The National Magazine Award and Guantánamo: A Tall Tale Gets the Prize

Scott Horton's Harper's story about detainees' deaths doesn't hold up

“While Joe seemed like a sincere, nice guy, he just wasn’t in a position to see what he says he saw,” says one of the major news organization reporters who also looked into the story. “With Hickman, literally we had tons of aerial shots of this place, and said, ‘Where were you exactly?’ ‘At what time?’ And we compared that with some of the official reports of the suicide, and it didn’t match up.”

Adweek made multiple attempts to reach Hickman for comment—through his email, and through the team of representatives he’s assembled: literary agent Stu Miller, who says he has represented screenwriting talent like Aaron Sorkin in the past, and through his publicist, Glenn Selig, whose big client has been former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. All were unsuccessful.

This is, in brief, the official version of what happened the night of June 9, 2006, as laid out in thousands of pages from the government’s investigation, which were released under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

A group of detainees at Guantánamo, angry and frustrated about their indefinite captivity and the conditions of it, wanted to make a public relations splash, something that might force the U.S. to close the prison. And so they turned to arguably the most powerful weapon in their limited arsenal: suicide.

Three detainees—Ali Abdullah Ahmed Naser al-Salami, Mana Shaman Allabard al-Tabi, and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani—were the ones who carried out the mission. They did so with the knowledge of at least some of their fellow prisoners. That’s why the men in nearby cells kept quiet, even though prisoners, believing suicide un-Islamic, generally alerted guards to suicide attempts. And that’s also why, at around 8:30 p.m., just a couple hours before the three men hung themselves, a group of prisoners joined together from their cells to sing a Taliban death song.

Salami, Tabi, and Zahrani hung up blankets and propped up mattresses in their cells to make looking in more difficult, but not so difficult as to violate the ad hoc rules of the cell block and attract guards’ attention. When the lights on one side of the tier were turned off at 10 p.m., they went to work. They used some of the “comfort items”—an extra blanket, an extra towel, extra clothes, and so on—they’d been issued to form dummies and fool the guards into believing they were asleep. They made other items into cloth masks with mouthpieces that would prevent them from crying out, or at least muffle any noise. Then each of the men tied a noose to their respective cell’s wall and hung themselves. They hung there undiscovered—maybe because the guards were lax, maybe because the guards had been hamstrung by commanding officers who wanted to keep the peace, probably both—for more than two hours, until they were discovered, one by one, starting sometime a little after 12:30 a.m.

By then, Salami, Tabi, and Zahrani were clearly past any hope of rescue—their bodies had already begun to go into rigor mortis—but they were taken to the nearby clinic anyway, and because there was no doctor there to declare the men dead, medical personnel worked frantically on them, even transporting Zahrani to the base hospital. Around 1:15 a.m., Salami and Tabi were pronounced dead. Thirty-five minutes later, Zahrani was too. 

And this, in brief, is Horton’s version of what happened:

Hickman began his 12-hour shift as sergeant of the guard for the exterior security force at 6 p.m. on June 9, 2006. He began that shift from a perch at Tower 1, which stood above the main entrance to Camp Delta.

Not long after he began working, Hickman saw what he and other soldiers referred to as the “paddy wagon,” a white van typically used to transport prisoners “to medical facilities and to meetings with their lawyers.” In this case, Hickman saw it parked near Camp 1, the section of Camp Delta where the three detainees lived, and watched two Navy guards take a prisoner from Camp 1 and put him in the van. From there, he saw the van take an uncommon route—where normally it would make a right, it made a left, heading toward a checkpoint called ACP Roosevelt. Past that checkpoint, there were only two places it could go: to the beach or to a secret site, which a friend of Hickman’s called “Camp No,” as in, “No, it doesn’t exist.” Soldiers at the detention center speculated about what this “Camp No” really was; one of their theories was that it was used by the CIA.

Hickman had seen the van take this route before, and he was curious about it. So when the vehicle returned about 20 minutes later, and the guards picked up another prisoner, then headed off again in the direction of “Camp No,” he was really interested. Twenty minutes later, the van was back again. Now Hickman had to see where it was going, so he left Tower 1 and drove to ACP Roosevelt, where he watched the paddy wagon drive by and make another turn toward “Camp No.” All this happened before 8 p.m.

Hickman didn’t see much else going on until about 11:30 p.m., when he watched the paddy wagon return again. This time, though, it headed for the medical clinic where it looked like it was dropping something off.

About 45 minutes later, Camp Delta was suddenly abuzz; floodlights on, personnel rushing in. Hickman headed for the clinic, which was the focus of this activity. Once there, he was told three dead prisoners—one of them severely bruised—had been delivered. They had died, a medical corpsman told Hickman, because rags had been stuffed down their throats. Specialist Tony Davila, a friend of Hickman’s, heard the same thing from Navy guards.

Hickman asked his guards what they had seen. Specialists Christopher Penvose and David Caroll both told him they hadn’t seen any detainees taken to the clinic.

That morning the story spread throughout the personnel at the detention facility: Three prisoners had killed themselves by swallowing rags. And then Col. Michael Bumgarner, the warden of the detention facility, held a meeting with at least 50 of the guards. “You all know” the prisoners had killed themselves by swallowing rags, he said, but the media would report instead that they’d hung themselves, and they shouldn’t tell anyone anything different. (In an interview with Adweek, Bumgarner strongly denied giving the speech Horton reports.)

Horton also questioned the autopsies that the military conducted on the three detainees and, in an effort to undermine the official report, offered details from independent autopsies that the detainees’ families had commissioned once the bodies were returned to them. But he left out one key detail. At least one of the independent autopsies ended with the conclusion that hanging was, in fact, the most likely cause of death.

Horton notes, correctly, that the two pathologists who led those independent autopsies (a single pathologist was responsible for examining both Tabi and Zahrani) were concerned that the U.S. government had, because its investigation was still ongoing, not sent parts of the men’s throats that would be key to making a definitive determination of the cause of death.

Continue to next page →