Too Terrible To Be True?

Why aren’t we talking about the new accusations of murder at Gitmo?

Guantanamo Bay military prison

Some torture stories are just too horrible to contemplate, while others are too complicated to understand. But Scott Horton’s devastating new exposé of the possible murders of three prisoners at Guantanamo in 2006 is neither: It’s simply too terrible to allow to be true. Which is why it has been mostly ignored this week in the mainstream American media and paid little attention by the usual crew of torture apologists on the right. The fact that three Guantanamo prisoners—none of whom had any links to terrorism and two of whom had already been cleared for release—may have been killed there and the deaths covered up, should be front-page news. That brand-new evidence of this possible atrocity from military guards was given only the most cursory investigation by the Obama administration should warrant some kind of blowback. But changing what we allow ourselves to believe about torture would change the way we have reconciled ourselves to torture. Nobody in this country is prepared to do that. So we have opted to ignore it.

If you haven’t read Horton’s piece, you should. Here is Andy Worthington’s summary. Following up on a study released in December by Mark Denbeaux at Seton Hall, Horton chases down yet more evidence—much of it from four camp guards—that three “suicides” alleged to have happened in a single night at Gitmo in June 2006 were not actually suicides at all. As the Seton Hall study concluded, the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service report on the incident that was issued in 2008 was quite literally beyond belief. Horton writes:

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 NCIS report failed to question why it took two hours for these suicides to be discovered despite the fact that guards checked on prisoners at 10-minute intervals. Horton, reporting on interviews with four members of the military intelligence unit assigned to guard Camp Delta, suggests that the men died at “Camp No” (as in, “No, it doesn’t exist”), an alleged black site at Gitmo, and were then moved to the clinic. A massive cover-up followed. Official stories hastily changed from claims that the three men had stuffed rags down their own throats to the elaborate hanging plot. Rear Adm. Harry Harris, then the commander at Guantanamo, not only declared the deaths “suicides,” but blamed the victims for “an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.” And every piece of paper belonging to every last prisoner in Camp America was then seized, amounting to some 1,065 pounds of material, much of it privileged attorney-client correspondence. The bodies of the three alleged suicide victims were returned home to their families, who requested independent autopsies, which then revealed “the removal of the structure that would have been the natural focus of the autopsy: the throat.”

When the story first broke, Andrew Sullivan wrote: “This deserves to be the biggest story on the torture issue since Abu Ghraib—because it threatens to tear down the wall of lies and denial that have protected Americans from facing what the last administration actually did.” But with the exception of a single AP story, the American media have been silent. The British papers have covered the story. The right-wing torture apologists have said virtually nothing. And save for a quote in the AP story from Army Col. Michael Bumgarner accusing Army Sgt. Joe Hickman, one of the guards who spoke to Horton, of “trying to be a spotlight ranger,” there’s been almost no pushback against Horton’s report.

Glenn Greenwald has already pointed out that this silence is the result of two media narratives that have sold the American public on the biggest lies of the Bush torture era: First, that only a few well-deserving terrorists were tortured by only a few bad apples. And second, that the best thing to do about all this torture stuff is just to move past it.

But we are never going to move past this. Horton wrote this story because Hickman came forward and reported his concerns. As Andrew Sullivan noted, this isn’t the first time being a good soldier has meant being a truthful one. For his service at the camp, Hickman was selected as Guantanamo’s “NCO of the Quarter” and was given a commendation medal (a medal for which he was recommended by Bumgarner). When he returned to the United States, he was promoted to staff sergeant. When Barack Obama became president, Hickman decided he couldn’t keep silent any longer. As he told Horton: “I thought that with a new administration and new ideas I could actually come forward. … It was haunting me.”

Hickman first took his concerns to Denbeaux at Seton Hall University Law School. Professor Mark Denbeaux’s son Josh agreed to represent Hickman. Hickman didn’t want to speak to the press, but he felt that “silence was just wrong.” The important thing here is that Hickman and the other guards came forward with their suspicions of torture for the same reason Gen. Antonio Taguba and Gen. Barry McCaffrey and countless top military lawyers have spoken out early and often against torture. Why did they do so? Hint: not because they love the enemy or the spotlight. It’s because people in the military understand better than any of us what it means to ask a soldier to be involved in abusing prisoners.

As Richard Schragger wrote in Slate in 2006:

Military lawyers are not only concerned about how the enemy will treat our troops. They are also concerned about how our troops will treat the enemy—and not just because that treatment might be morally offensive and/or strategically unwise. As one of my colleagues—himself a JAG officer—put it, the Geneva Conventions are so honored by military lawyers because they protect our own troops’ humanity. The conventions prevent higher-ups from ordering subordinates to engage in repugnant acts, and they offer soldiers on the ground some basis for differentiating legal acts of killing and destruction from criminal acts of killing and destruction.

I think about this every time I hear someone—usually on a comment thread—claim that if he had just 15 minutes, KSM, and a lobster fork, he’d get himself a confession. We don’t want that guy in the military, and frankly, neither does the military. Our soldiers object to torture not because they want to pamper terrorists but because they want to protect us from our own worst selves. The third big lie the media have perpetrated on the American public as we cheerfully debate the “ticking time bomb” scenario and the possible efficacy of torture is that our soldiers remain unaffected when asked to participate in such abuse, or to lie about it after the fact.

I have no reason to doubt the investigative work of Horton or Denbeaux’s team and every reason to believe the Obama administration’s investigation of Hickman’s story was less than exhaustive. But above and beyond the implausible narrative constructed by NCIS and the bizarre throat autopsies on the deceased, four military guards at Guantanamo felt compelled to come forward and report their concerns about prisoner abuse, and nobody seems to think it warrants any discussion. Members of the military deserve our honor and respect. And one of the ways we can show that is by paying attention when soldiers raise questions about the honor of the military. Even if we’ve learned to sleep at night despite the fact we have tortured, we should spare one toss or turn for those soldiers who cannot.