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For his latest column in The Daily Beast , my friend and former colleague Conor Friedersdorf wonders why conservatives are not more concerned about the purported murder of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay:

With their victory in Massachusetts, Republicans are eager to defeat the Democratic health-care bill and obstruct a big-government domestic agenda that they regard as creeping tyranny. But an article in Harper’s magazine reminds us that the right is far less willing to question government and champion liberty in foreign policy. In the magazine’s March issue, writer Scott Horton provides circumstantial evidence that the United States government covered up the 2006 murders of three Guantanamo Bay detainees.

The official report issued by the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service called the deaths suicides, implausibly claiming that the trio simultaneously hung themselves in separate, non-adjacent cells after binding their own hands and shoving rags down their own throats. Now four military personnel assigned to guard duty on the night in question “provide evidence that authorities initiated a cover-up within hours of the prisoners’ deaths,” Mr. Horton writes, disclosing evidence “that strongly suggests that the three prisoners who died on June 9 had been transported to another location prior to their deaths.” . . .

This new case is nevertheless worth our attention. Beyond the fact that laws were broken and lives extinguished, the Gitmo Three may provide additional proof that the United States perpetrated extreme abuses of power in recent memory—a painful fact that we must acknowledge if we’re to prevent its recurrence.

And yet conservatives are so far content to ignore the story.

Conor has developed an unfortunate tic—oft pointed out by his critics—of calling out conservatives for our myriad failings, whether real or imagined. At times such criticism is helpful, but when it becomes the shtick you are best know for, there is a temptation to overreach. In this case, Conor goes too far and damages his own credibility. It is shocking that someone who is as committed to the promotion of journalism—especially investigative journalism—as he is would give any credence at all to such an embarrassingly shoddy story.

To say that Harper’s Magazine has the credibility of the National Enquirer would be an insult to the supermarket tabloid. For over a decade, Harper’s has been a second-rate liberal rag that fails to produce quality work. The “investigative” piece they published by Scott Horton , who happens to be a human rights lawyer rather than a journalist, is a prime example of why few people—and no one on the right—takes the magazine seriously anymore.

The sheer hubris of Horton’s claim is extraordinary. He would have us believe that 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 was carried out in order to cover up the murder of three low-level prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. This would be enough to give a 9/11 Truther pause, but Conor (and the editors of Harper’s think it is not only entirely plausible but extremely likely . Obviously, there must be strong evidence to overcome the improbability of this level of collusion, right? Well, no. Here is the gist of Horton’s claim:

1. People around Gitmo who had no firsthand knowledge of the prisoners’ deaths heard a rumor that they had committed suicide during the night by swallowing rags, causing them to choke to death.

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. (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.”

Did you connect the dots? The prisoners were pulled out of their cells, driven to a super-secret part of the camp where they were allegedly murdered (by shoving rags down their throats) and then driven to the medical facility. They were later moved <em>back</em> to their cells where an elaborate cover-up involving dozens of people attempted to make the murders look like suicides.

It would be tempting to go line-by-line and pick apart all the flaws in Horton’s piece. Fortunately, that is not needed since anyone who reads the article carefully will see so many obvious holes and find the case is so unpersuasive that it hardly needs rebutting. On every point, Horton accepts without question rumors or hearsay that might imply that the prisoners were murdered. Yet he dismisses out of hand the overwhelming evidence that the deaths were suicide. For example, the fact that medical personnel would attempt to revive one of the prisoners would cast doubt on the claims that the bodies were nearly in rigor mortis when they were found. Also, he mentions only in passing that suicide notes written in Arabic were found in the cells at the time of the incident (a fact noted not only in the NCIS investigation but reported in the New York Times the day after the deaths occurred).

Obviously, when you’re attempting to cover up a murder by making it look like suicide you want to make it as complicated as possible. Finding an Arabic linguist to fake three suicide notes and having a corpsman give CPR to a corpse that has been dead for hours may seem like overkill, especially considering that suicide attempts at Gitmo are quite common (at the time 25 detainees had made 41 suicide attempts). But if you’re going to have a conspiracy that involves two presidential administrations and a half dozen federal agencies, you might as well go the extra mile, right?

Now I’m a skeptical of the government as the next guy. But my skepticism includes the government’s ability to pull off such an elaborate and complex scheme. I’m also think that when an investigation concludes with a 1,700 page report that was reviewed by over a hundred people it is difficult to claim that the process wasn’t thorough. All of that, however, pales in comparison to my inability to believe that the Obama administration would risk their own credibility to cover up murder that happened on Bush’s watch. That strikes me as extremely implausible and no credible narrative for their motives has even been attempted. (Did the Kenya branch of the Illuminati—the one that forged the President’s birth certificate—pressure Obama into going along with the conspiracy?)

If Conor wants to believe a claim that is so outlandish it would make a Birther blush, it’s certainly his prerogative. But for him to call out his fellow conservatives for not following him into the land of creepy conspiracy theories is both lazy and irresponsible. Let’s hope he moves on to doing real investigative work of his own rather than vying for the position of the Right’s premier concern troll .

Update: I had missed that Andrews Sullivan had also written about this story :

As usual, the foreign press cover the new and powerful evidence that the Bush administration was using torture methods so severe they killed prisoners in Gitmo as late as 2006 - and then covered it up with claims of a triple-simultaneous-suicide.

And then today he added :
It is, in my view, simply indisputable that if a Democratic president had tried even an ounce of this, Mark Levin and the GOP would have demanded impeachment a long time ago. Which tells you a lot about what their real principles actually are: power, power and power.

It’s apparent that Sullivan hasn’t done much checking on the story himself. If he had bothered to do his homework (rather than relying on his ghostwriting interns) he might have discovered that a Democratic president— Mr. Obama—is implicated in the purported “cover-up.” According to the AP story that he linked to (but obviously didn’t read), Obama’s Justice Department looked into the the claims and found them baseless. Surely Sullivan isn’t claiming that Obama is in on the cover up too?

I’ve never understood why anyone would ever take Sullivan seriously. His propensity to believe the most outlandish conspiracy theories should make anyone embarressed to be associated with him. But for him to claim that almost 100 military personnel colluded to cover-up the murder of three prisoners and that they were aided in their efforts by NCIS and the Justice Department is beyond the pale.

Are we really going to let him claim—without any evidence at all—that men and women of the U.S. military murdered someone and Obama’s Justice Department covered it up? Will his apologists continue to support his making such stupid and scurrilous remarks without challenge?

See Also:

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)
Harper’s and the “Guantanamo Murders” Conspiracy

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