On the night of June 10, 2006, three Guantanamo detainees were found dead in their individual cells. Without any autopsy or investigation, U.S. military officials proclaimed “suicide by hanging” as the cause of each death, and immediately sought to exploit the episode as proof of the evil of the detainees. Admiral Harry Harris, the camp’s commander, said it showed “they have no regard for life” and that the suicides were “not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare aimed at us here at Guantanamo”; another official anonymously said that the suicides showed the victims were “committed jihadists [who] will do anything they can to advance their cause,” while another sneered that “it was a good PR move to draw attention.”
Questions immediately arose about how it could be possible that three detainees kept in isolation and under constant and intense monitoring could have coordinated and then carried out group suicide without detection, particularly since the military claimed their bodies were not found for over two hours after their deaths. But from the beginning, there was a clear attempt on the part of Guantanamo officials to prevent any outside investigation of this incident. To allay the questions that quickly emerged, the military announced it would conduct a sweeping investigation and publicly release its finding, but it did not do so until more than two years later when — in August, 2008 — it released a heavily redacted reported purporting to confirm suicide by hanging as the cause. Two of the three dead detainees were Saudis and one was Yemeni; they had been detained for years without charges; one of them was 17 years old at the time he was detained and 22 when he died; and they had participated in several of the hunger strikes at the camp to protest the brutality, torture and abuse to which they were routinely subjected. Perversely, one of the three victims had been cleared for release earlier that month.
A major new report from Seton Hall University School of Law released this morning raises serious doubts about both the military’s version of events and the reliability of its investigation. The Report details that the three men “died under questionable circumstances”; that “the investigation into their deaths resulted in more questions than answers”; and that “without a proper investigation, it is impossible to determine the circumstances of the three detainees’ deaths.”
Scott Horton at Huffington Post:
Seton Hall law professor Mark Denbeaux supervised the report issued this morning examining the Defense Department’s investigation of the three deaths that occurred at Gitmo the night of June 9-10, 2006. (See main story: “Law School Study Finds Evidence Of Cover-Up After Three Alleged Suicides At Guantanamo In 2006“).
I interviewed him about some of the issues that the Seton Hall study highlights without resolving.
Q: The Seton Hall study refrains from stating a conclusion that the three prisoner deaths in Gitmo in June 2006 were homicides, but it’s obviously very skeptical of the military investigation’s conclusions that they were suicides. Why the equivocation on this point?
A: During August of 2006, we published June 10th Suicides at Guantanamo: Government Words and Deeds Compared.” In February 2009, we decided to revisit the question. Due to the fact that the NCIS [Naval Criminal Investigative Service] and the CITF [Criminal Investigation Task Force] spent over two years investigating the suicides, we expected that the investigation would have produced findings of the event that were highly transparent and conclusive. As our report shows, this did not occur. Our report, “Death in Camp Delta,” presents what the military investigation found. The military investigation does an amazingly poor job of explaining what happened that night, and some of its conclusions appear to be contraindicated by its own factual findings.
The most innocent explanation I can come up with that comports with all the facts is that this is Gitmo meets The Lord of the Flies and the Stanford Prison Experiment: no one really cares about the rules. Even in that reading, the NCIS investigation is a cover-up of a gross dereliction of duty for which nobody was disciplined, leading to the deaths of three men. The fact that NCIS did not address these issues is inexplicable and very troubling.
Q: Do you think it’s physically possible for a prisoner to have committed suicide the way the military report describes — binding his own hands and feet, stuffing cloth down his throat, and hanging himself from the metal mesh of a cell?
A: It’s hard to imagine that one person without extraordinary skills could do it. It’s inconceivable that three prisoners could do this without anyone noticing it — that in any event reflects my lack of imagination. We would have assumed that investigators would have run simulations or contacted experts. The NCIS investigation did not address this question, or if it did it was discussed in the portion of the report that has been redacted. It is difficult to grasp how one would commit suicide by hanging given the material available to the prisoners, but because the NCIS investigation did not ask this question, neither did the study.
Daphne Eviatar at Washington Independent:
TWI recently reported that the Obama administration is fighting to squelch a lawsuit brought by the families of two of the prisoners who are the subject of the Seton Hall report, claiming that a law passed by Congress protects U.S. officials from liability for any mistreatment of detainees who were declared “enemy combatants” and held in U.S. custody. The government also argues — most recently in a legal brief filed last Friday — that the relatives of the men are not entitled to sue because, among other things, the court should not interfere in foreign policy and national security matters, and a remedy would “have a detrimental impact on the effectiveness of the military.” The government also argues that the officials sued are immune from suit because the dead prisoners did not have any constitutional rights to better care or supervision, and none of the 24 military and former military officials sued personally participated in denying them any constitutional rights. The government argues that neither the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment right to Due Process nor the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment apply to Guantanamo detainees.
As Salon blogger and Constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald wrote on Monday: “All of this is depressingly consistent with multiple other cases in which the Obama DOJ is attempting aggressively to shield even the most illegal and allegedly discontinued Bush programs from judicial review.” In each case, the administration has argued, as aggressively as the Bush administration ever did, that “federal courts have no right to adjudicate claims that the Government violated the Constitution and the law,” writes Greenwald.
TWI has pointed out and Harper’s contributing editor and human rights lawyer Scott Horton wrote over the weekend that the government is even making these claims to defend John Yoo, and to argue that no government lawyers ought to be held responsible for advising the government to engage in clearly illegal conduct, even if the consequences were, forseeably, that someone would be tortured or even killed.
In their legal complaint, the fathers of two of the young men, Yasser Al-Zahrani and Salah Al-Salami, both in their 20s, claim their sons were beaten, sleep-deprived, isolated, held in freezing cold or excruciatingly hot temperatures, humiliated, prevented from practicing their religion and denied necessary medication. The fathers, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, claim the young men were obviously suffering from deteriorating mental health and growing despair. Deemed “enemy combatants,” they’d spent four years locked up at the Guantanamo prison camp without charge, without seeing the evidence against them, and without ever even meeting with a lawyer who could press their case in a court. Both had engaged in a prolonged hunger strike with other prisoners, and, their fathers say, clearly presented a high risk of suicide.
Yet somehow, as the Seton Hall report points out, the three men were left unsupervised in their cells for long enough that they were able to tear up their sheets and clothing and braid them into a noose; make mannequins of themselves to fool guards into believing they were asleep in their cells; hang sheets to block the guards’ view in violation of prison rules; stuff rags down their own throats; tie their own feet and hands together; hang the noose from the cell wall or ceiling; climb up on to the sink in the cell, put the noose around their necks and release their weight so as to die by self-strangulation; and hang dead for at least two hours in the cell, without attracting any attention from the prison guards.
According to the report, five guards were responsible for 24-hour supervision of 28 detainees in the constantly-lit prison cells, which were also monitored by video cameras. Although the guards were initially suspected of giving false statements and read their Miranda rights, they were also ordered not to write out sworn statements, although that’s required by the military’s standard operating procedures. Ultimately, no one was held responsible for any wrongdoing, the report concludes.
Mark Denbeaux, a law professor at Seton Hall and Director of the school’s Center for Policy & Research, which conducted the study of the military’s investigation into the three deaths, said in a statement that the investigation shows “guards not on duty, detainees hanging dead in their cells for hours and guards leaving their posts to eat the detainees’ leftover food.”
Denbeaux also called the government’s investigation “a cover up,” adding that “given the gross inadequacy of the investigation the more compelling questions are: Who knew of the cover up? Who approved of the cover up, and why? The government’s investigation is slipshod, and its conclusion leaves the most important questions about this tragedy unanswered.”
UPDATE: More Sullivan
UPDATE #2: Scott Horton at Harper’s
Scott H. Payne at The League
UPDATE #3: Megan McArdle
UPDATE #4: Glenn Greenwald
Conor Friedersdorf at Daily Beast
UPDATE #5: Joe Carter on Friedersdorf
Dahlia Lithwick at Slate
UPDATE #6: Sullivan responds to Carter
UPDATE #7: More Sullivan
UPDATE #8: Jack Shafer at Slate
Spencer Ackerman at Shafer
UPDATE #9: More on Shafer v. Harpers
UPDATE #10: Rowan Scarborough at Human Events
UPDATE #11:Andy Worthington