A Murder Mystery at Guantanamo Bay
There’s more of a mystery to how three Guantanamo detainees died on June 10, 2006, than I realized when I described their deaths as suicides in a recent article about force-feeding methods at the notorious U.S. prison. Some very experienced investigators who have examined the evidence suspect the three were victims of homicides amid the torture regime employed by President George W. Bush’s underlings.
Scott Horton, whose upcoming book Lords of Secrecy contains new insights into the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Tenet go-ahead on torture and other abuses, has supplied me with additional detail highly suggestive of foul play by CIA interrogators.
Horton noted that the three prisoners were scheduled to be released and repatriated and that key details about the U.S. government’s suicide claims have been disproved. For instance, the first reports said the inmates had hanged themselves with linens in their jail cells, but medical records, which the government sought to suppress, indicate otherwise.
The records “reveal that the three died not from strangulation (as would be the case in a hanging) but from asphyxiation resulting from having cloth stuffed down their throats — precisely the same kind of cloth, it turns out, that was used by a similar interrogation team around the same time at the Charleston Brig, and which has been labeled by a University of California study as ‘dryboarding,’” Horton wrote in an email.
Horton also cited testimony from camp guards on duty that night, saying “the three had been removed from their cells and transported to a secret facility known to the camp guards as ‘Camp No,’ which was later revealed by the Associated Press to have been a facility used by the CIA for prisoner interrogation and treatment known as ‘Penny Lane.’ They were removed from that facility to the camp clinic and an alarm issued shortly thereafter.
“Penny Lane was being used by an interrogation unit of the CIA up until approximately the time of the deaths, and it was, strictly speaking, a CIA facility. Under the terms of a Special-Access Program (SAP), neither the camp commander nor the commander of Joint Task Force, Guantanamo were to have any knowledge of this program and what went on in connection with it. The program reported to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally, as well as to an official at the White House’s National Security Council. …
“Moreover, one of the three, Al-Zahrani, did not, as claimed, die in his cell — several hours later he was in the base hospital, still alive. An eyewitness statement of this, by an attending guard, was published by Harper’s in its June 2014 issue. The most amazing fact to emerge from this account was the description of a guard wrapping his hands with cloth to support the suicide claim, while no CPR revival measures were taken — although Al-Zahrani was alive and struggling to live.”
Horton added: “It is still not 100-percent clear exactly how the three died and who was present at the time. However, it is abundantly clear that the Government’s claims concerning their deaths are false, fabricated to cover up what actually transpired, and that the deaths relate directly to an intelligence operation at Guantanamo likely using a technique that is tantamount to torture.
“The Government’s decisions to shut down this program in the fall of 2006 and pull the CIA from Gitmo followed closely on the heels of this tragic episode. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld resigned in November 2006. The Government continues its feverish attempt to cover up what actually happened.”
The Long-Delayed Torture Report
Yet, whatever happened – whether the three choked themselves in a desperate protest of their mistreatment and indefinite detention (the vast majority of inmates cleared for release have remained incarcerated for years afterwards) or whether they were silenced by having cloth shoved down their throats – the mystery adds to the necessity of releasing the long-delayed Senate report on torture.
When we last checked in on the status of that secret report, its declassification was snagged in a dispute between CIA Director John Brennan, who was part of Director George Tenet’s inner circle during Bush’s “war on terror” and thus has a lot to lose by the report’s release, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who has objected to the number of redactions and deletions demanded by Brennan.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has declared that he wants as much released as possible but is unwilling to overrule Brennan. The behavior of this dysfunctional ménage a trois has, in effect, sabotaged the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report for well over a year.
The interminable delays can be more readily understood, once you realize that the Senate report, if it is halfway honest, must include evidence on CIA-sponsored homicide as well as torture, which might put Obama back on the spot regarding his pious assertions that “no one is above the law.” He has shown no appetite to discharge his duty if it risks getting crosswise with his spies.
Obama, Brennan and Feinstein appear to be waiting until after the November elections, so as not to stir up any political ire from the voters before they go to the polls. After the election, Congress is expected to return for a lame-duck session with the question of how much of the torture report, if any, gets released depending on whether the Republicans carry the House and Senate, as many prognosticators predict.
A Republican victory likely would strengthen Brennan’s hand in keeping more of the torture report secret since it focuses on actions of the Bush-43 administration. Assuming that Obama won’t intervene and overrule Brennan – which the President has been loath to do – Feinstein’s chief option would be to seek a majority vote of the Senate, something that is easier said than done these days and likely to be harder if Republicans know, post-election, that they will control the Senate come January.
Feinstein also could go rogue, reject many of Brennan’s redactions and put out the report in a way that she considers appropriate. Such a move could have profound ramifications for future executive-congressional relations.
There is, of course, another possible explanation for the hold-up over releasing the report: That none of the trio really wants the truth about torture told. If that’s the case, the senior senator from California who vows that she wants as much of the report out as possible and the president who promised maximum “transparency” are giving hypocrisy a bad name.
It Was Still Worse at the CIA Gitmo Annex
Meanwhile, the human rights catastrophe at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, persists. As I reported Wednesday, a court proceeding presided over by Judge Gladys Kessler in Washington D.C.’s District Court heard evidence from the London-based human rights organization Reprieve seeking to obtain more humane treatment for a client, Abu Wa’el Dhiab, 43.
Dhiab has been detained in Guantanamo without charge or trial for over 12 years. Approved for release five years ago, he remains there, prompting him to protest with hunger strikes to which the prison authorities responded with some 1,300 “forcible cell extractions” as well as forced feedings through nasal-gastric tubes.
The grotesque court testimony brought to mind the period in spring 2006 when torture and forced feedings were rampant – not only at the CIA annex at Guantanamo but also at CIA “black sites” in several countries abroad. The treatment of the various detainees not only shocked the world because of the U.S. waiver of legal rights for the inmates, but because of torture or “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
In that context on Wednesday, I repeated a few paragraphs from an article that I wrote in January 2008 about three “suicides” that occurred on June 10, 2006, less than a month before President Bush (at a press conference on July 6, 2006) publicly admitted the existence of CIA black sites and advertised the merits of what he called “an alternative set of procedures” for interrogation.
I reminded readers that three “suicides” on June 10, 2006 had “incurred the wrath of then Guantanamo commander, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr., who announced that the suicides were ‘not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare against us.’ In a similar spirit, Colleen Graffy, deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, told the BBC that the suicides ‘certainly (are) a good PR move to draw attention.’”
The reactions of Harris and Graffy, I thought, were indictment enough of the unconscionably coarse attitude of senior U.S. government representatives regarding human life. But now there is the possibility that they were only spouting a cover story for even a worse scenario, a triple homicide about which they may well have been kept in the dark.
More than six years ago, when I wrote that earlier article, I had scarcely gotten accustomed to the thought that my former colleagues had let themselves be suborned by Bush, Cheney and CIA Director George Tenet into torturing detainees. True, there already were rumors of CIA homicides circulating, and the Army abuses at Abu Ghraib had been exposed.
But I was having trouble wrapping my mind around the notion that the CIA had been given official sanction to murder. And inured as I am now to such indignities, I still shudder at the prospect that President Obama will, a year or two from now, explain it all with a nonchalant riff on his earlier “We tortured some folks” — substituting “killed” for “tortured.”
I am in debt for clarification regarding the possibility of a triple homicide on June 10, 2006 to two friends who, oddly, bear the same name – (1) Scott Horton of antiwar.org, and (2) Scott Horton, an attorney, regular Harpers columnist, and author the excellent, soon to be published Lords of Secrecy” (Nation Books) – which has a good deal to say about U.S.-sponsored torture and homicide. (I have seen it in draft.)
Lastly, since context is essential, let me add a couple of additional points.In his memoir At the Center of the Storm, CIA Director Tenet, who was in charge of the CIA torturers and “contractors” during the worst of it, admitted to having some concern over the possibility that he and his accomplices might eventually be held accountable.
In a Feb. 8, 2008 article, I referred to a section in Tenet’s book in which he stressed “the importance of being able to detain unilaterally al-Qaeda operatives around the world.” His worries shone through the following words:
“We were asking for and we would be given as many authorities as CIA ever had. Things could blow up. People, me among them, could end up spending some of the worst days of our lives justifying before congressional overseers our new freedom to act.” (At the Center of the Storm, p 178)
Tenet need not have worried. So far he has been shielded from accountability by a timid Congress as well as by yet another White House able to arrogate unprecedented power to itself and to shield those it wishes to protect.
Unless some outside deus ex machina cuts into the ménage a trois keeping the torture report secret, they and their Establishment successors are likely to marathon-dance into the future, hoping that – with a compliant media – the matter can remain forever moot or, at least, mute.
Adding insult to injury – Feinstein has invited Tenet, along with two other former torture-tainted CIA directors, to help Brennan “review” the Senate Committee’s CIA torture report. Besides Tenet, the courtesy has been extended to CIA Directors Michael Hayden and Porter Goss – as well as former deputy directors Michael Morell and John McLaughlin.