Andrew Sullivan and I don’t agree on much, but we share a disgust for torture and the abuse of prisoners. I admire this about him and believe he has the potential to be a powerful and influential voice in the defense of human dignity. So it is unfortunate that he undercuts his own credibility on this issue by allowing one of his most noteworthy flaws—gullibly believing outlandish conspiracy theories—to dominate his reasoning.
As I pointed out yesterday, Scott Horton has concocted one of the most elaborate and extensive conspiracy theories to ever be published in a once reputable magazine. His claim is that the murder and cover-up of three prisoners at Guantanamo Bay Prison involves hundreds of people, ranging from enlisted military men to the current President of the United States.
Extraordinary claims, as Carl Sagan used to say, require extraordinary evidence. Yet Horton’s supposition is based on rumors that are so baseless that it is difficult to imagine how any reasonable person could believe them. Sadly, as he proves with his Trig Trutherism, Sullivan is not a reasonable person. It is not surprising that he would take issue with my disdain for his support of Horton’s bizarre conspiracy.
In a post today, Sullivan writes:
Actually, I read thoroughly the Seton Hall report a month ago. I have followed this case very closely. And in my original post on the subject, I wrote: “And the only reason we do not know more about this is because of the criminal cover-up under the Bush administration and the enraging refusal of the Obama administration to do the right thing and open all of it to sunlight.”
In his original post he also wrote, “There are now credible accounts that, far from being suicides, these deaths were either the result of serious negligence in treatment of prisoners under “enhanced interrogation” or that, quite simply, they were tortured so badly in what appears to be a secret Gitmo black site that they died.”
Since Sullivan is basing the “credible accounts” on Scott Horton’s story in Harper’s, let’s examine what evidence for these claims is presented.
. . .these deaths were either the result of serious negligence in treatment of prisoners under “enhanced interrogation . . . — There does appear to be some evidence of negligence in the treatment of the prisoners. Contrary to what Sullivan is implying, though, the report by Seton Hall shows that the prisoners were treated in a manner that was unduly lax. This is unlikely to have prevented them from committing suicide, though it possibly made it easier for the prisoners to carry out.
The contention that they died because of enhanced interrogation techniques it totally without warrant. Like Sullivan, I am as opposed to the use of torture and would be the first to denounce it if there were any evidence that these prisoners had been tortured. But there is not. There is also no evidence that they had been interrogated at all in the months—possibly even years—before their deaths.
As any advocate of enhanced interrogation techniques will admit, they are useful only in the initial phase of the interrogation process. There is no reason to use them on prisoners who have been in custody and interrogated for long periods of time. This is why it would have been useless to torture these prisoners, each of which had been in the prison for four to five years (one prisoner was even scheduled for release to Saudi Arabia, though he did not know it).
. . . or that, quite simply, they were tortured so badly in what appears to be a secret Gitmo black site that they died. — The source for the claim that Gitmo had a “black site” where prisoners were tortured is so eye-rollingly ridiculous that Horton doesn’t even make the dire claim. Here is the support for their being a black site torture center on Gitmo:
When they arrived at Camp Delta, Davila told me, soldiers from the California National Guard unit they were relieving introduced him to some of the curiosities of the base. The most noteworthy of these was an unnamed and officially unacknowledged compound nestled out of sight between two plateaus about a mile north of Camp Delta, just outside Camp America’s perimeter. One day, while on patrol, Hickman and Davila came across the compound. It looked like other camps within Camp America, Davila said, only it had no guard towers and it was surrounded by concertina wire. They saw no activity, but Hickman guessed the place could house as many as eighty prisoners. One part of the compound, he said, had the same appearance as the interrogation centers at other prison camps.
The compound was not visible from the main road, and the access road was chained off. The Guardsman who told Davila about the compound had said, “This place does not exist,” and Hickman, who was frequently put in charge of security for all of Camp America, was not briefed about the site. Nevertheless, Davila said, other soldiers—many of whom were required to patrol the outside perimeter of Camp America—had seen the compound, and many speculated about its purpose. One theory was that it was being used by some of the non-uniformed government personnel who frequently showed up in the camps and were widely thought to be CIA agents.
So a National Guardsman sees an area of the base, doesn’t know what it is, and automatically assumes it’s a torture site for the CIA? What is even more striking than this silly rumor is that Horton doesn’t try to verify this claim or get any other corroborating witnesses. There are over 10,000 military personnel on Gitmo—many who have been there for years and are quite familiar with the base—yet Horton doesn’t talk to any of them. This is, of course, understandable: When you’re building a conspiracy theory you don’t want to get information that might dispute your belief.
I have subsequently complained that then Holder DOJ is refusing to investigate. Carter should not presume that we are all as blindly partisan as he is.
If you can read that last sentence—by a man who has apologized and excused almost every action that Obama has made as President—without giggling like a schoolgirl than you have more composure than I do.
By the fact is that the Holder DOJ did investigate and found—as any reasonable person would do—that the claim that the prisoners were murdered is absurd. What more does Sullivan expect Justice to do? I suspect he won’t be satisfied until Sarah Palin releases her gynecological records showing that she was busy preparing for an unexpected pregnancy and did not have time to fly to Gitmo to torture and kill prisoners.
What is amusing is that Sullivan is quick to dismiss the rather simple Birther conspiracy theory (as he should) but is fully onboard with idea that the U.S. military and federal government agencies pulled off the most complex, massive cover-up in the history of our nation. To be a Birther you only have to believe that someone went back in time and planted a birth announcement in a Hawaii newspaper to cover for Obama. But to believe in the Gitmo murder theory you have to believe in a level of collusion and corruption among so many people and so many levels of government that it would make a 9/11 Truther snicker in disbelief.
Carter also argues that Horton’s entire story rests on one soldier. It doesn’t. It rests on the testimony of “four members of the Military Intelligence unit assigned to guard Camp Delta, including a decorated non-commissioned Army officer who was on duty as sergeant of the guard the night of June 9.”
The core contention of Horton’s story rests on one soldier: Joe Hickman. (To call him a “decorated non-commissioned Army officer” because he once won a commendation medal and an NCO of the Quarter award will sure make veterans chuckle.) The only other soldier mentioned was Army Specialist Christopher Penvose. His sole addition to this story is that he was “instructed Penvose to go immediately to the Camp Delta chow hall, identify a female senior petty officer who would be dining there, and relay to her a specific code word.” Whether this is related to the deaths, no one knows. The other two members—if they exist—are not mentioned in the story.
Hickman’s testimony is that he allegedly saw prisoners—that may or may not have been the ones who died—loaded into a paddy wagon and driven in the direction of an area that he and his buddies speculated might be a building that belonged to the CIA. He claims that some hours later the van returned and drove to the to the entrance of the medical clinic “as if to unload something.”
In February 2009, Hickman met with three people from Obama’s Justice Department: “Rita Glavin, the acting head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division; John Morton, who was soon to become an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security; and Steven Fagell, counselor to the head of the Criminal Division.” He tells them that he saw prisoners loaded into a paddy wagon and driven to what he believed to be a super-secret area of the base. (The guard knows this because he abandoned his watch post to drive a quarter of a mile down the road to see which way the paddy wagon turned.) The paddy wagon then came back, and “backed the vehicle up to the entrance of the medical clinic, as if to unload something.” According to Horton, “For more than an hour, the two lawyers described what Hickman had seen: the existence of Camp No, the transportation of the three prisoners, the van’s arrival at the medical clinic, the lack of evidence that any bodies had ever been removed from Alpha Block, and so on.”
Let’s recap what Hickman told the Justice Department:
1. He told them about his belief that a secret area of Gitmo was a CIA black site.
2. He told them about the transportation of three prisoners
3. He told them a van drove to the medical clinic
4. He told them that there was no evidence any bodies had ever been removed from Alpha Block.
The Justice Department investigated the claims and, as they told Horton, “conducted a thorough inquiry into this matter, carefully examined the allegations, found no evidence of wrongdoing and subsequently closed the matter.”
Of course, Horton is like Sullivan and claiming that the matter has been investigated and found warrantless is ipso facto evidence of a massive cover-up. As Horton says in a follow-up to his article: “Of course, this adamant insistence on official anonymity does nothing to dispel the accusation of cover-up. Just the opposite: it suggests that the lawyers and FBI agents involved quite urgently wish not to have their names associated with it. And who could blame them?”
Let’s review: At Gitmo, three prisoners were murdered and at least two-dozen military personnel (ranging from guards to doctors) were involved in the cover-up of the crimes. NCIS was brought in to investigate—they also aided in the cover-up. The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology was called in to autopsy the bodies—they also aided in the cover-up. The FBI was brought in to investigate the matter—they also aided in the cover-up. The Justice Department was brought in to review the allegations of a cover-up—they also aided in the cover-up.
Do you start to see the pattern here? Horton and Sullivan have created a narrative in which the prisoners were tortured to death and nothing that is contrary to that idea can be submitted as evidence. The absence of any evidence to support this claim is evidence of a cover-up. The absence of any evidence of a cover-up is evidence that higher-level authorities are intervening to ensure the cover-up is not exposed. Once you take the first step on the fetid path of believing in a massive governmental conspiracy, it becomes an infinite regress. It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma!
But let’s return to Sullivan’s post. He writes:
It also rests on the extraordinary lacunae and non-explanations and inconsistencies in the previous Pentagon reports, as analyzed by Seton Hall University.
Let’s look at a passage from the Seton Hall report:
The way in which the investigative files are presented makes it difficult to understand how the investigation was conducted. It produced more than 1,700 pages of interviews and information regarding the events of June 9 and 10, but the evidence obtained as presented is virtually impenetrable. Pages are missing, paragraphs are redacted, and documents with information are disorganized, making it difficult to review any of the evidence obtained through the investigations.
In other words, they are attempting to draw conclusions about the inconsistencies in a report of which they have not seen in full. Even so, there is nothing in the Seton Hall analysis—nothing at all—to suggest that the prisoners were murdered. In fact, the report contradicts some of the claims made by Hickman, specifically that there “was no evidence any bodies had ever been removed from Alpha Block.” This is odd considering that Hickman’s lawyer—Josh Denbeaux—is the head of the Seton Hall project. You would think he would be able to keep the story straight.
[Carter] does not inquire into or rebut the full pattern of evidence we see before us, he simply smears the sources
Let’s be clear: the full pattern of evidence shows that the prisoners committed suicide. The only “evidence” to the contrary is the confused claims of Hickman, who has no firsthand knowledge of anything that about the case.
As in the case of Palin’s bizarre pregnancy stories, the obvious recourse – to simply get the readily available proof and settle the matter for good and all – is dismissed. Why? If you’re so sure that something is true, why would you oppose any serious attempt to test it? And why is a journalist advocating less information rather than more?
As in the case of Sullivan’s bizarre fascination with Palin’s pregnancy, any evidence that doesn’t support his narrative is either dismissed or deemed as inconsequential. Contrary evidence is evidence of a cover-up. The NCIS produced a thorough investigation that proves to any reasonable observer that the deaths were suicides. The FBI and Justice Department reviewed the NCIS investigation and came to the same conclusion. Even the muckraking Seton Hall report doesn’t go so far as to make the bizarre claim that the prisoners were murdered.
I don’t “oppose any serious attempt to test it.” I’ve looked at the evidence and drawn the conclusion that any sane and responsible person would draw. It is not a lack of information that is missing, but a lack of common sense on those who refuse to examine the data.
Carter has made his name as a Christian. It seems to me that very credible evidence that three prisoners may have been tortured to death by the US government would be worth any Christian’s concern. It seems to me that a Christian would want to ensure that this potential horror is investigated by independent sources to ensure that it didn’t take place.
A thorough (1700 page!) investigation took place. The Justice Department reviewed the investigation and did not find anything out of the ordinary. Am I supposed to disregard all of this because an Army sergeant who had no firsthand knowledge of the event came forward three years after the incident with a ridiculous story?
Sullivan also claims to be a Christian. It seems to me that a Christian would want to avoid slandering the good names of many men and women by accusing them of the cover-up of a three murders.
In a war governed by rules that led to widespread torture and murder of prisoners in US custody – again, factually indisputable – it seems to me that a Christian would seek to discover the full truth without relying on ad hominems, avoidance of the majority of the evidence, ignorance of the sourcing, and denigration of a human rights lawyer.
As usual, Sullivan makes making hyperbolic claims that undercut his point. To say that there has been “widespread torture and murder of prisoners in US custody” is to risk being dismissed entirely. What is his evidence for this claim? Yes, torture has been used on prisoners and should be forcefully condemned. But when people find out that there has been not widespread torture and murder they are likely to think that the entire issue is overblown.
Once again Sullivan has hurt the anti-torture cause by making outrageously unsupportable claims. Perhaps if he would temper his boundless passion with a little more reason he would be a more effective advocate for freedom and decency.
See also: Part III, which includes an extended explanation for all the ways in which the Harper piece fails.