Monday, January 18, 2010

The Many Secrets of Guantanamo Bay

Whether it be in conversations about Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or any other country around the world, the policies of the Bush Administration are essential to take into consideration when examining where we find ourselves today. The election of Barack Obama to the Presidency did not change this fact no matter how much he wants to "move forward" and "not look to the past". The policies of the last Administration have far-reaching consequences and unless they are investigated to the fullest, we will not be able to fully heal as a country.

One of the areas where this especially holds true is in policies surrounding detention and interrogation. Scott Horton has a striking and disturbing new piece that was published in the latest edition of Harper's Magazine that demonstrates just how relevant this topic continues to be, even when the corporate media isn't reporting on the implications.

Horton's piece is entitled "The Guantanomo 'Suicides': A Camp Delta sergeant blows the whistle". It is a well researched and a very detailed account that should be read in full, but I will do my best to provide a summary.

The article begins with the story of three detainees who died on June 9, 2006 while being held in the Guantanamo Bay prison facility in Cuba. The official story goes that the prisoners coordinated a type of "suicide pact" and elaborately tricked the guards into thinking that they were sleeping when they were actually binding their hands and feet, stuffing a towel down their throats, and hanging themselves in their cells.

Now, some of the former personnel at the prison have come forward and raised questions about this official story and have indicated that this country should be investigating three homicides that took place at a special "dark-site" in Guantnamo Bay.

According to the NCIS, each prisoner had fashioned a noose from torn sheets and T-shirts and tied it to the top of his cell’s eight-foot-high steel-mesh wall. Each prisoner was able somehow to bind his own hands, and, in at least one case, his own feet, then stuff more rags deep down into his own throat. We are then asked to believe that each prisoner, even as he was choking on those rags, climbed up on his washbasin, slipped his head through the noose, tightened it, and leapt from the washbasin to hang until he asphyxiated. The NCIS report also proposes that the three prisoners, who were held in non-adjoining cells, carried out each of these actions almost simultaneously.


The fact that at least two of the prisoners also had cloth masks affixed to their faces, presumably to prevent the expulsion of the rags from their mouths, went unremarked by the NCIS, as did the fact that standard operating procedure at Camp Delta required the Navy guards on duty after midnight to “conduct a visual search” of each cell and detainee every ten minutes. 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 disciplined.

One of the soldiers that Horton spoke to is Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman. When Hickman arrived at Guantanomo Bay, he quickly stumbled upon a compound near the main prison that he says other soldiers called "Camp No". The name refers to the answer that anyone would get when they asked about this compound: "no, it doesn't exist". Hickman then described some of his duties that seemed odd, including a secret van that was dubbed "the paddy wagon":

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.”

The paddy wagon was used to transport prisoners to medical facilities and to meetings with their lawyers. But as Hickman monitored the paddy wagon’s movements from the guard tower at Camp Delta, he frequently saw it follow an unexpected route. When the van reached the first intersection, 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.

Hickman claims that on the night of June 9, he watched this "paddy wagon" depart his location at "Camp America" and drive to Camp No. He observed this three times in a row and then, a few hours later, he says that the paddy wagon returned and various soldiers unloaded something out of the back of the van. 45 minutes to an hour later, Camp Delta was abuzz:

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.


By dawn, the news had circulated through Camp America that three prisoners had committed suicide by swallowing rags. Colonel Bumgarner called a meeting of the guards, and at 7 a.m. at least fifty soldiers and sailors gathered at Camp America’s open-air theater.


According to independent interviews with soldiers who witnessed the speech, Bumgarner told his audience that “you all know” three prisoners in the Alpha Block at Camp 1 committed suicide during the night by swallowing rags, causing them to choke to death. This was a surprise to no one—even servicemen who had not worked the night before had heard about the rags. 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.)

The rest of Horton's piece describes how documents were seized from prisoners at the compound regardless of client-attorney privilege and how the autopsies of the three men who died, seemed suspicious (all of their neck organs had been removed during the autopsy). The families of each of the three men had independent autopsies performed and there was bruising and other evidence of torture on the bodies.

Upon returning to the United States, the soldiers that Horton spoke with for this piece went to the Justice Department so that they could look into this matter and after much silence from the DOJ, on November 2, 2009 they concluded that the "gist of the information" could not be confirmed.

The silence here is deafening and the greater details that are present in Horton's piece should be read as they are even more disturbing than the brief outline that I have provided here. What is necessary to remember here is that there are still close to 200 people being held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Many without charge and many with uncertain futures. Despite President Obama's pledge to close the facility within a year, it remains open and many question marks continue to be raised about the conduct within this facility.

It is alarming at best to continue down the road of "looking forward" when stories like this one continue to come out. For a country that claims to be a "nation of laws" to simply ignore these gross abuses and ignore rather than investigate potential criminal wrong-doing should simply be unacceptable. It is true that there is a lot on the plates of those in Washington these days, but it is stories like this one that emphasizes just how deep our countries wounds are. This is not something that can be swept under the rug rather it is a topic that needs to be shouted from the rooftops until it is constructively addressed. Policies that were deliberately in place to create conditions in which things like this could happen are not simply forgotten without consequence. There are very lasting and harmful effects from the last eight years that must be addressed before we can heal and move on as a better and a more humane people.

It is time to bring this conversation back into the national dialogue.

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