Earlier this week, the American Society of Magazine Editors, the principal organization for magazine journalists in the United States, announced its 2011 National Magazine Awards Winners and Finalists. In the category for “Reporting,” they gave their prestigious award to Harper's Magazine for “The Guantanamo 'Suicides,'” an article by human rights activist Scott Horton.
The choice for the award is extraordinary, and will no doubt prove controversial. For in his “reporting” Horton has concocted in the once reputable magazine one of the most elaborate and extensive conspiracy theories ever published.
Horton’s article implies that from 2006 to 2009, an unprecedented conspiracy involving Army enlisted and officers, Navy enlisted and officers, the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, the Justice Department, the State Department, the Pentagon, the Bush administration, and the Obama administration in the murders and subsequent cover-up of three low-level prisoners at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Although such an elaborate story would be enough to give a 9/11 Truther pause, Horton, the editors of Harper’s, and the American Society of Magazine Editors think it is not only entirely plausible but that it actually happened.
You might think that for such an esteemed organization to award their top prize for reporting to such a story, there must be strong evidence in its support. But there isn’t. A journalism professor at any third-rate land-grant college would give a student a “D” for comparably shoddy research (and only give them a non-failing grade for producing such a creative effort).
The facts are these: In June 2006, three prisoners at the Guantánamo detention facility hung themselves to death in their cells. Dozens of guards and medical personnel were involved in finding the dead prisoners and transferring their bodies from the prison cellblock to a base medical facility. At the time of the incident, 25 detainees had made 41 suicide attempts. But because these attempts were successful, an investigation into the incident by the Naval Criminal Investigative service was conducted. The final report included 1,700 pages worth of documents and sworn testimony by over fifty witnesses.
Horton’s “reporting” challenges this official narrative of events. He dismisses the testimony of all other witnesses in favor of claims made by three National Guardsman who were neither at the prison block nor at the medical facility. Here is the gist of Horton’s claim:
1. Three soldiers at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, “Gitmo,” none of whom had firsthand knowledge of the prisoners’ deaths, heard a rumor that the prisoners had committed suicide during the night by swallowing rags, causing them to choke to death. This is sufficient reason, in Horton’s view, to suspect the prisoners did not commit suicide.
2. A former National Guard soldier claims to have seen prisoners loaded into a paddy wagon and driven to what he believed to be a super-secret area of the base run by the CIA. (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 returned and “backed the vehicle up to the entrance of the medical clinic, as if to unload something.”
Did you connect the dots? Probably not, but fortunately we have Horton to flesh out “what really happened”: The prisoners were pulled out of their cells, driven to a super-secret section of the camp where they were murdered by CIA agents who shoved rags down their throats during a failed interrogation. After the death of the prisoners, their corpses were then driven to a base medical facility. The dead prisoners were later moved back into their cells where an elaborate cover-up involving over 50 people was launched in an attempt to make the murders look like suicides. Dozens of military personnel then went through the motions of “discovering” the bodies and moving them to the medical facility.
The evidence for all of these claims is non-existent. The core of Horton’s claim is the word of a single National Guardsman who believes that an area of the base unfamiliar to him is a black-ops torture site for the CIA. That is the supposition on which the entire story hangs.
There are over 10,000 military personnel at Gitmo—many who have lived there for years and are familiar with the base—yet Horton never talked to any of them. In fact, Horton never interviewed any of the fifty witnesses who were directly involved with the prisoners. He doesn’t bother to ask why so many people with nothing to gain and everything to lose would lie about the incident. He also never explains why no one has come forward since the story broke to corroborate the claims of the three Guardsmen.
This is, of course, understandable, since when you’re building a conspiracy theory you don’t want to obtain information that might discredit or undermine your belief. But while it is necessary not to ask too many questions when you are developing propaganda, it is no way to conduct award-winning investigative reporting.
I’ve covered almost every detail in the story at some length, so I won’t rehash it all here (see the resources section at the end of this article). Suffice to say that it strains credulity to think that Horton’s story is even remotely possible, much less plausible. I will note, though, that the Justice Department investigated the claims made by the three National Guardsmen 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.”
Because the investigation determined that the claims were warrantless, Horton considers this ipso facto evidence that the DOJ is also involved in a massive cover-up. As Horton wrote in a follow-up to his original 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?”
Horton has created a narrative in which his “truth”—that the prisoners were tortured to death—is reality; 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 this massive governmental conspiracy, you soon find yourself falling into an infinite regress of propositions that must be denied. It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma! And no one but Horton is willing to tell the ruth about What Really Happened!
When the story broke in late January 2010, Slate’s media critic Jack Shafer and I were the only two journalists critical of the story. He noted that, “Except for an Associated Press story, coverage in the British press (the Guardian, the Independent), a piece on television (Countdown With Keith Olbermann), and scattered articles on top Web sites (Slate, Salon, Andrew Sullivan's blog), the major press has largely snubbed the Harper's scoop. And what a scoop.”
“I encourage you to read the Harper's piece yourself, preferably with a red pen in hand,” says Shafer, “to note its slipperiness and many flights of illogic.” Unfortunately, the editors at the ASME failed to take up their red pens and examine the story closely.
They have also failed to address the most important question of all: Why hasn’t this become a bigger story? Fifteen months after the release of one of the most horrifying government scandals in American history, no other media organization has followed up on the story. This story is, if it is true, as significant as the My Lai massacre and Watergate combined.
Let’s be clear about what Horton and Harper’s is claiming—and what the ASME is endorsing. Rather than covering up a third-rate burglary at a Washington, D.C. hotel, they are implying that the military and the Obama administration colluded in covering up three murders on a U.S naval base in Cuba.
Horton is suggesting that either the President has direct knowledge of the cover-up, and is complicit in the murders, or he doesn’t know what is going on and is a stooge for a shadow government able to murder people with impunity and to execute one of the greatest conspiracies in the history of modern politics.
In other words, Scott Horton, the editors of Harper’s magazine, and the American Society of Magazine Editors believe that President Obama is either a puppet leader or an accessory to murder. Which do they believe he is? And why haven't they done more to bring those responsible to justice? A curious public wants to know. Do they think we can’t handle the truth?
Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
Scott Horton, The Guantánamo “Suicides”
Jack Shafer, Suicide or Murder at Guantánamo?
On the Shameful “Murders at Gitmo” Conspiracy
On the Shameful “Murders at Gitmo” Conspiracy (Part II)
On the Shameful “Murders at Gitmo” Conspiracy (Part III)
On the Shameful “Murders at Gitmo” Conspiracy (Part IV)