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

Harper’s Magazine and Scott Horton were not supposed to win the National Magazine Award for Reporting this year. Of the five finalists in the category, there were three real contenders, and most people working in the ever-shrinking category of serious magazine journalism were sure the award would go to Rolling Stone for the article by Michael Hastings that led to the downfall of Gen. Stanley McChrystal or The New Yorker for Jane Mayer’s profile of the billionaire Koch brothers.

But Harper’s beat out the two big names, scoring a major upset with Horton’s piece about three detainees at Guantánamo Bay who died in 2006. The government said the men had hung themselves in an effort to bring on a public relations crisis that might force the U.S. to close the prison. But Horton laid out a case that they had in fact been killed—whether deliberately or inadvertently—during a torture session.

In fact, Horton’s story, which the judges for the award—administered by the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) and regarded as the Pulitzer for magazines—found so compelling, was actually a well-shopped one, familiar to some of the most experienced investigative journalists in the business. These included The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh as well as teams from CBS News’ 60 Minutes and ABC News’ Brian Ross Investigative Unit that had looked into the alleged killings and the accounts provided by the men who became Horton’s key sources, and found more flight of fancy than fact. (Horton acknowledges in his story that his source had been in contact with ABC News.)

Jim Miklaszewski, NBC News’ chief Pentagon correspondent, was another of those journalists. He worked on the story off and on for four months, during which time he reviewed “thousands of pages” of documents, interviewed Horton’s main source, and “talked to at least a dozen people.”

“Ultimately I just didn’t find the story credible, quite frankly,” Miklaszewski says. “I devoted a lot of time to it, and my conclusion was that it just didn’t seem possible that that many people could have been involved in a conspiracy and to have [the killings] remain secret. It stretched all credulity, I thought.”

Hersh confirmed to Adweek that he had dug into the story and dropped it too. A New York Times reporter was also approached by the parties who’d been pushing the allegations of homicide and cover-up at Guantánamo, a person close to the situation says.

Only after the big guys passed was the story shopped to Horton. He won for reporting, but in fact the story fell right into his lap, factual flaws and all.

“We couldn’t really believe it when the piece came out,” one of the reporters who looked into the story says. “I can’t believe Harper’s, I really can’t.”

A year before Horton’s article appeared, the man who would become his main source, Sgt. Joe Hickman, contacted Mark Denbeaux, a lawyer and professor at Seton Hall University School of Law in New Jersey, who has represented detainees at Guantánamo. Denbeaux and his students had put together a paper raising questions about the deaths and posted it online, and Hickman—who’d been on duty as a guard at Guantánamo the night the men died—had read it. He had a story about those deaths to tell. So he called Denbeaux and, Horton writes, told the lawyer, “I know some things you don’t.”

Hickman and Denbeaux met in person two days after the phone call. Then, together with Denbeaux’s son, Josh, who’s also a lawyer and who currently represents Hickman, the three men started shopping Hickman’s story around. In February 2009, the Denbeauxes went to the Justice Department, and to Congress, though according to Horton, they broke off their contact with Congress at the DOJ’s request. Then, that spring, they approached 60 Minutes. A team from that show spent at least a month investigating Hickman’s account.  When 60 Minutes opted not to go any further, the Denbeauxes went to ABC News, which spent a considerable amount of time on the story before it, too, decided to drop it.

Both of those news teams spoke with the sources from Guantánamo who are named in Horton’s article. Both determined that their accounts were unconvincing.

What made Hickman and the other sources seem unreliable to the networks? In part it had to do with who and where they were at the detention center at U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay (which includes Camp Delta, where the prisoners who died were housed). Officially, all U.S. military personnel fall under one umbrella, Joint Task Force Guantánamo. But when it comes to actually guarding the prisoners held in Camp Delta, the various branches have very different responsibilities.

The people on the inside of the camp, the ones who actually guard the detainees up close, are Navy. The guards who patrol the exterior of the camp are Army. Hickman and Horton’s three additional main sources were Army. The dozens of witnesses who informed the government’s official report on that night were predominantly Navy.

In other words: Horton’s main sources were perimeter guards, distant from the prisoners.

This was a major sticking point for reporters investigating the deaths.

“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.

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