Anyone who has even cursorily followed the stories that have emerged in bits and pieces from the U.S. detention center on the perpetually leased chunk of Cuba at Guantánamo Bay knows full well why that monstrous affront to human rights and the rule of law must be shut down. And why President Obama's announcement on his second day in office that the administration was moving to close the facility was greeted with widespread relief and approval, not just in the United States but, most especially, abroad.
Despite delays caused in great part by right-wing opposition and a strange version of not-in-my-back-yardism, Guantánamo no doubt will be shut down eventually, even though it's been obvious for months that the President's original deadline for doing so could not be met.
But shuttering the place without a comprehensive investigation and public revelation of the details of what went on there since the facility opened in 2002 will not close the books on this dark episode. Full sunlight cannot guarantee that what happened at Guantánamo and the chain of secret CIA prisons will not occur at some future time. But without complete disclosure, especially concerning deaths that occurred at the detention center, it is almost certain there will be a repeat. The administration has, however, apparently decided - in what critics consider the most egregious case - not to follow up despite the fact that someone who was on the scene came forward a year ago to tell what he saw.
Which is why Scott Horton's article in Harper's today is a must-read. Titled The Guantánamo “Suicides”: A Camp Delta sergeant blows the whistle.
The basic, completely uncredible story is straightforward enough: Three detainees, none with a shred of evidence linking them to al Qaeda, two of whom were soon going to be released, supposedly committed suicide at the same time on the same June day in 2006. To achieve this, they had to make nooses by tearing up their sheets and clothing, use pillows and other means to fool guards who were supposed to check on them every 10 minutes into thinking they were asleep in their cells, stuff rags far down their throats, tie their own feet and hands together, climb up on a sink in this bound condition, put a noose around their necks and strangle themselves, hanging dead for at least two hours before the guards noticed.
Questions have long been raised about this improbable scenario. But Horton, who has for years closely followed the story of U.S. prisoners at Guantánamo and elsewhere, writes:
As news of the deaths emerged the following day, the camp quickly went into lockdown. The authorities ordered nearly all the reporters at Camp America to leave and those en route to turn back. The commander at Guantánamo, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, then declared the deaths “suicides.” In an unusual move, he also used the announcement to attack the dead men. “I believe this was not an act of desperation,” he said, “but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.” 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.Horton then explains what Hickman says he saw, what he told the U.S. Department of Justice last February, and how he has been ignored ever since. Horton concludes:
Two years later, the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which has primary investigative jurisdiction within the naval base, issued a report supporting the account originally advanced by Harris, now a vice-admiral in command of the Sixth Fleet. The Pentagon declined to make the NCIS report public, and only when pressed with Freedom of Information Act demands did it disclose parts of the report, some 1,700 pages of documents so heavily redacted as to be nearly incomprehensible. The NCIS report was 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.
One of the new guards who arrived that March was Joe Hickman, then a sergeant. Hickman grew up in Baltimore and joined the Marines in 1983, at the age of nineteen. When I interviewed him in January at his home in Wisconsin, he told me he had been inspired to enlist by Ronald Reagan, “the greatest president we’ve ever had.” 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 Guard.
The night the prisoners died, Hickman was on duty as sergeant of the guard for Camp America’s exterior security force.
Nearly 200 men remain imprisoned at Guantánamo. 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.We Americans are famous for memory deficit when it comes to the history of our country's darker deeds. The effects of so many other policies - from the continuing effects of defoliant residues in Southeast Asia to the mass graves still being excavated in Central America - are scarcely known to most of us. Will the failure to investigate the crimes at Guantánamo mean they will become such a blur that the next generation will simply deny they ever happened? The benefits of this to the Cheney-Bush administration are obvious. What advantages accrue to the current administration?