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Deconstructing the Campaign to Malign Award-Winning Article on Guantanamo “Suicides“

A guard tower overlooks the prison at Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on June 8, 2010. On June 10, 2006, three Guantanamo detainees allegedly committed suicide. (Photo: Richard Perry / The New York Times) While not the first article attacking Scott Horton's controversial Harpers' article, “The Guantanamo Suicides,” Alex Koppelman's critique in Adweek on May 23 capped a long campaign by some media figures to impugn the veracity of Horton's investigation, if not the integrity of both Horton and Harper's Magazine.

While not the first article attacking Scott Horton's controversial Harpers' article, “The Guantanamo Suicides,” Alex Koppelman's critique in Adweek on May 23 capped a long campaign by some media figures to impugn the veracity of Horton's investigation, if not the integrity of both Horton and Harper's Magazine.

Horton's article in January 2010 strongly criticized the Department of Defense (DoD) investigations into the June 10, 2006, deaths of three Guantanamo detainees, bringing forth new eyewitness testimony as to what occurred that terrible evening at the camp, calling into question the official narrative. For their part, Guantanamo authorities immediately labeled these deaths suicides. Rear Adm. Harry Harris, the commander at Guantanamo, called the deaths a day after they occurred “an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.”

Koppelman's article appears to be a reaction to the recent presentation of the prestigious National Magazine Award to Horton's article. The award is given annually by the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME), who, since then, have stood by their decision to recognize the Horton article.

The Koppelman article also followed attacks on those critical of the DoD investigation of the “suicides” by Donald Rumsfeld, in a May 12 op-ed at The Washington Post, and a May 17 blog post by Cully Stimson, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs at the time of the prisoners' deaths, lambasting ASME's “disgraceful award” to Horton.

In addition, the Adweek article was published only five days after another mysterious purported suicide at the Guantanamo prison camp. Inayatullah was a 37-year-old prisoner found dead either in a recreation yard or in his cell, depending on the news account. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) is investigating his death, which, if ruled suicide, would be the sixth such death at the camp, if one includes the deaths of the three prisoners in 2006.

An unprecedented attack by an advertising industry journal against a magazine industry award-winning story, Koppelman's article stimulated a cascade of grateful response from conservative commentators, such as The Weekly Standard's “The Scrapbook, ” Jonathan Last, and Joe Carter (who wrote his own earlier series of articles critiquing Horton's investigation, blustering that to compare Harper's Magazine with the National Enquirer “would be an insult to the supermarket tabloid”).

What was surprising was the enthusiasm for Koppelman's piece from ostensibly more liberal writers, such as John Cole, and Mark Benjamin. In addition, the article was noted and recommended at numerous web sites, from Gawker to The Daily Beast.

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Benjamin is an interesting, if strange, case. Writing in Time/CNN's blog, Battleland, Benjamin, himself the author of numerous articles on US torture for, wrote, “Alex Koppelman at Adweek does a thorough job of airing the problems in Horton's piece,” adding, “It's worth a read.”

Benjamin never noted in his encomium to Koppelman's piece that he had a prior relationship with Koppelman at, or that he co-authored articles with Koppelman. It never occurs to him to reveal this as any source of potential bias. Perhaps, he might have reflected that both Koppelman and he have cited Horton as a reliable commentator on US policies in the past.

As yet, no one has chosen to analyze Koppelman's article in any depth, though both Harper's Senior Editor Luke Mitchell, Horton and legal professor Mark Denbeaux have all replied at various times to previous criticism, a fact Koppelman never cites in his article.

Denbeaux was the lead author of a Seton Hall University School of Law, Center for Policy and Research study on the Guantanamo “suicides,” “Death in Camp Delta,” and a follow-up answer to DoD's reply to the Horton and Seton Hall investigations, published as “DoD Contradicts DoD: An Analysis of the Response to 'Death in Camp Delta.'”

Koppelman's supposed exposé of Horton's article is a mish-mash of poor analysis, half-truths and misrepresentations of the facts. He relies on the following points, which are reproduced below in the order they appear in the article. In order to examine Koppelman's evidence, and thereby demonstrate the dishonest methodology employed by Koppelman, the counterevidence follows each of Koppelman's arguments.

1) The story had been “well-shopped” around, and had been considered and rejected by Seymour Hersh, ABC News' Brian Ross Investigative Unit, CBS “60 Minutes,” NBC News' chief Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski, and an unidentified New York Times reporter.

Nothing is less convincing than this particular argument. There are many reasons a reporter or news agency may pass on a story. It does not strain credulity too far to say that a story that directly contradicts official DoD investigations may not be acceptable to reporters who value access to Pentagon sources, or who, like Miklaszewski, are involved in national security reportage training, relying to a good extent upon cooperation with DoD personnel.

Besides a quote from Miklaszewski, the only other quote from a journalistic source regarding Horton's article is an anonymous criticism from “one of the reporters who looked into the story.” Why is this source anonymous? Why are they not on the record?

Koppelman studiously ignores in his article news sources and human rights groups that were laudatory of Horton's article, including Amnesty International and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

2) “Horton's main sources were perimeter guards, distant from the prisoners.”

Koppelman's story never says how “distant” the guards were. Army Sgt. Joseph Hickman, the primary source for Horton's article, was in Tower 1, 20 feet away from Sally Port 1 and mere yards away from the Detention Medical Clinic, the activity areas upon which Hickman reports, and perhaps 50 yards from Alpha block, where the prisoners were ostensibly found.

Rather than having a poor perspective on events, the guards, especially Hickman, had a unique overview of camp activities during the critical events that took place. A map labeling the various camp components was published along with the original Harper's article.

Neither Hickman nor the other Army guards on duty around the camp that night were ever interviewed by military investigators. When Hickman brought new witnesses to the attention of the Department of Justice (DOJ), the DOJ failed to follow-up.

3) In an interview with Adweek, Col. Michael Bumgarner, commander of the Joint Detention Group (JDG), the guard force component of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, denied he ever made a speech after the suicides telling guards the media would hear the dead detainees had hanged themselves. Horton reported witnesses as saying Bumgarner said “you all know” the detainees killed themselves by swallowing rags, and then choking to death.

Nothing is stranger, perhaps, than Koppelman's reliance on DoD assurances, not least that of a primary actor in the controversy, Colonel Bumgarner. The JDG commander, who had been at Guantanamo from April 2005 and was due to leave command at the end of June 2006, was stripped of his command only days after the detainees' deaths, possibly for having told the press that each of the detainees had been found with a ball of cloth in their mouths.

The DoD later denied that the dead detainees all had such cloths or “rags” stuffed down their throats, saying, despite evidence from the NCIS investigation to the contrary, that such cloths were present in only one prisoner's mouth.

According to Horton, Bumgarner's speech to the guards, telling them to stick to the hanging story, was derived via a number of sources. Meanwhile, Koppleman asks us to rely on the word of a man who called the detainees under his control totally untrustworthy, as “nothing short of a damn animal that can't be trusted.”

Furthermore, reading the detainees' statements (large PDF) taken by the Criminal Investigative Task Force at Guantanamo in the immediate aftermath of the discovery of the “suicides,” one is struck by the multiple complaints of the “Colonel” for making prison conditions worse during the term of his command.

4) One of the independent autopsies performed at the request of the families of the deceased men wrote a report that “ended with the conclusion that hanging was, in fact, the most likely cause of death.” Moreover, according to Koppelman, “[Swiss pathologist Patrice] Mangin reiterated this point in a press conference.”

Koppelman's fudging of the facts regarding Mangin's autopsy is egregious. In fact, the autopsy report says that the cause of death is mechanical asphyxiation consistent with a hanging, but also “sans pouvoir exclure formellement un autre mécanisme,” that is, unable to formally exclude another mechanism or cause.

The primary reason for the lack of a definitive decision was the decision of US authorities not to provide crucial neck organs – the larynx, the hyoid bone and the thyroid cartilage – whose examination, for instance, could rule out death by hanging versus death by strangulation or other means. The government's autopsy noted that one detainee had a broken hyoid bone. Such an injury, according to forensic experts, is more consistent with strangulation than hanging and quite rare in younger persons.

Mangin was quite explicit about his findings in a March 3, 2007, interview in English with Carol Vann at InfoSud. Mangin told Vann, “There was asphyxiation which could be due to suicide but also to other reasons. We have too little information to make any definitive conclusions…. And above all, what was the state of the missing organs? We have written to the American authorities, but so far we have not had any reply.”

Not only did the DoD stonewall requests for the missing organs to more than one independent autopsy physician, they gave no answer to questions Mangin had surrounding the odd cuttings of the prisoners' toenails and fingernails, removing critical evidence such as DNA or other material to be found under the nails, as there often is in murder cases, in particular strangulation (where the victim often claws the attacker to remove their hands or other mechanical choking device).

That Mangin did not definitively rule the cause of death as suicide by hanging at his press conference, as maintained by Koppelman, also is reported in an Associated Press article on the press conference at the time. Koppelman is totally wrong in his Adweek assertion about Mangin's findings.

5) Army Sergeant Hickman's account of paddy wagons transporting prisoners to a secret black site at Guantanamo, dubbed “Camp No,” is not plausible, and this is backed up by an email from Dwight Sullivan, who'd been chief defense counsel in the Office of Military Commissions, writing at the time to Slate's Jack Shafer, who also wrote a series of articles last year criticizing the Horton article.

Sullivan wrote about the Camp No issue in an impassioned blog post recently, calling Horton's accusations “crazy libel,” “conspiracy theory,” and “Birther/Truther crazy.” Sullivan maintains that the road the paddy wagons took towards Camp No led “to everything on Naval Station Guantanamo other than the detention camps. That road leads to the hospital. That road leads to the commissary. That road leads to the military commission complex. That road leads to a high school. That road leads to housing areas. That road leads to the ferry to the airport. The road leads to a McDonald's, a coffee shop, and my favorite Guantanamo eating establishment, the Jerk House. “

Horton' s own reply to Koppelman appears to answer the charge, explaining. “It's true, of course, that when you drive out and you get on roads, you could take roads almost anywhere, there were connections that went on, but everyone I spoke with said 'No, you would not have driven to that part of the base using that road, there were other roads that would have taken you there much more directly.'”

A look at the map of Guantanamo provided with the original Harper's article shows Camp No to be quite isolated along a road running north of the main prison camp. There is nothing else along that road, and certainly nothing like a McDonalds, or any housing areas. The areas to the east of Camp No, which include some of the areas to which Sullivan alludes, including the camp headquarters, the chapel, the post office, and other buildings from the camp, are eminently reachable and in a much more direct fashion from Camp Delta from a road running west by northwest out of the camp area. (See also this map from The Guantanamo Testimonials Project.) It is difficult to imagine that multiple paddy wagon trips took a long way around to get to other parts of the camp, along a long empty road passing the Camp No area each time. In short, the objections Sullivan raises do not pass the logic test.

Sullivan also quotes in his blog piece a McClatchy news article reporting that former Guantanamo detainee Abdul Zuhoor said the suicides were a plot by Taliban and Arab prisoners at Guantanamo, corroborating charges of “asymmetrical warfare” put forth by camp officials. But, in a lapse of integrity more typical of the charges Sullivan aims at Scott Horton, Sullivan never mentions that the McClatchy reporter cautioned Zuhoor's story “must be taken with some skepticism” as Zuhoor “admitted lying to the tribunal at Guantanamo about a host of things.”

[UPDATE: Sullivan has noted that the McClatchy article he cited was not the article that discussed the issues with Zuhoor’s writing. Sullivan utilized a different article when writing his blog piece. That article did not report on problems with the veracity of Zuhoor’s story, hence Sullivan’s integrity on this issue is not at issue, though his follow-through in terms of researching this point remains problematic.]

6) Hickman may have seen prisoners being transported, but he could not identify them. Furthermore, the timeline he provides contradicts that of “multiple witnesses” who saw the detainees in their cells that evening.

While Hickman could not identify the prisoners, and never claimed he could, the unusual instance of their nighttime transfer piqued his interest, and took on a more ominous light due to the circumstances that followed.

The “multiple witnesses” argument might carry more weight, if there weren't significant problems with the witness statements themselves. As Denbeaux and his team at Seton Hall have described it, the “multiple witnesses” testimony is both dubious and unreliable.

For one thing, the Guantanamo Standard Operation Procedure (SOP) calls for witnesses to a self-harm act to fill out a Form 2823 immediately after a self-harm event (see p. 172, “Emergency Action Plan (EAPs). 32-1. Attempted Actual Self-Harm”). But no sworn statements were ever given until, as Seton Hall wrote, “more than three days after the detainees died and after the official announcement that they hanged themselves.”

Moreover, the statements actually given by the six guards on duty in Alpha Block that night were suspected by NCIS of being false, and the guards were made to sign letters to that effect. Yet, none of the guards' statements have ever been released. Of note, no guard or other personnel on duty at Guantanamo that evening was ever disciplined or charged with anything, despite the fact that numerous SOPs seem to have been ignored (such as the failure to call an emergency “Code Blue” after the discovery of the bodies).

A number of detainees in Alpha Block were also interviewed. Almost all said they had seen or heard nothing, and at least one blamed the Americans for the deaths of the prisoners.

Koppelman's article is not a comprehensive summary of all the purported arguments that have been brought to bear against Horton's reporting, hence, Truthout is not here providing a complete refutation of every argument made by every critic that has been made thus far.

But Koppelman's story gained an inordinate amount of attention, and the credulity with which it was accepted and promoted by a number of people appears to have more to do with animus against Horton's investigation than anything else. While the Seton Hall reports, which together total over 150 pages, are far more comprehensive in answering the DoD investigation, they have not been the subject of detailed critique by these same critics. But then, many fewer people were likely to have read them than the Harper's article. In general, except in passing, Koppelman, like others writing negative hit pieces on the Horton article, have ignored the Seton Hall studies, which fully back Horton's reporting.

Perhaps what the flap over the ASME award demonstrates is that no serious piece of investigative journalism, especially if recognized, that challenges national security narratives will go unattacked. Certainly any piece of journalism can be challenged, and deservedly so, the better to ascertain its credibility. Koppelman's article fails to stand up to scrutiny. It is an unserious poison-pen attack, cavalier with facts, and undetermined to examine what occurred beyond what DoD authorities allege. Those who have jumped on Koppelman's bandwagon should be ashamed of themselves.

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