Defense & National Security

Harper’s Is Wrong on Gitmo Suicides

Harper’s Magazine has topped all previous left-wing conspiracy stories on the Guantanamo prison by weaving a preposterous tale of murder and torture in what it presents is one of the most extensive cover-up in military history.

To believe Harper’s — and activist lawyer Scott Horton, the article’s author — you have to accept that three terrorist detainees did not hang themselves on the night of June 9, 2006, as the military said, but were killed by their captors.

The coverup, Harper’s charges, involved the guards in Camp Delta cell block Alpha, the prison’s commanding officer, the admiral who ran the Gitmo task force, the Navy Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), and forensic pathologists for the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

The trouble for Harper’s is that when its wild speculation is compared with facts, the Jan. 18 story collapses. The overwhelming evidence, to both the Bush and Obama administrations, is that the three committed suicide in a coordinated jihadi pact ordered by the terrorists’ leadership inside the prison. They left suicide notes in their pockets depicting themselves as martyrs. The NCIS found other writings to that effect.

The Obama-run Pentagon and NCIS issued this statement:

"An article in Harper’s Magazine on-line claiming that the suicides were actually homicides, and the NCIS knowingly participated in a coverup of those killings, is nonsense. NCIS categorically and unequivocally rejects these accusations. The Harper’s article incorporates a great deal of supposition, intended to fill in where details are unknown to the author. It contains numerous factual errors."

Charles Stimson, the top Pentagon civilian overseeing detainee affairs at the time, called the Harper’s story "a complete fabrication.”

"If this was not Guantanamo I would suspect people being accused of murder would sue for libel. It is outrageous … This was beyond any doubt three suicides."

The three suicide victims were Salah Ahmed al-Salami of Yemen, and two Saudis, Mani Shaman al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani.

Harper’s main source is Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Hickman, a perimeter guard in a tower that night far from the cell block. He told the author of a white van that moved in and out of the cell block on that night as it traveled toward a building he called "Camp No" outside the main perimeter. There are seven camps in the Gitmo system. The three suicides were in the Alpha Block of Camp 1.

The story said Hickman has tried to get the FBI and the Obama Justice Department to investigate. They looked at the case and agreed with the suicide conclusion.

Nowhere in the story does Hickman present evidence that the detainees were killed. He quotes an unnamed Navy guard as saying they died from rags pushed down their throats.

The Pentagon statement said:

"According to the Harper’s article, Sergeant Hickman was stationed on the exterior perimeter of the Camp, including Tower 1, the night of the detainees’ deaths.  From this location, he had no visibility into the cellblock and cells where the deaths occurred, a fact confirmed by FBI and DOJ investigators who were specifically tasked to look into Sergeant Hickman’s allegations.  NCIS conducted over 100 interviews during the first three days of the investigation, including interviews with all the guards who worked in the cellblock that day and all the detainees who were housed there.  None of those interviewed told of any detainees being taken away or alleged homicide."

Hickman said he and other Army guards did not see any one transported to the clinic that night. But the NCIS said all three bodies were taken there.
 
The NCIS report said the three used bedding to rig a noose; loosely tied their hands and then swung from the ceiling until they suffocated. They used the same bedding materials to make it look like they were in bed, and to cover cell bars to hide the act.

Guards, in a violation of procedures, let some inmates drape sheets across the bars for privacy. This explained why the suicides were not prevented and not immediately noticed.

Harper’s said the men went undiscovered as part of the conspiracy.

The Harper’s article said proof that the men were murdered are the rags pushed down their throats.

"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 article said. "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 Pentagon said only one of the three had a rag in his throat.

"Regarding rags found in the mouth, there was only one rag lodged down the throat of one of the detainees," its statement said. "Rather than being ‘proof’ of homicide, this was due to the detainee himself positioning the rag in his mouth in order not to make any noise so as to alert the guards.  The rag was inhaled as a natural reaction to death by asphyxiation."

Harper’s
said the fact that their hands were bound was proof of murder.

The Pentagon said:

"NCIS special agents who investigated this case found no evidence to suggest that the three detainees died by means other than suicide.  On the contrary, it was clear from interviews and forensic evidence that these detainees wanted to end their lives and methodically took steps to accomplish that goal.  To hang themselves, they did not need to jump off the sinks as suggested by the author, but only had to apply the necessary pressure to the neck to cut off blood flow. The knots, which bound their hands (and in one case, the decedent’s feet), were not elaborate, but were indeed possible to make by each of the detainees who died.  In addition, a short written statement declaring their intent to be martyrs was found in the pockets of each of the detainees. Lengthier written death declarations were also found."

A group of law students, led by a liberal activist professor at Seton Hall University, acquired highly-censored NCIS documents through Freedom of Information. The students concluded the NCIS investigation was full of inconsistencies.

The students, for example, said there was no evidence agents viewed video of the cell block. The Pentagon said, "All available video footage was reviewed by NCIS, and nothing of evidentiary value was discovered."

Another problem for the Harper’s conspiracy theory is the autopsies. The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology dispatched a senior examiner to Gitmo. An independent pathologist observed the three autopsies, all of which found the men committed suicide. The institute filed final reports the following August.

Harper’s
alleges that some one at Gitmo must have tampered with the bodies before the pathologists arrived.

"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," the article said.

It attacks the autopsies themselves with statements like this: "Additionally, the autopsy of Al-Salami states that his hyoid bone was broken, a phenomenon usually associated with manual strangulation, not hanging."

That might be true if it was broken in the cell block. But the autopsy report clearly states "there is a fracture of the left side of the hyoid bone …. that occurred during the removal of the neck organs."

Harper’s bizarre implication is that the pathologist wrote the report to cover up up a broken hyoid bone in the cell, not on the autopsy table.

That leads to another preposterous theory. Harper’s notes that the neck organs were removed and writes, "An odd admission, given that these are the very body parts — the 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 parts are not missing. The pathologist removed them for examination and determined they were consistent with hanging. They were kept, as is standard procedure, until the criminal investigation is completed, which happened in 2008. I am told authoritatively that the families have not requested the neck organs.

As for "Camp No," all military bases have special access buildings. I am told authoritatively the building in Harper’s satellite photo is not a detention facility.

Horton writes that the camp commander, Army Col. Michael Bumgarner, gathered the guards together the next morning and told them not to say anything that contradicted an official statement.

I am told authoritatively he never gave such an order. It would be illegal to interfere in the NCIS investigation, which had began shortly after the bodies were discovered.

Why were the three being held, according to evidence at their Combatant Status Review Board at Gitmo and Administrative Review board?

Salami was identified as an associate of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the senior al Qaeda leader who planned the 9-11 attacks. Salami resided in a safehouse in Pakistan run by another top al Qaeda figure, Abu Zubayda. Other informants placed Salami in the Khaldan terror training camp in Afghanistan.

Utaybi belonged to an Islamic missionary group used as a cover by al Qaeda to carry out terror attacks. He was captured with a stolen passport and wearing women’s clothing to get through a Pakistani checkpoint.

Zahrani trained at an al Qaeda camp in Pakistan and acted as a financial courier.

The U.S. had not formally charged the three.

Maj. Shawn Turner, a Pentagon spokesman, told HUMAN EVENTS that terror suspects may be held indefinitely in time of war.

"Detention during wartime is not criminal punishment and therefore does not require that individuals be charged or tried in a court of law," the spokesman said. "It is a matter of security and military necessity and has long been recognized as legitimate under international law.  This has been true in all traditional conflicts and remains true today."

Harper’s
, one of the nation’s longest running magazines, usually devotes its pages to politics and literature.

But it embraces the Horton piece as an exclusive and, a week after posting, still has it atop its home page, headlined, "The Guantanamo ‘Suicides’ A Camp Delta Sergeant Blows the Whistle."

As for the story, the Pentagon’s Turner said,

"The recent online magazine article which implies that the suicides of three Guantanamo detainees in 2006 were actually homicides and the subsequent investigations were part of an elaborate government-wide cover up is nonsense.

“The Department of Defense categorically and unequivocally rejects these claims and stands by the investigative process. In all three cases, an autopsy performed by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology’s Medical Examiner personnel ruled the cause of death as suicide. A civilian medical examiner served as an independent observer for these autopsies and concurred with the rulings. The bodies were thoroughly examined for signs of torture. None was found.

"A thorough, years-long investigation by NCIS concluded unequivocally that the detainees’ deaths were the result of suicide. In addition, the Justice Department took this matter very seriously and a number of experienced department attorneys and agents extensively and thoroughly reviewed the allegations and found no evidence of wrongdoing.

"Speculative and unfounded accusations such as those being leveled do a serious disservice to the honorable men and women who serve at Guantanamo Bay and in the U.S. military."

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