Monday, December 7, 2009



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."

The military ordered all press off the island, prevented all lawyers from seeing their clients, prevented any outside investigation, and declared its own investigation, to be publicly released. Two years later, it was indeed released (in heavily redacted form), and failed to satisfactorily answer any of the relevant questions. How did three heavily supervised and separated detainees commit coordinated suicide? Why did none of the guards notice something was happening, and why were none of the guards on duty that night disciplined? Why and how did the detainees stuff rags down their own throats? Why was one of them missing his internal organs at autopsy? (I wish I were making this up.)

Seton Hall University's Law school has released a report [PDF] on the events which is not making my stomach sit any easier about this.

According to the report (and thanks to TalkLeft for highlighting this):

Accepting the military investigation findings as true and complete, in order to commit suicide by hanging, the detainees must have:

* Braided a noose by tearing up their sheets and/or clothing
* Made mannequins of themselves so it would appear to the guards that they were asleep in their cells
* Hung sheets to block the view into the cells, a violation of SOPs
* Tied their feet together
* Tied their hands together
* Shoved rags in their mouths and down their throats
* Hung the noose from the metal mesh of the cell wall and/or ceiling
* Climbed up on to the sink, put the noose around their necks and released their weight, resulting in death by strangulation
* Hung dead for at least two hours completely unnoticed by guards

SOPs [Standard Operating Procedures] required guards to note movement or to see the detainee‘s skin while walking the block. This raises many questions as to how three detainees on the same cell block, on the same side of the block, were able to complete the aforementioned acts without any Alpha guards noticing.

And just so we're clear how truly bizarre this whole situation is, here's Scott Horton interviewing Seton Hall professor Mark Denbeaux, who supervised the report:

Q: One of the prisoners, Yassar Talal Al Zahrani, had been seized as a minor and survived the prison riot that occurred at the Qali Jangi Prison near Mazar-i-Sharif. When his body was turned over for burial, an independent medical examination was arranged which found that the heart, kidneys and throat had all been removed from his corpse. The medical examiner noted that the removal of the throat in particular was highly irregular, and made an independent assessment impossible. Do you have any sense why U.S. military pathologists removed his internal organs and throat? Is this discussed in the report?

A: No.

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.

That's the bizarre part, the twisted part. But here comes the shameful, really scary part:

There is one way that a meaningful investigation could be conducted into what happened to these three detainees: a lawsuit filed in federal court by the parents of two of the detainees against various Bush officials for the torture and deaths of their sons -- who had never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any wrongdoing (indeed, one had been cleared for release). By itself, discovery in that lawsuit would shed critical light on what was done to these detainees and what caused their deaths.

The problem, however, is that the Obama DOJ has been using every Bush tactic -- and inventing whole new ones -- to block the lawsuit from proceeding.


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. Time and again, the most radical Bush claims of executive power, immunity and secrecy (ones Democrats and even Obama frequently condemned) are invoked to insist that federal courts have no right to adjudicate claims that the Government violated the Constitution and the law. As Harper's Scott Horton documented over the weekend, a new filing by the Obama DOJ in defense of John Yoo is "seeking to make absolute the immunity granted Justice Department lawyers who counsel torture, disappearings, and other crimes against humanity."

I don't have anything brilliant to say about this. It's very, very bad, I wish it weren't this way, I consider it a betrayal by Obama of the base, the country, and his own campaign, I really want to know where that poor man's internal organs went, and I would do a lot to live in a world where people were actually prosecuted for this sort of thing.

I'm just going to leave you with this.

As Harper's Scott Horton documented over the weekend, a new filing by the Obama DOJ in defense of John Yoo is "seeking to make absolute the immunity granted Justice Department lawyers who counsel torture, disappearings, and other crimes against humanity." In other words, as we lecture the world about the need for them to apply the rule of law and hold war criminals accountable, we simultaneously proclaim about ourselves:

We can kidnap your sons from anywhere in the world, far away from any "battlefield," ship them thousands of miles away to an island-prison, abuse and torture them mercilessly, and when we either drive them to suicide or kill them, you have no right to any legal remedy or even any recourse to find out what happened.

As Horton writes, the claim that government officials enjoy a virtually impenetrable shield of immunity even in the commission of war crimes "has emerged as a sort of ignoble mantra for the Justice Department, uniting both the Bush and Obama administrations." Indeed, that is the common strain of virtually every act undertaken by the Obama DOJ with regard to our government's war crimes and other felonies, from torture to renditions to illegal eavesdropping.

1 comment:

  1. I wrote a 20-page paper based off of this same author (Scott Horton's) journalism about John Yoo two years ago. The research shocked me and really made me want to move out of a country that could tolerate such gross misuses of power. It really saddens me that the DOJ hasn't changed under Obama. What did we elect him for, anyway?

    Thank you for blogging! It's sometimes hard for me to find this stuff.