up profile three months later, Harris was holding up a copy of the Observer:
That same day,
an investigation was launched to determine whether classified information
had been leaked from Guantánamo. Bumgarner was suspended.
Harris, according to the article, had already ordered
“appropriate administrative action.” Bumgarner soon left Guantánamo for a
new post in Missouri. He now serves as an ROTC instructor at Virginia Tech
The involvement of the FBI suggested that more was at issue.
On June 14, the interviews resumed,
and the NCIS informed at least six Navy guards that they were suspected of
making false statements or failing to obey direct orders. No disciplinary
action ever followed.
claimed that investigators had found suicide notes and argued that the
attorney-client materials were being used to pass communications among the
The seizure, he said,
If the “suicides” were a form of warfare between the prisoners and the Bush Administration, as Admiral Harris charged, it was the latter that quickly turned the war to its advantage.
Al-Zahrani was a brigadier general in the Saudi police. He dismissed the Pentagon’s claims, as well as the investigation that supported them.
Yasser, he said, was a young man who loved to play soccer and didn’t care for politics. The Pentagon claimed that Yasser’s frontline battle experience came from his having been a cook in a Taliban camp.
Al-Zahrani said that this was preposterous:
The evidence supports this argument.
Hyperbolic U.S. government statements at the time of Yasser Al-Zahrani’s death masked the fact that his case had been reviewed and that he was, in fact, on a list of prisoners to be sent home. I had shown Al-Zahrani the letter that the government says was Yasser’s suicide note and asked him whether he recognized his son’s handwriting. He had never seen the note before, he answered, and no U.S. official had ever asked him about it.
After studying the note carefully, he said,
Also returned to Saudi Arabia was the body of Mani Al-Utaybi.
Orphaned in his youth, Mani grew up in his uncle’s home in the small town of Dawadmi. I spoke to one of the many cousins who shared that home, Faris Al-Utaybi. Mani, said Faris, had gone to Baluchistan - a rural, tribal area that straddles Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan - to do humanitarian work, and someone there had sold him to the Americans for $5,000.
He said that Mani
was a peaceful man who would harm no one. Indeed, U.S. authorities had
decided to release Al-Utaybi and return him to Saudi Arabia. When he died,
he was just a few weeks shy of his transfer.
A Yemeni, Al-Salami had quit his job and moved to Pakistan with only $400 in his pocket. The U.S. suspicions against him rested almost entirely on the fact that he had taken lodgings, with other students, in a boarding house that terrorists might at one point have used. There was no direct evidence linking him either to Al Qaeda or to the Taliban.
On August 22, 2008, the Washington Post quoted from a previously secret review of his case:
All that stood in the way
of Al-Salami’s release from Guantánamo were difficult diplomatic relations
between the United States and Yemen.
8. “The Removal of the Neck Organs”
The identities and findings of the pathologists remain shrouded in extraordinary secrecy, but the timing of the autopsies suggests that medical personnel stationed at Guantánamo may have undertaken the procedure without waiting for the arrival of an experienced medical examiner from the United States. Each of the heavily redacted autopsy reports states unequivocally that “the manner of death is suicide” and, more specifically, that the prisoner died of “hanging.”
Each of the reports describes ligatures that were found wrapped around the prisoner’s neck, as well as circumferential dried abrasion furrows imprinted with the very fine weave pattern of the ligature fabric and forming an inverted “V” on the back of the head.
This condition, the anonymous pathologists state,
is consistent with that of a hanging victim.
An odd admission, given that these are the very body parts
larynx, the hyoid bone, and the thyroid cartilage - that would have been
essential to determining whether death occurred from hanging, from
strangulation, or from choking. These parts remained missing when the men’s
families finally received their bodies.
The Saudi prisoners were examined by Saeed Al-Ghamdy, a pathologist based in Saudi Arabia. Al-Salami, from Yemen, was inspected by Patrice Mangin, a pathologist based in Switzerland. Both pathologists noted the removal of the structure that would have been the natural focus of the autopsy: the throat.
contacted the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, requesting the missing
body parts and more information about the previous autopsies. The institute
did not respond to their requests or queries. (It also did not respond to a
series of calls I placed requesting information and comment.)
None of these details are noted in the U.S. autopsy report.
Mangin, for his part, expressed particular concern about Al-Salami’s mouth and throat, where he saw,
The U.S. autopsy report mentions an effort at resuscitation, but this, in Mangin’s view, did not explain the severity of the injuries. He also noted that some of the marks on the neck were not those he would normally associate with hanging.
When he returned to the United States, he was promoted to staff sergeant and worked in Maryland as an Army recruiter before eventually settling in Wisconsin. But he could not forget what he had seen at Guantánamo.
When Barack Obama became president, Hickman decided to act.
Hickman had seen a 2006 report from Seton Hall University Law School dealing with the deaths of the three prisoners, and he followed their subsequent work.
After Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, he called Mark Denbeaux, the professor who had led the Seton Hall team.
Within two days, Hickman was in Newark, meeting with Denbeaux.
Also at the meeting was Denbeaux’s son and sometime co-editor, Josh, a private attorney. Josh Denbeaux agreed to represent Hickman, who was concerned that he could go to prison if he disobeyed Colonel Bumgarner’s order not to speak out, even if that order was itself illegal. Hickman did not want to speak to the press.
On the other hand, he felt that “silence was just wrong.”
The meeting with Justice was an odd one.
been, along with the new attorney general, Eric Holder, a partner at the
elite Washington law firm of Covington & Burling, and was widely viewed as
“Holder’s eyes” in the Criminal Division.
At the end of
the meeting, Mark Denbeaux recalled, the officials specifically thanked the
lawyers for not speaking to reporters first and for “doing it the right
Then, in April, an FBI agent called to say she did not have the list of contacts. She asked if this document could be provided again. It was. Shortly thereafter, Fagell a Justice official [see update] and two FBI agents interviewed Davila, who had left the Army, in Columbia, South Carolina. Fagell The official asked Davila if he was prepared to travel to Guantánamo to identify the locations of various sites.
He said he was.
Several more months passed, and Hickman and his lawyers became increasingly concerned that nothing was going to happen.
On October 27, 2009, they resumed dealings with Congress that they had initiated on February 2 and then broken off at the Justice Department’s request; they were also in contact with ABC News.
Two days later, Teresa McHenry called Mark Denbeaux and asked whether he had gone to Congress and ABC News about the matter.
McHenry then suggested that the investigation was finished.
Denbeaux reminded her that she had yet to interview some of the corroborating witnesses.
Specialist Christopher Penvose told me that on October 30, the day following the conversation between Mark Denbeaux and Teresa McHenry, McHenry an official [see update] showed up at Penvose’s home in south Baltimore with some FBI agents.
She had a “few questions,” she told him. Investigators
working with her soon contacted two other witnesses.
McHenry explained that,
But when Denbeaux asked what that “gist” actually was, McHenry declined to say. She just reiterated that Hickman’s conclusions “appeared” to be unsupported.
Denbeaux asked what conclusions exactly were unsupported. McHenry refused to say.
Under George W. Bush, the CIA created an archipelago of secret detention centers that spanned the globe, and authorities at these sites deployed an array of Justice Department - sanctioned torture techniques - including waterboarding, which often entails inserting cloth into the subject’s mouth - on prisoners they deemed to be involved in terrorism.
The presence of
a black site at Guantánamo has long been a subject of speculation among
lawyers and human-rights activists, and the experience of Sergeant Hickman
and other Guantánamo guards compels us to ask whether the three prisoners
who died on June 9 were being interrogated by the CIA, and whether their
deaths resulted from the grueling techniques the Justice Department had
approved for the agency’s use - or from other tortures lacking that sanction.
Under Rumsfeld’s direction, JSOC began to take
on many tasks traditionally handled by the CIA, including the housing and
interrogation of prisoners at black sites around the world. The Pentagon
recently acknowledged the existence of one such JSOC black site, located at
Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, and other suspected sites, such as Camp Nama
in Baghdad, have been carefully documented by human-rights researchers.
The position and
circumstances of these deletions point to a significant JSOC interrogation
program at the base. (It should be noted that Obama’s order last year to
close other secret detention camps was narrowly worded to apply only to the
The department would seem to have been involved in the cover-up from the first days, when FBI agents stormed Colonel Bumgarner’s quarters. This was unusual for two reasons. When Pentagon officials engage in a leak investigation, they generally use military investigators.
They rarely turn to the FBI, because they cannot control the actions of a civilian agency. Moreover, when the FBI does open an investigation, it nearly always does so with great discretion.
The Bumgarner investigation was widely telegraphed, though, and seemed intended to send a message to the military personnel at Camp Delta:
All of which suggests it was not the
Pentagon so much as the White House that hoped to suppress the truth.
It argued that such steps were warranted by the extraordinary facts surrounding the June 9 “suicides.”
U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson gave the Justice Department a sympathetic hearing, and he ruled in its favor, but he also noted a curious aspect of the government’s presentation: its “citations supporting the fact of the suicides” were all drawn from media accounts.
If so, they could face disciplinary proceedings or disbarment.
In 2006, the use of a gagging restraint had already been connected to the death on January 9, 2004, of an Iraqi prisoner, Lieutenant Colonel Abdul Jameel, in the custody of the Army Special Forces.
And the bodies of the three men who died at Guantánamo showed signs of torture, including hemorrhages, needle marks, and significant bruising. The removal of their throats made it difficult to determine whether they were already dead when their bodies were suspended by a noose.
The Justice Department itself had been deeply involved
in the process of approving and setting the conditions for the use of
torture techniques, issuing a long series of memoranda that CIA agents and
others could use to defend themselves against any subsequent criminal
As a former war-crimes prosecutor, McHenry knows full
well that government officials who attempt to cover up crimes perpetrated
against prisoners in wartime face prosecution under the doctrine of command
responsibility. (McHenry declined to clarify the role she played in drafting
With command authority comes command responsibility, he said.
The Justice Department thus faced a dilemma; it could do the politically
convenient thing, which was to find no justification for a thorough
investigation, leave the NCIS conclusions in place, and hope that the public
and the news media would obey the Obama Administration’s dictum to “look
forward, not backward”; or it could pursue a course of action that would
implicate the Bush Justice Department in a cover-up of possible homicides.
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. Those charged with accounting for what happened - the prison command, the civilian and military investigative agencies, the Justice Department, and ultimately the attorney general himself - all face a choice between the rule of law and the expedience of political silence.
Thus far, their choice has been unanimous.
General Al-Zahrani grieves for his son, but at the end of a lengthy interview he paused and his thoughts turned elsewhere.