The Guantánamo Suicides

My friends who served in the military speak of the pride with they performed what  they viewed as their duty. This duty included the obligation to act with honor, including, above all, following the Geneva Conventions when handling detainees and prisoners of war. My friends tell sadly of the despair they felt in seeing this obligation shredded during the Bush administration as word came down that they should do “whatever it takes.”  Some of them resigned in disgust. Others resisted what they viewed as moral decay from within.

A new story by attorney Scott Horton at Harpers reveals yet another very disturbing episode of dishonor. Horton reveals strong credible evidence that three alleged “suicides” at Guantanamo in June 2006 were really homicides. The official story is that during the night of  June 9, 2006, three prisoners were found hanging in their cells in Alpha Block of Guantanamo’s Camp 1.

The deaths were immediately proclaimed suicides, as examples of vicious “asymmetric warfare,” and all service members present were informed that they were not to challenge this conclusion. Early reports made no mention of the rags reportedly found stuffed down their throats that might lead to questioning of the suicide claim. Secret autopsies by unknown physicians were conducted. When the bodies were received by families, portions of the throat, including the larynx and nearby bones, were missing, thus removing evidence of how the men died. Requests by independent pathologists for the missing organs went unanswered by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

Nonetheless, the bodies showed signs of bruising, hemorrhaging, and needle marks suggesting that they had been tortured. The father of one of the men, a Saudi police brigadier general, examined his son’s body and proclaimed the death a homicide:

“There was a major blow to the head on the right side,” he said. “There was evidence of torture on the upper torso, and on the palms of his hand. There were needle marks on his right arm and on his left arm.” None of these details are noted in the U.S. autopsy report. “I am a law enforcement professional,” Al-Zahrani said. “I know what to look for when examining a body.”

We already knew from work by Mark Denbeaux and students at Seton Hall Law School that the official investigation of these deaths by the Navy Criminal Investigative Service [NCIS] was not credible as many potential witnesses were not questioned and such important sources of information as the surveillance videotapes of the hallways outside the cell where the prisoners allegedly hung themselves were never examined.

Horton also reveals for the first time the existence of a hidden “black site” facility at Guantanamo, nicknamed “Camp No” because anyone who asked if it existed was told “No, it doesn’t.” Horton speculates that Camp No is run, either by the CIA or by the Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC, which was commanded by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, appointed by Obama to be the commanding general in Afghanistan.  JSOC is well known to those concerned with US torture because some of the most brutal interrogations in Iraq were reportedly conducted by JSOC. The Washington Post and New York Times recently revealed reports of abuses at a secret JSOC-run detention facility at Bagram air base. [See also the 2008 New York Times article mentioning the existence of prisoners held by JSOC at Bagram.]

Horton reports guards’ accounts of a mysterious van that transported three prisoners toward Camp No earlier in the evening of June 9. The van returned late that evening and backed up into a dock, as if unloading cargo. Shortly thereafter, the deaths were announced.

Horton speculates that the dead prisoners were tortured at Camp No on the night of their deaths. As evidence of torture he produces the account in a sworn federal court deposition of a fourth detainee, Shaker Aamer, in which Aamer reports abuse that same night:

On June 9th, 2006, [Aamer] was beaten for two and a half hours straight. Seven naval military police participated in his beating. Mr. Aamer stated he had refused to provide a retina scan and fingerprints. He reported to me that he was strapped to a chair, fully restrained at the head, arms and legs. The MPs inflicted so much pain, Mr. Aamer said he thought he was going to die. The MPs pressed on pressure points all over his body: his temples, just under his jawline, in the hollow beneath his ears. They choked him. They bent his nose repeatedly so hard to the side he thought it would break. They pinched his thighs and feet constantly. They gouged his eyes. They held his eyes open and shined a mag-lite in them for minutes on end, generating intense heat. They bent his fingers until he screamed. When he screamed, they cut off his airway, then put a mask on him so he could not cry out.

The treatment Aamer describes is noteworthy because it produces excruciating pain without leaving lasting marks. Still, the fact that Aamer had his airway cut off and a mask put over his face “so he could not cry out” is an alarming fact. This is the same technique that appears to have been used on the three deceased prisoners.

Despite pressure from Britain, the US has refused to release Mr. Aamer, citing “security concerns.” Horton speculates that those concerns may be that Aamer could be a witness in a criminal prosecution of those responsible for the three June 9 deaths. However, the connection to the deaths is speculative, partly because there is no report in Aamer’s account of his being transported to a separate facility before his abuse.

Horton does not discuss the fate of Camp No. If it was open in 2006, it may still open, as is apparently the JSOC prison at Bagram. Certainly, no press reports have announced its closing. It is to be hoped that Horton’s article, by pulling pack the veil on some dark secrets, will ultimately lead to answers to this and other open questions.

No fair reader of Horton’s account can end reading it without serious questions regarding what happened that June night three and a half years ago.  The testimony of the guards, along with evidence  of inconsistencies in the official account, make the account of a triple suicide extremely unlikely. The only other alternative is that these men were killed, possibly as a result of “enhanced interrogation” torture gone awry. But even that explanation has problems.  How could three “accidental” deaths occur in the same night using the same techniques? If the deaths were unintentional, why didn’t the torturers stop after one, or even two, deaths? Given this question, the possibility that the three men were deliberately murdered cannot be ruled out.

As Horton tells it, immediately after the murders, our government went into high gear, controlling the press, concocting the suicide cover story, and acting to destroy evidence and intimidate witnesses in order to destroy doubts about the official account. The FBI raided the home of a Guantanamo Colonel whose ego apparently led him to allow a press team to report on the rags stuffed down the dead men’s throat. NCIS conducted its sham investigation, while intimidating the detainees and guards into silence, including by seizing every piece of paper, including confidential attorney-client communications, from the prisoners. When Justice Department lawyers defended this seizure in court, they relied upon press accounts of the “suicides,” thus potentially avoiding making false statements under oath about the deaths

Horton also reveals that the Obama administration has been aware of the cover-up since February, 2010, when a Military Intelligence Staff Sergeant who witnessed suspicious events the night of the murders went to them. The Obama Justice Department “investigated” and then dismissed the report, despite confirmation from several military police ion duty that night. Only then did this Sergeant seek out the press.

Horton’s revelations place our country at an important crossroads. There have certainly been a number  of other deaths previously attributed to detainee abuse. However, the June 9, 2006 deaths are especially notable both in that they occurred far from the battlefield and in the extent of potential high-level cover-up involved.

This report that there is credible evidence of murder by our government, and that many government agencies may have participated in a cover-up constitutes a grave moral crisis for the nation. Will we demand an independent investigation, and accountability if justified? Or is the possibility of government  murder just something we will accept? Does President Obama’s vaunted desire to “look forward and not backward” includes possible homicide?

As Horton quotes retired Rear Admiral John Hutson

“Filing false reports and making false statements is bad enough, but if a homicide occurs and officials up the chain of command attempt to cover it up, they face serious criminal liability. They may even be viewed as accessories after the fact in the original crime.” With command authority comes command responsibility, he said. “If the heart of the military is obeying orders down the chain of command, then its soul is accountability up the chain. You can’t demand the former without the latter.”

In our system of government, the President is the Commander in Chief. As the one at the top of the command structure, he bears ultimate responsibility “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”It is his duty to guarantee a truly independent investigation of these charges.

Unfortunately, given the possible involvement of numerous government agencies, including the NCIS, FBI and Justice Department, no investigation through the ordinary channels can possible be credible. We need an investigation truly independent of all government agencies that may have participated in a possible cover-up.

However, the responsibility does not rest with the President alone. As citizens it is our duty to insist that he acts. Only through a thorough independent investigation of these charges, and of the entire spectrum of abuses that occurred during the “War on Terror,” can my military friends’ honor be restored. They, and we, need to know that the words in the Geneva Conventions, the UN Convention Against Torture, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not to mention the US Constitution, are more than words cynically taught to new recruits. These new accusations will provide a test of what type of people we are.

STEPHEN SOLDZ is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He edits the Psyche, Science, and Society blog. He is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations working to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations. He is President-Elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility [PsySR].



STEPHEN SOLDZ is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He edits the Psyche, Science, and Society blog. He is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations working to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations. He is President-Elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility [PsySR].