"Suicides" at Guantanamo

By Megan McArdle

Perhaps there is another side to this story, as my commenters will no doubt hasten to assure me.  But I'm having trouble seeing what it might be:

According to the NCIS, each prisoner had fashioned a noose from torn sheets and T-shirts and tied it to the top of his cell's eight-foot-high steel-mesh wall. Each prisoner was able somehow to bind his own hands, and, in at least one case, his own feet, then stuff more rags deep down into his own throat. We are then asked to believe that each prisoner, even as he was choking on those rags, climbed up on his washbasin, slipped his head through the noose, tightened it, and leapt from the washbasin to hang until he asphyxiated. The NCIS report also proposes that the three prisoners, who were held in non-adjoining cells, carried out each of these actions almost simultaneously.

Al-Zahrani, according to the report, was discovered first, at 12:39 a.m., and taken by several Alpha Block guards to the camp's detention medical clinic. No doctors could be found there, nor the phone number for one, so a clinic staffer dialed 911. During this time, other guards discovered Al-Utaybi. Still others discovered Al-Salami a few minutes later. Although rigor mortis had already set in--indicating that the men had been dead for at least two hours--the NCIS report claims that an unnamed medical officer attempted to resuscitate one of the men, and, in attempting to pry open his jaw, broke his teeth.

The fact that at least two of the prisoners also had cloth masks affixed to their faces, presumably to prevent the expulsion of the rags from their mouths, went unremarked by the NCIS, as did the fact that standard operating procedure at Camp Delta required the Navy guards on duty after midnight to "conduct a visual search" of each cell and detainee every ten minutes. The report claimed that the prisoners had hung sheets or blankets to hide their activities and shaped more sheets and pillows to look like bodies sleeping in their beds, but it did not explain where they were able to acquire so much fabric beyond their tightly controlled allotment, or why the Navy guards would allow such an obvious and immediately observable deviation from permitted behavior. Nor did the report explain how the dead men managed to hang undetected for more than two hours or why the Navy guards on duty, having for whatever reason so grievously failed in their duties, were never disciplined.

A separate report, the result of an "informal investigation" initiated by Admiral Harris, found that standard operating procedures were violated that night but concluded that disciplinary action was not warranted because of the "generally permissive environment" of the cell block and the numerous "concessions" that had been made with regard to the prisoners' comfort, which "concessions" had resulted in a "general confusion by the guard and the JDG staff over many of the rules that applied to the guard force's handling of the detainees." According to Harris, even had standard operating procedures been followed, "it is possible that the detainees could have successfully committed suicide anyway."

. . .

By dawn, the news had circulated through Camp America that three prisoners had committed suicide by swallowing rags. Colonel Bumgarner called a meeting of the guards, and at 7:00 a.m. at least fifty soldiers and sailors gathered at Camp America's open-air theater.

Bumgarner was known as an eccentric commander. Hickman marveled, for instance, at the colonel's insistence that his staff line up and salute him, to music selections that included Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and the reggae hit "Bad Boys," as he entered the command center. This morning, however, Hickman thought Bumgarner seemed unusually nervous and clipped.

According to independent interviews with soldiers who witnessed the speech, Bumgarner told his audience that "you all know" three prisoners in the Alpha Block at Camp 1 committed suicide during the night by swallowing rags, causing them to choke to death. This was a surprise to no one--even servicemen who had not worked the night before had heard about the rags. But then Bumgarner told those assembled that the media would report something different. It would report that the three prisoners had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells. It was important, he said, that servicemen make no comments or suggestions that in any way undermined the official report. He reminded the soldiers and sailors that their phone and email communications were being monitored. The meeting lasted no more than twenty minutes. (Bumgarner has not responded to requests for comment.)

I usually do not swear on this blog.  But all I can think of is a quote from PJ O'Rourke on seeing young kids shot by the IDF:  "This is bullshit.  This is barbarism."  This is not how a decent country acts, which is presumably why we lied about it.

I expect tomorrow, if Brown wins, we'll hear a lot of talk about a Republican resurgence.  But unless the Republicans can come up with a more convincing program to keep stuff like this from happening--and a more convincing economic program than cutting taxes in the face of record deficits--I don't think they're ready to lead. 

My conservative readers are no doubt winding up to tell me I'm a liberal sellout.  But I don't think it's particularly bleeding heart to think that we shouldn't have to fake suicides to cover up for abusing prisoners.  In fact, I think that's the stance of a hard core believer in law and order.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2010/01/-suicides-at-guantanamo/33708/