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Mystery Surrounds Guantánamo Detainee’s “Suicide“

Why did key evidence concerning the alleged “suicide” of Guantanamo detainee Al Hanashi go missing?

Why did key evidence concerning the alleged "suicide" of Guantánamo detainee Al Hanashi go missing? (Image: Lance Page / Truthout; Adapted: christophe dune / Flickr)

In January 2002 the US government started incarcerating “war on terror” prisoners at specially built facilities at the Naval base at Guantánamo Bay. On January 25, 2017, a draft executive order by Trump proposed reversing President Obama’s January 2009 executive order to close the Guantánamo detention site.

The Cuba-sited camp was chosen precisely to keep operations there as secret and unaccountable as possible. What happens inside the facility is carefully hidden from public view, and this is especially true when prisoners have died.

Officially, the fifth person to die at Guantánamo was a Yemeni prisoner, Mohammad Saleh Al Hanashi. Authorities ruled his death a suicide, but government documents from the investigation into his June 2009 death, released in May 2015, reveal serious tampering with documentary evidence at the scene, calling into question the legitimacy of the investigation into how he died.

Furthermore, similar tampering seems to have occurred in relation to other detainee deaths. This article will, for the most part, concentrate on the investigation into Al Hanashi’s death, following earlier reporting on his case at Truthout.

Files “Missing and Unrecoverable”

According to a partial Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) release from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS, into their investigation into the June 1, 2009, death of Al Hanashi at Guantánamo, key evidence from a computer detainee tracking and database system was ordered suppressed in the very first minutes after his body was discovered.

Numerous documents in the FOIA release relate how in the first minutes after Al Hanashi’s body was discovered, an unidentified NCIS agent told Guantánamo staff to turn off the computer database, known as the Detainee Information Management System (DIMS), which monitors all interactions with detainees by camp staff. The question of who ordered this became the object of an internal NCIS investigation that has never been revealed in the press until now.

As NCIS agents discovered that the order came from someone within NCIS itself, an internal investigation was begun to discover why this violation of standard operating procedure took place. No final conclusion concerning this investigation was part of the FOIA release, and while NCIS’s FOIA office told this author all materials were in fact released, the NCIS Public Affairs office failed to return multiple requests for further comment about the shutdown of DIMS.

Further irregularities, amounting to evidence of a possible cover-up surrounding Al Hanashi’s death, appear to have taken place later in relation to the computer database files from Guantánamo’s Behavioral Health Unit, where Al Hanashi was incarcerated at the time of his death. Nearly eight months after a FOIA request was filed on the investigation into his death, a July 23, 2012, NCIS memo titled “Missing Material from Dossier” found, “[a]fter an exhaustive search of all sources,” that all the DIMS logs from the Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) for the day of and the day after Al Hanashi’s death were “missing and unrecoverable.” (See Part One, page 5, in documents on this linked page.)

NCIS Memo on Missing Documents 7 23 2012NCIS memo, July 23, 2012, “Missing Material from Dossier.” (Photo: Jeffrey S. Kaye)

Some idea of what was deleted surfaced in another NCIS investigation report from January 2010 — written before all the DIMS records for the day of Al Hanashi’s death and the day after went missing. In this report, the investigating agent noted that the final entry from the DIMS record on the evening Al Hanashi died was “Received medication” (apparently for sleep). The time was 2118, or 9:18 pm. After that, the DIMS record went silent.

The fact that official notification of the missing computer database logs at Guantánamo came only after a FOIA request was filed with NCIS into its investigation of Al Hanashi’s death seems, at least on the surface, suspicious. It suggests that evidence was possibly destroyed after the fact, once deeper journalistic interest in the case was shown.

The missing logs may have included the identity of the person who ordered the DIMS entries turned off, but short of a full-scale investigation with subpoena powers, we will likely never know who that was now.

The NCIS FOIA materials, which are at times heavily censored, discuss other irregularities with the investigation, including the failure to properly maintain the security of evidence central to a verdict of suicide, which was sent by US mail for laboratory analysis.

A Pattern of Suppressing Evidence?

A failure to document key entries into the DIMS computer database during the crucial period surrounding a detainee’s death also occurred during the hours surrounding the September 2012 death of another detainee, Adnan Farhan Abd Al Latif, who, like Al Hanashi, also died in the BHU at Guantánamo. A special Army investigation, called an AR 15-6 report, cited the failure to make entries into the DIMS record at the time of Latif’s death as a violation of camp standard operating procedures.

The Army report said, ” … the lack of entries did make it difficult after the fact to re-create the immediate events leading up to the point that the guards found [Latif] unresponsive.”

Was there a pattern to suppress information from Guantánamo’s computer surveillance and database system in instances of detainees’ deaths?

DIMS is a facility-wide computer logging system used by guards and other Guantánamo personnel to keep copious and detailed notes on every prisoner at the Cuba-based facility. Turning off DIMS entries was a serious violation of Guantánamo procedures. The 2004 Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) manual, released by Wikileaks, has detailed instructions for what should be recorded on DIMS.

Guantánamo authorities watched over detainee behavior very closely. Literally anything of interest was supposed to be recorded in DIMS. The SOP states, “There is always significant activity occurring on a block. There should be no DIMS SIGACT [significant activities] sheet filled out with ‘Nothing to report.'”

The manual notes, “How the detainee reacted, observation by other detainees, and other potentially relevant observations will be annotated in DIMS.”

“Relevant observations” of detainee behavior to be recorded include requests for copies of the Koran; refusals to let their cell be searched; refusal of a meal; visits by non-block personnel; and anything deemed a “significant activity.”

A list of “significant activities” include banging on the cell, “showing reverence to another detainee,” displays of “extreme emotion,” requesting an interpreter, and harming oneself, among others. The SOP notes, “All data entries via DIMS must be specific and complete.”

The system goes back to the early years of the Guantánamo prison. According to a February 17, 2005, statement by then-commander of Joint Task Force Guantánamo, Army Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, the DIMS system “allows us to keep track of nearly every aspect of a detainee’s daily life.”

The Army report on Latif’s death explained, “DIMS is the primary tool used to track day-to-day information about detainees, and is made up of electronic entries regarding each detainee.” Army investigators looking into the Latif case relied on the veracity of DIMS entries as more reliable than eyewitness memories.

Army investigators had much the same to say regarding the DIMS system in an AR 15-6 report on possible Camp Delta SOP violations in the wake of the three Guantánamo “suicides” in 2006.

In late August 2006, the Army’s AR 15-6 report was completed. Its section on DIMS was as follows:

The Detainee Information Management System (DIMS) is the primary system for Camp Delta guards to record everything related to detainee and events that occur in the blocks, as well as the primary system employed by the JDG staff in performance of staff duties….

At the cell block level, guards enter log entries into DIMS at the beginning of each shift, and throughout the shift. These entries are reviewed by Platoon Leaders, Sergeants of the Guard, Block NCOs, and sometimes the FGIW officer, before and during the watch. Because DIMS entries are mandatory, continually updated, and thorough, they provide a significant source of information to the events that occurred on 9 June 2006. (See pages SJA 37-39, and SJA 83 in the Army report.)

In a June 22, 2006, NCIS Investigative Action report on the detainee deaths earlier that month — a “Review of Standard Operation Procedures for Camp Delta, JTF-GTMO” — the NCIS reporting agent explained that DIMS was “used to annotate everything related to a Detainee…. Items to be recorded in DIMS are ‘Meal refusals, conversations, behavioral problems, leadership, prayer leadership, teaching, preaching, rule breaking, coordination with other detainees, movements, requests, everything.'” (See page SJA 237 of Army report.)

The computer database also contained important documents by the guard force (the Joint Detention Group), including a “Daily Block NCO checklist, Random Headcount reports, and Significant Activity Sheets.”

Falsified Computer Data in Earlier “Suicide” Cases

The old computer-related adage — “garbage in, garbage out” — is worth considering as well when it comes to DIMS entries. So, for instance, and crucially, according to the Army AR 15-6 report on the 2006 “suicides,” investigators found that the 2350 (or 11:50 pm) random headcount of detainees the night of the 2006 “suicides” had been “falsely reported” by “an unknown member of the Alpha Block guard team.” Such headcounts, recorded in DIMS, “required immediate visual confirmation of detainee [two or three words redacted] in each cell.”

According to the Army’s investigation, “no guard remembers performing the 2350 headcount.” Yet, the report was there in DIMS.

This is a crucial finding of falsification of evidence contemporaneous to events in the 2006 detainee deaths. It should have been a red flag. But Army investigators minimized the fact that someone was lying about the headcount of cellblock prisoners, three of whom would soon be found dead. Instead, they found the falsification of the cellblock census (which is what a random headcount is) to be “insignificant.” Their reasoning? Medical teams had concluded the bodies were already dead an hour before the 2350 headcount was made.

Army authorities never asked why the headcount was falsified, or explained how they knew it was.

In fact, the falsified headcount is not “insignificant” at all if one concludes the detainees did not die the way the government said they did. That was the conclusion of former Guantánamo guard Joseph Hickman, who maintains in public press accounts and in his own book, that the detainees were brought back dead or nearly dead from a black site from within Guantánamo.

The problems with DIMS that surfaced in the 2006 “suicides” are worth remembering as we turn back to the situation surrounding the death of Al Hanashi.

The Investigation Into Who Shut Down DIMS

The DIMS database documented the “Who, What, When, Where, Why and How” of what went on in Guantánamo’s cell blocks and detainee hospital, and could have provided a contemporaneous timeline of events immediately following the discovery of Al Hanashi’s body, free from the vagaries of memory or dissembling.

The shutdown of the detainee database was no small event. The situation surrounding DIMS was so sensitive that no one I approached would speak to me on the record about it.

An NCIS interim report, dated as early as two days after Al Hanashi died, described the shutdown of DIMS at the time of Hanashi’s death: “The chronology of events surrounding the death of V/Al Hanashi were not logged into the DIMS system allegedly due to an NCIS agent requesting no additional logging take place.” (“V/Al Hanashi,” a term used throughout NCIS reports, stands for Victim Al Hanashi.) Without the DIMS records, there is no way to test the timeline or the veracity of the observations of guards or medical personnel.

The order to halt all logging on the Guantánamo computer database apparently came once Al Hanashi was found unresponsive in his cell and before he was pronounced dead. The individual who made the request was “undetermined.”

By November 2, 2009, five months after his death, Al Hanashi’s case had progressed to initial review by a “Death Review Panel” convened at NCIS’s Southeast Field Office in Mayport, Florida. The panel determined “additional investigative leads should be conducted.” Besides further documentation from the autopsy and the death scene, the panel tasked investigators to “contact NCIS Special Agent [redacted] and clarify her actions during her initial response to V/Al Hanashi’s death and the utilization of the detainee’s Information Management System Database (DIMS).”

On January 8, 2010, another “Investigative Action” memo reported on two telephonic interviews with a female NCIS agent at the scene of Al Hanashi’s death, presumably the same Special Agent mentioned by the Death Review Panel.

This agent told the investigating NCIS agent “she did not instruct any JTF GTMO personnel to cease making entries into the DIMS pertaining to V/Al Hanashi.” Furthermore, investigators said the agent told them “she would not have issued such an order even if she had the authority to do so citing her efforts to encourage documentation.”

This same agent added she didn’t know of any other NCIS agent who would have given such an order.

Interestingly, there were members of other agencies present at the time. According to the female NCIS agent, when she arrived at the death scene along with another NCIS agent, there were two agents of the Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) and an FBI Special Agent “already present at the BHU.”

The female agent making the telephonic statement to NCIS added that she “doubted that any of the aforementioned personnel would have issues [sic] such a directive.”

Who Made the Last DIMS Entry?

Despite all the missing information, in the first weeks of the investigation, NCIS determined via witness interviews of guard and medical staff, as well as “death scene processing,” that the investigation had “failed to identify any suspicious circumstances surrounding V/Al Hanashi’s death.”

Despite the claims of no suspicious circumstances, the mystery over who turned off DIMS entries was never cleared up, even after months, and even years of further investigation.

NCIS investigation reports stated, “None of the aforementioned NCIS Special Agents that processed the death scene and/or initiated investigative actions pertaining to captioned investigation claimed that they instructed any JTF GTMO personnel to cease making entries into DIMS of V/Al Hanashi on 01/02 JUN09. In addition, all the aforementioned NCIS Special Agents advised that they would not have given such an instruction.”

And yet, someone gave the instruction.

One person at Guantánamo, whose name was redacted in the FOIA release, was asked to provide the name of the person who made the last DIMS entry for Al Hanashi. This person told the NCIS investigator “he would have to send the request through his chain of command.”

Why NCIS thought this individual might know who the last person was to make a DIMS entry for Al Hanashi has not been explained, but the NCIS Agent investigating the matter did tell this person to contact NCIS “if he had difficulty obtaining the requested information.”

The FOIA record does not show that any name was ever obtained or reported back to NCIS. There is no record of this request up the chain of command ever being further discussed or acted upon.

Author’s Note: All NCIS investigation documents into the death of Al Hanashi, and other government documents referenced in this article are available online at Guantá The material in this article was adapted from the book, Cover-up at Guantánamo: The NCIS Investigation into the “Suicides” of Mohammed Al Hanashi and Abdul Rahman Al Amri.

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