The Guantanamo Suicides

5. "You All Know"

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.)

That evening, Bumgarner's boss, Admiral Harris, read a statement to reporters:

An alert, professional guard noticed something out of the ordinary in the cell of one of the detainees. The guard's response was swift and professional to secure the area and check on the status of the detainee. When it was apparent that the detainee had hung himself, the guard force and medical teams reacted quickly to attempt to save the detainee's life. The detainee was unresponsive and not breathing. [The] guard force began to check on the health and welfare of other detainees. Two detainees in their cells had also hung themselves.

When he finished praising the guards and the medics, Harris — in a notable departure from traditional military decorum — launched his attack on the men who had died on his watch. "They have no regard for human life," Harris said, "neither ours nor their own." A Pentagon press release issued soon after described the dead men, who had been accused of no crime, as Al Qaeda or Taliban operatives. Lieutenant Commander Jeffrey Gordon, the Pentagon's chief press officer, went still further, telling the Guardian's David Rose, "These guys were fanatics like the Nazis, Hitlerites, or the Ku Klux Klan, the people they tried at Nuremberg." The Pentagon was not the only U.S. government agency to participate in the assault. Colleen Graffy, a deputy assistant secretary of state, told the BBC that "taking their own lives was not necessary, but it certainly is a good P.R. move."

The same day the three prisoners died, Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly completed a reporting trip to the naval base, where, according to his account on The O'Reilly Factor, the Joint Army Navy Task Force "granted the Factor near total access to the prison." Although the Pentagon began turning away reporters after news of the deaths had emerged, two reporters from the Charlotte Observer, Michael Gordon and photographer Todd Sumlin, had arrived that morning to work on a profile of Bumgarner, and the colonel invited them to shadow him as he dealt with the crisis. A Pentagon spokesman later told the Observer it had been expecting a "puff piece," which is why, according to the Observer, "Bumgarner and his superiors on the base" had given them permission to remain.

Bumgarner quickly returned to his theatrical ways. As Gordon reported in the June 13, 2006, issue of the Observer, the colonel seemed to enjoy putting on a show. "Right now, we are at ground zero," Bumgarner told his officer staff during a June 12 meeting. Referring to the naval base's prisoners, he said, "There is not a trustworthy son of a bitch in the entire bunch." In the same article, Gordon also noted what he had learned about the deaths. The suicides had occurred "in three cells on the same block," he reported. The prisoners had "hanged themselves with strips of knotted cloth taken from clothing and sheets," after shaping their pillows and blankets to look like sleeping bodies. "And Bumgarner said," Gordon reported, "each had a ball of cloth in their mouth either for choking or muffling their voices."

Something about Bumgarner's Observer interview seemed to have set off an alarm far up the chain of command. No sooner was Gordon's story in print than Bumgarner was called to Admiral Harris's office. As Bumgarner would tell Gordon in a follow-up profile three months later, Harris was holding up a copy of the Observer: "This," said the admiral to Bumgarner, "could get me relieved." (Harris did not respond to requests for comment.) That same day, an investigation was launched to determine whether classified information had been leaked from Guantánamo. Bumgarner was suspended.

Less than a week after the appearance of the Observer stories, Davila and Hickman each heard separately from friends in the Navy and in the military police that FBI agents had raided the colonel's quarters. The MPs understood from their FBI contacts that there was concern over the possibility that Bumgarner had taken home some classified materials and was planning to share them with the media or to use them in writing a book.

On June 27, two weeks later, Gordon's Observer colleague Scott Dodd reported: "A brigadier general determined that ‘unclassified sensitive information' was revealed to the public in the days after the June 10 suicides." Harris, according to the article, had already ordered "appropriate administrative action." Bumgarner soon left Guantánamo for a new post in Missouri. He now serves as an ROTC instructor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

Bumgarner's comments appear to be at odds with the official Pentagon narrative on only one point: that the deaths had involved cloth being stuffed into the prisoners' mouths. The involvement of the FBI suggested that more was at issue.

6. "An Unmistakable Message"

On June 10, NCIS investigators began interviewing the Navy guards in charge of Alpha Block, but after the Pentagon committed itself to the suicide narrative, they appear to have stopped. On June 14, the interviews resumed, and the NCIS informed at least six Navy guards that they were suspected of making false statements or failing to obey direct orders. No disciplinary action ever followed.

The investigators conducted interviews with guards, medics, prisoners, and officers. As the Seton Hall researchers note, however, nothing in the NCIS report suggests that the investigators secured or reviewed the duty roster, the prisoner-transfer book, the pass-on book, the records of phone and radio communications, or footage from the camera that continuously monitored activity in the hallways, all of which could have helped them authoritatively reconstruct the events of that evening.

The NCIS did, however, move swiftly to seize every piece of paper possessed by every single prisoner in Camp America, some 1,065 pounds of material, much of it privileged attorney-client correspondence. Several weeks later, authorities sought an after-the-fact justification. The Justice Department — bolstered by sworn statements from Admiral Harris and from Carol Kisthardt, the special agent in charge of the NCIS investigation — claimed in a U.S. district court that the seizure was appropriate because there had been a conspiracy among the prisoners to commit suicide. Justice further claimed that investigators had found suicide notes and argued that the attorney-client materials were being used to pass communications among the prisoners.

David Remes, a lawyer who opposed the Justice Department's efforts, explained the practical effect of the government's maneuvers. The seizure, he said, "sent an unmistakable message to the prisoners that they could not expect their communications with their lawyers to remain confidential. The Justice Department defended the massive breach of the attorney-client privilege on the account of the deaths on June 9 and the asserted need to investigate them."

If the "suicides" were a form of warfare between the prisoners and the Bush Administration, as Admiral Harris charged, it was the latter that quickly turned the war to its advantage.

7. "Yasser Couldn't Even Make a Sandwich!"

When I asked Talal Al-Zahrani what he thought had happened to his son, he was direct. "They snatched my seventeen-year-old son for a bounty payment," he said. "They took him to Guantánamo and held him prisoner for five years. They tortured him. Then they killed him and returned him to me in a box, cut up."
Al-Zahrani was a brigadier general in the Saudi police. He dismissed the Pentagon's claims, as well as the investigation that supported them. Yasser, he said, was a young man who loved to play soccer and didn't care for politics. The Pentagon claimed that Yasser's frontline battle experience came from his having been a cook in a Taliban camp. Al-Zahrani said that this was preposterous: "A cook? Yasser couldn't even make a sandwich!"

"Yasser wasn't guilty of anything," Al-Zahrani said. "He knew that. He firmly believed he would be heading home soon. Why would he commit suicide?" The evidence supports this argument. Hyperbolic U.S. government statements at the time of Yasser Al-Zahrani's death masked the fact that his case had been reviewed and that he was, in fact, on a list of prisoners to be sent home. I had shown Al-Zahrani the letter that the government says was Yasser's suicide note and asked him whether he recognized his son's handwriting. He had never seen the note before, he answered, and no U.S. official had ever asked him about it. After studying the note carefully, he said, "This is a forgery."

Tags: cover up, guantanamo, guantanamo deaths, investigative reporting, shaker aamer, suicides, torture

    • Scott Horton
    • Scott Horton is a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine, where he covers legal and national security issues. As a practicing attorney, Horton has focused on investment in emerging markets. He is also a life-long human rights advocate and serves as a director of the Moscow-based Andrei Sakharov F...

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