Guantanamo Detainee Deaths: Responding to the Defense Department’s Whitewash

On December 7, 2009, under the direction of Professor Mark Denbeaux, Seton Hall University School of Law’s Center for Policy & Research (CP&R) published its 15th GITMO report titled, “Death in Camp Delta,” covering three simultaneous deaths on June 9, 2006 in the maximum security Alpha Block. The detainees were found hanged in separate cells shortly after midnight on June 10, unobserved for at least two hours, rags stuffed down their throats, despite constant surveillance by five guards responsible for 28 inmates in a lit cell block monitored by video cameras. One of them was scheduled for release in 19 days, so why would he commit suicide?

The report found “dramatic flaws in the government’s investigation (and) raise(s) serious questions about the security of the Camp (and) derelictions of duty by officials of multiple defense and intelligence agencies,” who either let them die or killed them, then whitewashed the investigation to suppress it.

DOD responded, adding to the coverup, CP&R saying: “The Center has found DOD’s defense contradictory to, and inconsistent with, DOD’s prior statement in its Naval Criminal Investigative Services (NCIS) report.”

According to Professor Mark Denbeaux: “Amazingly, some of DOD’s statements purporting to defend the NCIS investigation actually impeach it; others are irrelevant or misdirected. The inflated number of statements supposedly supporting the NCIS Report are not as important as the statements omitted from the NCIS Report.”

CP&R’s 16th GITMO Report responded to DOD’s thinly veiled defense titled, “DOD Contradicts DOD: An Analysis of the Response to Death in Camp Delta.”

While confirming some of CP&R’s criticisms, DOD also “contradict(ed) factual claims in its own investigation, raising new questions as to whether the DOD can be trusted to investigate its own conduct.” The Center found:

— DOD now says one detainee had a rag in his throat; the NCIS investigation showed all three had them;

— DOD claims over 100 interviews were conducted during the first three days of investigation; in fact, 24 were conducted on June 10 and none the next three days; at most, investigators interviewed 45 individuals in total; in addition, NCIS investigators concluded that testimonies from all on-duty guards on the night of the incident were false, yet their statements are missing; further, most of them either refute or don’t corroborate NCIS findings;

— NCIS had a videotape record of events; DOD said nothing on it contained substantive evidence, an implausible claim as everything is recorded on it; and

— DOD now says the lights were dimmed when detainees hanged themselves; Admiral Harry Harris said they were on.

In its December report, CP&R asked key unanswered questions, including:

— the time and exact means of death;
— how the dead men braided a noose using torn up sheets and/or clothing unobserved and made mannequins of themselves to look like asleep bodies in bed;
— hung sheets to obstruct viewing into their cells;
— stuffed rags down their throats to choke;
— tied their hands and feet together;
— hung the noose from the metal mesh of the cell wall or ceiling;
— climbed on a sink, placed the noose around their necks, released their weight, and were strangled; and
— did all this unobserved for two or more hours.

Yassar Talal Al Zahrani, Mani Shaman Turki Al Habardi Al Tabi, and Ali Abdullah Ahmed were the victims, called suicides by the military within hours as investigations were beginning. Over two years later they were released under court order. Heavily redacted, they were called a coordinated suicide, acts of “asymmetrical warfare” against America.

CP&R findings disagreed, said the investigation was “severely flawed” and the conclusions not supported by the evidence. Seven weeks after the Center’s report, a DOD statement referred to “factual errors” in it. Yet their “assertions are as flawed as the infirm investigation they seek to defend.”

Troublesome are contradictory statements, the number of interviews conducted, conflicting timelines, factual contradictions, “and a general sense of disarray,” suggesting coverup. Sworn statements are required from everyone involved. Only partial ones were gotten, excluded from the NCIS report. Many are third-person summaries. Some suggest witnesses were manipulated to corroborate others. In sum, their statements leave many questions unanswered and contradict DOD’s conclusions.

“The initial investigation into the deaths of three detainees on June 9, 2006, was flawed, the DOD’s response is flawed, and a new investigation is necessary to find out what really happened that night.”

Contradictory DOD and NCIS Statements

DOD Statement: “NCIS special agents who investigated this case found no evidence to suggest that the three detainees died by means other than suicide.”

NCIS considered no other way. Contrary indications were ignored, including not interviewing Tower Guards able to look directly into cells to monitor all movement throughout the facility. Several now contradict the official NCIS account. At least four witnesses have different views of what happened. Why weren’t they interviewed? Why were statements given of questionable value? How can they be considered trustworthy? The “suspect statements are nowhere to be found in the investigative file.” Leaving them out suggests whitewash.

Colonel Bumgarner’s (Camp Delta Joint Detention Group commander) is much like others — a supposed 11-page sworn statement, but he said it’s “this page and two other pages.” It has corrections, changes, and redactions “after nearly every paragraph.”

Physical evidence suggesting murder isn’t considered. Ahmed had a broken hyoid bone, “a distinct sign of manual strangulation.” In suicidal hangings, neck injuries are rare. “This suggests that Ahmed at the least may have died by means other than suicide.” Seven days after the incident, Colonel Bumgarner said in an official statement: “I was still not sure now it had happened.”

DOD Statement: “On the contrary, it was clear from interviews and forensic evidence that these detainees wanted to end their lives and methodically took steps to accomplish that goal.”

No evidence suggests it, including their state of mind. Colonel Bumgarner’s official statement says: “Two of the three had been cleared by Behavioral Health Services just the week prior (to their deaths) and were noted to be in good spirits.”

According to NCIS, the supposed evidence of intent was an unnamed detainee saying on the night of the incident – “tonight’s the night.” Yet nothing confirms it, and if it was known, why wasn’t security tightened? The alleged detainee wasn’t interviewed, and 21 others had no knowledge of planned suicides. Many, in fact, said they would have alerted camp personnel had they known.

In addition, no evidence corroborates a coordinated event or the ability of detainees to communicate. They’re prohibited from conversing, being together in the same place at the same time, passing notes or anything between cells.

Alleged suicide notes on detainee bodies and in their cells had similar, ambiguous wording expressing no explicit intent to commit suicide. None, in fact, indicate a collaborative effort.

DOD Statement: “To hang themselves, they did not need to jump off the sinks as suggested by the author, but only had to apply the necessary pressure to the neck to cut off blood flow.”

This contradicts the NCIS’s report including sworn eyewitness statements saying, “It appeared to me that (they) climbed onto the sink and tied (themselves) off and then jumped from the sink.” Each was found fully suspended close to their sinks, their feet not touching the floor.

CP&R “consistently maintain(s that) the three detainees did not necessarily die in the manner concluded by the DOD’s investigators, and that the evidence in the NCIS file does not support the government’s conclusions.”

DOD Statement: “The knots, which bound their hands (and in one case, the decedent’s feet), were not elaborate, but were indeed possible to make by each of the detainees who died.”

The knots are irrelevant, the materials another matter. Specifically, the noose was braided from “bed sheets and tee shirts,” then tied to the upper wall’s mesh and wrapped multiple times around each detainee’s neck. In addition, autopsy reports indicated their necks had deep furrows and abrasions, described as “intricate weave-type patterns.” Masks also covered their faces, and they were gagged, no doubt to silence them. Further, they have no implements to cut fabrics, and limited amounts, yet Al Zahrani allegedly used a blanket, three sheets, and the braided noose. Inside his cell were a wash cloth, a white color cloth, clothes, a blanket, a rug, and multiple non-fabric items.

It’s suspicious “how so many impermissible items were kept in their cells” or how guards could have been so derelict to allow it.

Neither the original NCIS report or DOD response explains how three detainees, under constant surveillance, managed to:

1. Procure enough material to cover significant areas of their cells

2. Intricately weave fabric bindings

3. Repeatedly knot the bindings

4. Tie the binding material at a point in the cell high enough so that each detainee would be able to suspend fully without their feet touching the ground

5. Wrap the binding around their necks several times

6. Create knots to bind their limbs and torso

7. Gag themselves

8. And somehow hang to death while fully suspended (in plain sight under constant surveillance) without discovery by the guard force [for at least two hours].

Yet camp commander Admiral Harris said guards couldn’t have prevented the “suicides.” In polite terms, his explanation and DOD’s are implausible. More to the point, they’re ball-faced lies.

DOD Statement: “In addition, a short written statement declaring their intent to be martyrs was found in the pockets of the detainees. Lengthier written death declarations were also found.”

Only two of the longer ones were apparently written by the detainees. In Arabic, they were accompanied by English translations, indicating the translator’s interpretation. Key though is most comments suggest no intent to commit suicide. They may have reflected Islamic religious writing, expressions of oppression, or other emotions.

In addition, no collaborative conspiracy is hinted – no meetings, plans or any coordination. “Whether or not the written notes in question are suicide notes, their translations provide no evidence of a conspiracy between the three dead men.”

DOD Statement: “The rulings of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), which determined the cause and manner of death, were wholly consistent with the NCIS investigative findings.”

Inconsistencies, in fact, abound between DOD and NCIS accounts. “Most importantly, the autopsy reports conclude that each detainee was dead for hours before being found… NCIS does not mention this fact in its investigative findings.”

It said all three had rags or cloths in their throats. Only Ahmed’s autopsy report mentions them. Also, only Al Tabi’s autopsy reveals no internal neck hemorrhaging. NCIS claimed all three men died the same way.

When found, they were in rigor mortis, beyond resuscitation. Yet, the autopsy says they were given invasive treatment, using oral-gastric tubes, orally placed endotracheal tubes, intravenous catheters with attached urinary bladder bags, electrocardiogram pads, and defibrillator pads. They also had puncture marks on their arms and hands, and the pathology rulings and NCIS investigation are in sync with the predetermined conclusion.

In addition, NCIS agents witnessed the autopsies, suggesting a collaborative effort for consistency, “two arms of the same investigation… start(ing) with the predetermined conclusion of suicide.”

DOD Statement: “Regarding rags found in the mouth, there was only one rag lodged down the throat of one of the detainees.”

The NCIS investigation contradicts this. Sworn statements said the three men had rags in their throats or mouths and throats. The unredacted evidence “demonstrates beyond a doubt that all three of the detainees had some form of cloth in their mouth, throat, or” both. “DOD’s contention is in direct contradiction with its own investigation.”

DOD Statement: “Rather than being ‘proof’ of homicide, this was due to the detainee himself positioning the rag in his mouth in order not to make any noise so as to alert the guards. The rag was inhaled as a natural reaction to death by asphyxiation.”

CP&R didn’t say rags proved homicide. It criticized NCIS because the investigation never addressed why they were there, that immediately should have raised suspicions. No evidence suggested they were to prevent noise, and investigators didn’t address whether inhaling them is a natural reaction to death by asphyxiation, especially when it occurs by hanging. It’s also unclear how inhaling a rag or cloth is possible with a noose cutting off all air.

DOD Statement: “Blankets and sheets had been used to obstruct the guards’ views and to create the appearance that the detainees were asleep in the cells. During its investigation, NCIS discovered that detainees were allowed to hang sheets for privacy;….”

Obstructing cell views with blankets and/or sheets would have required detainees to violate standard procedures (SOPs), stating:

“Blankets or sheets may be temporarily hung up, no higher than half way up the cell walls, to provide privacy while using the toilet (or to dry). Once the detainee has completed using the toilet, the blankets and sheets must be taken down.” In other words, they may only stay up for minutes, not hours, and not extend from ceiling to floor. Doing so constitutes “a grievous breach of SOPs….”

DOD Statement: “….(T)hey were allowed to have extra linens and/or blankets;….”

True for good behavior, but two of the deceased ended hunger strikes days before their deaths. It’s unlikely they were rewarded, so “raises serious questions.” Further, after the May 18 riots, Camp 1 was on lockdown, the guards and officers on high alert and not about to hand out favors.

DOD Statement: “….(S)ome of the lights in the detention facility were dimmed at night to permit better sleep. This explains how the detainees were able to obscure their actions and why the guards did not discover the deceased detainees right away.”

Whether or not true, it contradicted Admiral Harris saying:

Based on the pathologist’s estimated time of death, (I)f a couple of hours was more than two and a half hours, then the detainees hanged themselves while the tier was fully illuminated.”

Procedures up to June 9, 2006 were to shut overhead lights on one side of the tier (half of them) at 10:00PM. Camp 1 has none inside cells. They’re on the ceiling and shine into cells. Unredacted materials don’t say which side stayed on. No matter, as guards had to maintain a continuous presence on the block, check detainees every 10 minutes, and their skin or movement at least every three hours. Following procedures made it impossible to miss seeing three men hanging for hours.

DOD Statement: “All available video footage was reviewed by NCIS, and nothing of evidentiary value was discovered.”

“Available” leaves much unexplained, including whether key evidence was recorded, despite numerous on-site cameras showing guards removing detainees from cells; taking them through prison hallways; carrying them to the clinic; seeking help, coordinating medical support, and having other cells checked; besides taping three successful suicides.

It’s implausible that cameras failed to notice. NCIS got videotapes on or about June 13, 2006, but no evidence shows they were reviewed. However, Rear Admiral Mark Buzby stated that Guantanamo hallway and common area video monitoring is standard practice.

The NCIC report includes a guard saying clinic videotaping began but was ordered stopped even though it’s generally required – always during self-harm attempts, completions of serious incident reports, and whenever IRF (Immediate Reaction Force) teams are used.

DOD Statement: “NCIS conducted over 100 interviews during the first three days of the investigation, including interviews with all the guards who worked in the cellblock that day and all the detainees who were housed there. None of those interviewed told of any detainees being taken away or alleged homicide.”

At most, 45 total interviews (excluding detainees) were conducted, and most had no first-hand knowledge of the events. During the crucial first three days, only 24 people were interviewed, but none gave first-person statements. On June 14, NCIS began collecting them, days after the deaths.

Statements from the six on-duty guards were most relevant, yet NCIS suspected their reliability and excluded them from their investigation. A select group of others were also, including from one Sally port guard, responsible for controlling access to all persons entering and exiting the camp.

Inexplicably, no tower guards were interviewed, even though they could look directly into cells and monitor all movement in the facility. In addition, only one day-shift guard was interviewed, although four were on duty that day and might have seen suspicious behavior.

DOD Statement: “AFIP sent a senior medical examiner to Guantanamo to perform the autopsies. In addition, an independent, state-level, senior medical examiner flew to Guantanamo to observe the autopsies, standard operating procedure for AFIP in high profile cases.”

Five people witnessed them, likely the same ones in each case. However, medical examiner names were redacted. The AFIP one “conclude(d) that detainees Al Tabi and Ahmed were deceased for ‘at least a couple of hours prior to the discovery.’ ” NCIS excludes this from its report.

DOD Statement: “All the materials released to date have been highly redacted. While Seton Hall students may have done the best they could with what they had, the fact is they only had available to them a small fraction of the reports.”

Redacted material contained many contradictions and unusual events “that cannot be redressed through additional information.”

DOD Statement: “The bodies were thoroughly examined for signs of torture. None was found.”

Autopsy reports and the NCIS statement of findings said nothing about torture. “None of the statements in the investigation file mentions torture.” The investigation only tried to determine if all deaths were suicides and began with that “predetermined conclusion.”

DOD Statement: ” A thorough, years-long investigation by NCIS concluded unequivocally that the detainees’ deaths were the result of suicide. In addition, the Justice Department took this matter very seriously and a number of experienced department attorneys and agents extensively and thoroughly reviewed the allegations and found no evidence of wrongdoing.”

The investigation was a whitewash. Admiral Harris signed off on his assessment on September, 6, 2006, less than 90 days after the deaths. NCIS looked no further. “This investigation was far from ‘years-long;’ indeed, it can barely be described as ‘months-long.’ ” Its brevity weakens DOD’s claim of thoroughness, and questions the overall investigatory seriousness.

Disturbingly, suicides were announced before autopsies occurred, and Admiral Harris claimed “(t)hey hung themselves with fabricated nooses made out of clothes and bed sheets,” contradicting the same day press releases saying the manner of death was under investigation.

While not a formal DOD response, Colonel Bumgarner told AP:

“This blatant misrepresentation of the truth infuriates me. I don’t know who Sgt. Hickman is, but he is only trying to be a spotlight ranger. He knows nothing about what transpired in Camp 1, or our medical facility. I do, I was there.”

Apparently, he never got a clearance, as he said nothing further. Yet this statement alone questions NCIS’s credibility. CP&R’s report said he knew what went on because he was there. Yet his sworn statement to NCIS investigators said he spent the evening with Admiral Harris. At 00:48 June 10, the DOC called him after he returned home, and he immediately drove to the DET Clinic, following the ambulance into the Camp. Before leaving, however, he called Admiral Harris, telling him a suicide attempt occurred. The other deaths were then confirmed. He didn’t know how, but noticed indentations on two detainees’ necks. At 1:17AM, he reported the deaths, over 30 minutes before it was official at 1:50AM.

Final Comments

For years, Republican and Democrat administrations eroded constitutional freedoms and the rule of law, using the courts for hardline enforcement, especially since the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effect Death Penalty Act. It eased surveillance restrictions, included draconian death penalty and habeas-stripping provisions, and smoothed passage of the 2001 Patriot Act and other repressive measures, including authorizing torture as official US policy.

The Bush administration issued a blizzard of Executive Orders, National and Homeland Security Presidential Directives, memos, memoranda, findings, and other official documents authorizing secret detentions, extraordinary renditions, assassinations, military commissions, and torture, even though these practices are prohibited under US and international laws.

A smoking-gun February 7, 2002 Order titled “Humane Treatment of al-Qaeda and Taliban Detainees” stated “none of the provisions of Geneva apply to our conflict with al-Qaeda (or Taliban) detainees in Afghanistan ‘or elsewhere throughout the world….’ ” It meant “terrorist” detainees have no rights. They can be imprisoned, held indefinitely, tried in military commissions (with no right of appeal), tortured and executed.

Other documents authorized anything in the “war on terror,” including supreme presidential power.

A March 14, 2003 memo titled “Military Interrogation of Alien Unlawful Combatants Held Outside the United States” became known as “the Torture Memo” because it swept away all legal restraints and authorized military interrogators to use extreme measures amounting to torture. It also let the president as commander-in-chief use “the fullest range of power….to protect the nation.” (He) “enjoys complete discretion in the exercise of his authority in conducting operations against hostile forces.” It gave him life or death power over anyone called an unlawful combatant, including US citizens.

International law expert Francis Boyle denounced the designation, calling it a:

“quasi-category (of) legal nihilism where human beings (including US citizens) can be disappeared, detained incommunicado, denied access to attorneys and regular courts, tried by kangaroo courts, executed, tortured, assassinated and subjected to numerous other manifestations of State Terrorism” on the pretext of protecting national security.

What George Bush began, Obama continues, including at Guantanamo, despite issuing January Executive Orders banning torture, ordering the facility closed, and directing the CIA to shut its secret prison network.

That was then. This is now. Political persecutions, extraordinary renditions, secret detentions, kangaroo court justice, and torture remain official US policy as part of the administration’s permanent war agenda and continued “war on terror,” renamed the “Overseas Contingency Operation.”

Defiled is Abraham Lincoln’s Lieber Code on humane and responsible behavior toward combatants and civilians in times of war. Also the Hague and Geneva Conventions, Geneva’s Common Article 3, Nuremberg Principles, UN Charter, UN Convention Against Torture, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, US Army Field Manual 27-10, US War Crimes Act and Torture Statute, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and other laws pertaining to crimes of war, against humanity, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

As a result, anyone, anywhere may be abducted, secretly imprisoned, tortured, and murdered in cold blood, the apparent fate of the three Guantanamo detainees CP&R addressed in its 15th and 16th GITMO reports.

Stephen Lendman wrote How Wall Street Fleeces America: Privatized Banking, Government Collusion and Class War. Contact him at: Also visit his blog site and listen to The Global Research News Hour on Mondays from 11AM-1PM US Central time for cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests. All programs are archived for easy listening. Read other articles by Stephen.

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  1. bozh said on February 11th, 2010 at 12:50pm #

    People torture people, americans are people, americans torture people. Well, i finished last in my class but somehow learned of this truth.
    And DOD did not know the self-evident truth? Nor prez-congress-judiciary? So, it means that the prez-congres-judiciary is innocent.
    And US constitution doesn’t say: Ye shall not torture people! So, here we have double safety for all congressp., judiciary [ah, it did declare torture illegal but with a long think; lasting 7 yrs]
    But s’mwhen-s’mhow-s’mwhere [probably watching a football game] the wise judges decided not to enshrine it in the constitution.

    nor have they have enacted law that wld not allow a longer than a day to look at things such as torture.
    Last time judiciary took 7 or is 8 yrs to drag their gesitzen together for a pow-pow on torture; next time it will be at least a bit longer.
    As i often say, when u have a perfect constitution and perfect interpreters of it, u can do anything u want! tnx