The Guantánamo ‘Suicides': The Official Response Begins

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Harper's Magazine

The Guantánamo ‘Suicides': The Official Response Begins

When a cover-up is exposed, nothing is more telling than the first reactions from those who are involved. Do they maintain their stories and face potentially aggravated consequences? Or do they simply remain silent? In making this choice, they often telegraph the depth of their anxiety and concern.

Last night on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, I focused on the first responses to "The Guantánamo ‘Suicides.'" Colonel Michael Bumgarner, the former commander at Camp America, had sent an email to the Associated Press, the text of which AP confirmed to me, in which he said he would have to get clearance from the Defense Department to speak, but then stated:

This blatant misrepresentation of the truth infuriates me. I don't know who Sgt. Hickman is, but he is only trying to be a spotlight ranger. He knows nothing about what transpired in Camp 1, or our medical facility. I do, I was there.

This statement merits closer inspection. The first sentence is a classic nondenial denial. It appears on the surface to deny part of the account, but in fact denies nothing. Bumgarner needs to state specifically what allegations he considers inaccurate. His failure to do so is telling.

The second statement is an attempt to frame the conflict in terms of a controversy between Sergeant Hickman and himself, which he leads into by saying he doesn't even know who Hickman is. That statement is demonstrably false. As we confirmed with Defense Department records, Bumgarner recommended Hickman for a medal (shown below) based on his cool-headed approach to defusing a prison riot on May 18, 2006. Moreover, Hickman was selected as NCO of the Quarter at Guantánamo, a fact the camp commander would certainly have known at the time. In any case, the key points in which Bumgarner figures do not rest on Hickman's accounts alone-they are corroborated by a series of additional witnesses, as well as by published accounts in which Bumgarner himself is extensively quoted.

[Image]

Hickman's Army Commendation Medal certificate, signed by Baumgarner

The third statement presents Bumgarner with even more serious problems. He denies that Hickman was present or has knowledge of what transpired at Camp 1 and the detainee clinic on the night of June 9. "I was there," he says. Let's be very clear about this: Either Bumgarner lied in a formal statement to NCIS, or he lied to AP. In his formal account, Bumgarner addressed this point directly. "On the night of 09JUN06, I was not in the camp," he writes, "I had spent the evening at Admiral Harris's house." (This can be found on pp. 1059-60 of the NCIS evidence file, and can be examined here [PDF, 1.1M] on page 6 of the original document.) This account matches the recollection of other witnesses cited in Admiral Harris's AR 15-6 statement, especially the statements beginning at p. 118. In all these accounts, Colonel Bumgarner does not arrive at the camp until 12:48 a.m. on the morning of June 10. The operative events of the narrative furnished by the guards occurred between 7:00 p.m. and midnight-long before Bumgarner's arrival on the scene.

The Justice Department response is also informative. It was confronted with several allegations: that the FBI had been involved in a cover-up from the first days after the deaths, launching a raid designed to intimidate witnesses from speaking openly; that the Justice Department may have made repeated misleading statements to federal judge James Robertson in furtherance of the cover-up; and that the Department claimed to have concluded its investigation into Hickman's story before contacting witnesses who would have, and did, corroborate it.

The Justice Department had no response to any of these serious allegations. Instead, in a January 18 e-mail, department spokesman Laura Sweeny claimed that two of the witnesses interviewed by the department had misremembered the names of the lawyers present at those meetings. She refused to address any of the other allegations in the article. Instead, she insisted that I note that Justice had "conducted a thorough inquiry into this matter, carefully examined the allegations, found no evidence of wrongdoing and subsequently closed the matter." And then she said, as she had when I contacted her in reporting the story, that she would not arrange an interview with any of the officials involved in the matter.

This is all classic misdirection, an attempt to make the story not about the crimes at Guantánamo but the minutes of meetings in Baltimore and Columbia. Still, the fact that the Justice Department is unwilling to say who was at these brief interviews speaks volumes. It does not deny that the interviews occurred, nor that the descriptions of the meetings are otherwise accurate, nor even that the lawyers identified were in fact involved in the investigation. It simply insists that the team conducting these interviews not be identified.

Of course, this adamant insistence on official anonymity does nothing to dispel the accusation of cover-up. Just the opposite: it suggests that the lawyers and FBI agents involved quite urgently wish not to have their names associated with it. And who could blame them?

Scott Horton

Scott Horton is a Contributing Editor of Harper's Magazine and lectures at Columbia Law School.  He is also a member of the board of the National Institute of Military Justice, the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, the EurasiaGroup and the American Branch of the International Law Association.

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