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

Horton also spends a paragraph detailing the concerns that Swiss pathologist Patrice Mangin, who led the team that conducted the independent autopsy on Salami, had after concluding his report: injuries in the “oral region” that were too severe to be caused by resuscitation efforts and marks on the prisoner’s neck that were not related to hanging.

Yet Horton left out a key conclusion of Mangin’s report. “The cause of death is most likely the consequence of mechanical asphyxia by violence exercised against the neck as part of a hanging, without being able to formally exclude a different mechanism,” said the report, which was written in French. Mangin reiterated this point in a press conference.

Asked about this omission, Horton emailed: “Mangin’s major point was that without things that were withheld (the original autopsy report backup, the throat matter, etc.), it was not possible to reach a definitive conclusion. [Mangin] stressed that at the time he was trying to coax the Americans to cooperate, but that proved fruitless. . .Earlier drafts of the piece contained much more detailed discussion of the autopsies, including much more from Mangin and comments from Michael Baden, who independently reviewed much of the file, but much of this was taken out as a result of editorial decisions to get the piece down to roughly 8,000 words.”

This elision is hardly the only problem with Horton’s story. Remember the white van from Hickman’s account? The guard saw the van make the left turn where, in Horton’s words, “In that direction, past the perimeter checkpoint known as ACP Roosevelt, there were only two destinations. One was a beach where soldiers went to swim. The other was Camp No.”

But that’s wrong. And had the National Magazine Award judges done a little Googling, they would have known it, too.

Slate’s Jack Shafer—who, along with First Things’ Joe Carter, was one of the sharpest critics of the Harper’s story when it first appeared—reported this back in February 2010. Shafer printed an email he received from Dwight Sullivan, who’d been chief defense counsel in the Office of Military Commissions, in which Sullivan wrote, “After driving from the detention camps and passing the checkpoint, every facility on the Naval Station was a potential destination. This includes facilities to which detainees were sometimes transported, including the main hospital and the military commission building.”

Bumgarner confirms this. The checkpoint, he told Adweek, “is the main entry-exit point for Camp Delta.”

Horton told Adweek, “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.’”

That’s not the only problem with the story about the white van. Hickman only saw three unidentified prisoners; he has no way of knowing whether the men he saw were the ones who died later that night. And in his telling, the men he saw would have all been taken to Camp No between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. But multiple witnesses told government investigators they saw all three of those men in their cells and alive during that time, and even later, until at least 9:30 p.m.

“It’s important to understand that it’s very common that we would have towers calling in to the op center reporting something as if something really crazy’s going on, and it was just normal activity,” Bumgarner says. “It was just their lack of understanding because they didn’t really know what’s going on in that world.”

Horton’s piece had all the elements of a great story: a gripping narrative, a whistle-blower, an explosive expose,  and a murder mystery—not to mention an admirable aim: to speak truth to power. But its approach was less methodical reporting and more conspiracy building, favoring the evidence that supports the conspiracy view and minimizing the evidence that does not.

That approach then received the National Magazine Award seal of approval. Indeed, the award citation calls the story “scrupulously fair.”

ASME refused to identify the editors who acted as the judges in the category.