The inappropriately named Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC) is reputed to have links with Israeli intelligence. On 15 September the organization published a report that was based in part on information from Şefik Dinç. Mr Dinç had been on the Mavi Marmara for the Turkish newspaper Habertürk and has written a book on the raid entitled The Bloodstained Mavi Marmara. At present the book is only available in Turkish. Although there is no reason to doubt the ITIC translations into English, one can certainly criticize the way ITIC has blended its own material with that of Mr Dinç. As they describe it in Section 5:
In some cases we verify those descriptions against the information we have on the confrontation.
In the words then of the late Iraqi arms expert, Dr David Kelly, the account has been “sexed up”.
Mr Dinç apparently is very critical of the Turkish government for not preventing the incident and blames the Turkish charity IHH for insisting on entering Gaza. There is no criticism in the ITIC version of his account of the state of Israel. In considering this one should not forget the legality here. The government of Turkey along with those of Greece, Sweden and Ireland had no reason to stop any of the ships which were acting lawfully. IHH and its partner organizations were legally entitled to enter Gazan waters since the Israeli blockade is unlawful (see report of the UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission – the Hudson-Philips inquiry – plus previous statements from the UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, Professor Richard Falk). As Iara Lee, an eyewitness to the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara, described it
Under an illegal siege, the delivery of aid to civilians is a prohibited act; the intent of our humanitarian convoy was to violate this unjust prohibition.
The blame then for this tragedy must lie squarely with the government of Israel for applying an illegal blockade and ruthlessly enforcing it with the use of unjustified lethal violence by heavily armed troops against civilians. The International Terrorism Disinformation Center never makes these facts clear. Neither does it acknowledge that the defence of the Mavi Marmara, which was basically cobbled together in only a few hours before the attack, was a legal defence of a ship that was the victim of a well-planned, violent, illegal terrorist attack against the civilian passengers and crew.
The language used in the ITIC report betrays the bias. The defenders on the upper deck are twice described as using ”extreme violence”, but the term is never applied to the soldiers. True, the defenders ignored the stated aims of the flotilla and hit boarding soldiers with iron bars and wooden clubs, and hit them again as they lay on the deck. At least one soldier was stabbed. At least two were thrown onto a lower deck where only the intervention of other passengers prevented one of them from being thrown overboard. But one should remember that by this stage two passengers were already dead or dying from Israeli gunshot wounds and the passenger’s violence was certainly exceeded by soldiers who according to Mr Dinç killed nine civilians and injured 30 in about 20 minutes. ITIC apparently has no problem with this violence, or with the fact that the Israeli military initiated it.
The bias later becomes religious prejudice in a sentence in Section 6 which states:
Eight of them [the martyrs] belonged to Islamist Turkish organizations and not one of them was a peace activist or human rights worker.
(Contrary to this libellous assertion, details of the charitable and human rights work of these martyrs can be read on the IHH website.)
But the two most important points of controversy appearing in the ITIC report are the moment at which the Israeli soldiers began to use live fire, and whether the passengers used live fire at all.
On the first point, Section 4 states:
The author’s [Turkish journalist Şefik Dinç’s] description clearly shows that IDF [“Israel Defence Forces”] soldiers did not open fire until after other soldiers were attacked and taken hostage.
In Section 12 it appears that Mr Dinç is saying that the soldiers did not begin to fire live ammunition until after three of their colleagues had been taken below as captives. In other words soldiers on the deck did not commence firing until after they were attacked. This has never been denied by the passengers as far as I am aware. What has been asserted, and what Mr Dinç has not referred to (or the reference has been edited out), is that live fire began from the first helicopter before any of the commandos rappelled onto the deck. This is the version accepted by the UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission, which also gave us the names of the two casualties killed by this initial fire before any soldier had landed on the upper deck.
On the subject of passengers’ use of firearms, Mr Dinç is never quoted by ITIC as offering support for this controversial accusation, which has been categorically denied by the captain along with passengers and reporters. Instead, an ITIC “verification” has been tacked on here in the form of two uncorroborated allegations in footnotes 7 and 8. There is also an allegation that a soldier was shot in the knee. The source for these very important claims is “According to our [ITIC] information…” This is the sole evidence provided for serious charges that passengers had brought at least one firearm on board which had then been fired at the soldiers along with three of the IDF’s own weapons. While this may be sufficient evidence in an Israeli military court on the West Bank, it is entirely inadequate for anyone seeking the truth on the flotilla raid. (Regarding the claim that passengers had fired four firearms at the soldiers, it should be borne in mind that one passenger is an ex-US Marine, and that standard IDF issue Glock semi-automatic pistols have a magazine of 17 rounds which fire as fast as the trigger is pulled. Yet apparently only one soldier was hit in the knee. One might be forgiven for thinking that Hollywood wrote more credible scripts for John Wayne.)
Unfortunately, these unfounded allegations are not new. The IDF has been making these uncorroborated charges since the raid, most notably by Gen Giora Eiland. Gen Eiland headed the nine-person panel of experts that produced a report for the IDF into the raid which reported that the commandos had acted properly. The report has never been released to the public. In a BBC Panorama interview with Jane Corbin, broadcast on 12 August, the general said:
We have very clear evidence that at least in four cases the other side did use live fire. In some of them were Israeli weapons stolen from soldiers but at least in one case they used their weapon, because we found bullets and shells that is not in use in the Israeli forces.
No photographic evidence was produced in support. No details were given. The bullets and shells have never been produced for independent analysis. There is only a scrap of audio material in a video on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website where a voice says in Hebrew that they are receiving live fire and the authenticity of this recording is in dispute. (This has been raised as part of a complaint of bias and lack of balance against the aforementioned BBC Panorama programme.) Gen Eiland’s “clear evidence … in four cases” remains a phantom, and on the face of it a fraud.
(BBC Editorial Guidelines, under the section Impartiality and Diversity of Opinion, state:
We must rigorously test contributors expressing contentious views during an interview whilst giving them a fair chance to set out their full response to our questions.
Ms Corbin did not ask any supplementary question or make any attempt to cross examine the general on this very contentious view. The programme’s deputy editor subsequently denied that Ms Corbin had conducted a “limp interview”.)
Israel holds vast amounts of photographs and film footage, including its own infrared footage which would pick up gun discharges. Only small quantities of carefully selected material have so far been released. We have been shown photographs of weapons stashes from the Mavi Marmara consisting mostly of a variety of kitchen knives and standard tools such as hammers and pipe wrenches. The time is long overdue for the real evidence on the firearms to be produced. Israel should now put up or shut up.
There does of course remain the possibility (probably remote) that Israel has in fact produced credible evidence to the first international inquiry with which it has ever cooperated. The UN Panel of Inquiry, led by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, into the raid is due to report soon (and was originally scheduled to report in late September). Both the Israeli and Turkish governments have been providing evidence to the inquiry and it will be interesting to see how the panel reports. If it criticizes the raid it will be an embarrassment to both Binyamin Netanyahu who has already been lambasted about it by Tzipi Livni, and to Barack Obama who was trying to avoid an unfavourable inquiry by the UN Human Rights Council. If it exonerates Israel, Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s report will be compared unfavourably to the Hudson-Phillips inquiry, which has already declared that there is clear evidence to support prosecution for wilful killing, torture and causing great suffering. Sir Geoffrey’s previous record suggests that he will be taking his remit seriously and will not wish to be seen to impugn his integrity. (But it remains to be seen just how well he will be able to understand the facts from his ivory tower in the UN building in New York.) Either way the fallout could still be problematic for Israel and Mr Netanyahu, as well as certain programme makers at the BBC.
- UK Former General Greases Skids for $1-Billion Helicopter Deal Benefiting Israel’s Elbit Systems (alethonews.wordpress.com)
As if color-coded domestic terror advisories were not vague enough, the U.S. State Department has now issued a travel alert, set to expire on Jan. 31, 2011, for Americans in Europe. According to The New York Times, “The decision to warn travelers came as officials in Europe and the United States were assessing possible plots originating in Pakistan and North Africa, aimed at Britain, France and Germany.” The Christian Science Monitor notes: “Media reports have linked the plot to US drone strikes in Pakistan. But it is unclear whether the Al Qaeda plot was an attempt to respond to the drone strikes, or whether the strikes were intended to disrupt the plot – or both.”
Following are a few excerpts from the State Department teleconference briefing yesterday with Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy, who does not discuss drone attacks on Pakistan but does discuss how important it is, in light of the travel alert, that Americans know how to operate foreign pay phones. Why the Pakistani government does not issue terror advisories of its own is meanwhile called into question by headlines like this one.
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: … [O]ne has to understand how I guess we get to a Travel Alert. It is a cumulative process. The State Department, every day, has personnel who monitor the world, looking at conditions that might have an impact on American citizens, and as information comes on, there could be a eureka moment where there is information that comes to our attention that – bingo, that’s it, we issue the – an alert immediately.
Other situations are cumulative. Bits and pieces of information come together; the State Department is in constant contact with colleagues in the other elements of the United States Government, the intelligence and law enforcement communities, and with allies and friends throughout the world. And as information comes in, it can reach the point where the cumulative effect says: Now is the time to issue a Travel Alert, and the situation, I think, can be really summed up by what Secretary Clinton said as – a couple of days ago, I mean, the – which is that we all know that al-Qaida and its networks of terrorists wish to attack both European and American targets.
QUESTION: … [D]o you remember if there was one country-specific or even continent-specific alert like this after either the London or Madrid bombings?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Let’s see, I am trying to remember back that far and I’m not sure if there was one after either London or Madrid. Let me flip through my notes here and I promise to announce that in a couple of seconds.
QUESTION: Okay. If there’s just – if there’s a way that someone could check, because on the website, you can’t really find the archive of the –
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Right.
QUESTION: The new ones supersede the old ones and so it’s hard to tell –
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Yes.
QUESTION: — from the website if there was one. If someone – it doesn’t have to be you. If someone could just check and –
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Certainly, absolutely.
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: We are not, repeat not, advising Americans not to go to Europe…
Now, we tell them that – basically, to use common sense if they see unattended packages or they hear loud noises or they see something beginning to happen that they should quickly move away from them. These are common sense precautions that people ought to take – don’t have lots of baggage tags on your luggage that directly identify you as an American, know how to use the pay telephone, know how to contact the American embassy if you need help.
QUESTION: …One, is there something you guys know that we don’t that prompted this? Is this based on something that – I think a lot of people are wondering, is – does the government know something that we don’t or is this based on the fact that the Eiffel Tower has been evacuated a couple times and stuff like that. And secondly, are you asking airlines to do something in particular?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Well, first, we don’t – we never discuss intelligence information that has come to our attention. I mean, you can certainly understand that. We certainly don’t want to tip our hand. I again refer to the fact that when we take these steps, which we take very seriously because of the importance of our assisting American citizens, it is a cumulative effect of all types of information that comes to our attention. And so I can’t comment upon any specific piece of intelligence. That would be inappropriate.
On your – and your second question was?
QUESTION: Just are you asking airlines or study abroad programs or anything to do something in particular?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: No. We are not asking Americans or even – we’re not –we’re not recommending, that American citizens of any kind – business, tourism, study abroad – we are not – we are not, not, not saying that they should defer travel to Europe at this time, absolutely not.
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: [W]e’re not saying don’t travel to Europe. We’re not saying don’t visit tourist — major tourist attractions or historic sites or monuments. In the State Department website we offer some very practical situations. Make sure that you’ve registered with the American embassy. If you — avoid public demonstrations, avoid civil disturbances. Don’t discuss your travel plans or where you’re going with others or where others may overhear them. Know what you’re doing, be aware of your circumstances around you. If you see something that looks untoward, move away from it and inform law enforcement personnel. If you see unattended packages, or such, move away from them and inform law enforcement.
Controversy has arisen after Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s comments to the United Nations’ General Assembly on 28 September. During his address the leader of the ultra-right wing Yisrael Beiteinu party outlined his proposal for a “population and territory swap” in the context of establishing an ostensible Palestinian state during this current round of US-brokered direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
His plan, which he first announced in 2004, includes a re-drawing of the borders — moving Palestinian towns and villages currently inside the state to within the confines of a separate Palestinian entity (“Avigdor Lieberman: Olmert’s newest colleague,” Institute for Middle East Understanding, 12 November 2006). This move would be in return for evacuations of some, but not all, settlements in the occupied West Bank. Settlements in occupied East Jerusalem would not be but would be annexed to the State of Israel under Lieberman’s plan. Lieberman, a settler himself, lives in the illegal West Bank settlement of Nokdim.
If the plan is implemented, Palestinians in these areas would immediately become citizens of a Palestinian state, and would be stripped of their Israeli citizenship unless they move to other cities inside an Israeli state. If they decide to move elsewhere within the state, they would be forced to sign a draconian “loyalty oath” — a pledge to protect the “Jewish and democratic” nature of the State of Israel.
“A final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has to be based on a program of exchange of territory and populations … We are not talking about population transfer but about defining borders so as best to reflect the demographic reality,” Lieberman told the UN.
However Lieberman may try to verbally understate his plan’s intentions, many Palestinians consider proposals such as these to be a continuation of ethnic cleansing policies in place since Israel’s establishment in 1948.
“The Palestinian people will not accept, after all [their] sacrifices, to be another victim of injustice,” Dr. Jamal Zahalqa, parliament member and chairman of the National Democratic Assembly bloc, told The Electronic Intifada.
“There are two systems [inside the State of Israel] — one for Palestinians and one for Jews,” he said. “We [the Palestinians inside the state] are challenging the Israeli state in its definition of democracy, and exposing this contradiction between Zionism and democracy. When we say that the state should represent all its citizens, Israeli leaders claim that it’s a Jewish state, that it belongs to one part of the population. We should make a counter-attack against what Israel is demanding — Israel demands of the Palestinians and the Arab world to recognize it as a Jewish state.”
Recently, Palestinian members of the Knesset, or Israel’s parliament, have decried the resumption of US-brokered direct talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. They are protesting the state’s systematic policies of discrimination towards all Palestinians inside the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and those who are citizens of the state itself.
“The current balance of power and the dictates of the United States will make the negotiations a disaster for the Palestinian people,” Raja Aghbarieh of the Abna al-Balad movement told Al-Jazeera Arabic on 9 September (“1948 Palestinians: the save Israel“).
At the same time, there has been a substantial uptick in political arrests of Palestinian human rights activists and leaders around the state fighting the entrenched policies of legalized discrimination espoused by Israeli lawmakers such as Lieberman.
The Electronic Intifada spoke with several Palestinian citizens of the state, and asked them for their reactions towards Lieberman’s plan and the general situation inside their communities.
Raneen Jiries, coordinator of oral history projects at Zochrot, a Tel Aviv-based organization dedicated to raising awareness of the ethnic cleansing of 1948 amongst the Jewish Israeli public, said that she’s glad Lieberman made his comments to the UN last week.
“The policies of the Israeli government haven’t changed since 1948 until today,” Jiries told The Electronic Intifada. “All the racism we see, all the various ethnic transfer plans, the persecution of our leaders, the killing, the confiscating of land, the ongoing expulsions — it’s nothing new. People are not surprised by Lieberman’s suggestions of a population transfer. Israeli officials have always tried to hide this sentiment from the world, and now [Lieberman] came out and said it clearly so everyone can hear it.”
“Now, what do we do?” Jiries added. “Palestinians inside the state, we keep fighting for our rights, as usual. We raise awareness within our community. We go out and demonstrate. We tell the truth about what’s happening in the West Bank and Gaza and inside Israel.”
Asmaa’ Azaizeh, a radio and television reporter from Haifa, told The Electronic Intifada that Lieberman’s statements shouldn’t be a shock.
“I personally think that we shouldn’t take Lieberman’s speech so seriously,” Azaizeh said. “And I assume that many people and political activists and political parties agree with this approach. In fact the idea of transfer is a mental charade that Lieberman leads. It’s not practical. Historically, [former Israeli Prime Minister] Golda Meir and other Zionist politicians have announced the same plan, and it’s never happened — because it can’t.”
“The existence of Palestinians inside Israel is the obstacle in front of officially defining Israel as an apartheid state,” Azaizeh said. “It’s easier for Israel to pretend it is a democratic state — Palestinian citizens get to vote and be in the Knesset. But if a population transfer is committed against us, the international community would immediately recognize Israel as an apartheid state. It already is, in practice — look at what’s happening in the West Bank and Gaza. But the only obstacle in front of Israel as being defined as an official apartheid regime is our existence here, as Palestinians.”
Lieberman’s plan could be a way to psychologically threaten Palestinians inside the state, Azaizeh said, to make them afraid to “commit to the struggle, to call for our rights, and also remain part of the entire Palestinian population and society, connected to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”
“Lieberman is not the most racist politician, and he’s not the most extreme right-wing,” she said. “He’s just the mouth of the state mentality.”
Samieh Jabbarin, a political activist and artist living in Jaffa, was put on house arrest for nearly ten months after he organized protests in his hometown of Umm al-Fahem during the winter 2008-09 attacks on Gaza. Umm al-Fahem is one of the towns that, under Lieberman’s plan, would become part of a separate Palestinian entity.
“I think there are some elements that we need to talk about to understand what’s going on for Palestinians here,” Jabarrin told The Electronic Intifada. “The Olso accords ignored the Palestinians inside ’48 [what is now called "Israel"]. It was a historical shock for us. The bourgeoisie leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization turned to the right, and took a stand with the imperial powers and the Zionists in order to split Palestine into pieces and control it.”
Jabbarin said that Palestinian political consciousness within the state “connects inherently and organically to both sides of the green line [the internationally-recognized armistice line between Israel and the West Bank]” ten years after the beginning of the second intifada.
“Today, we still connect ourselves to Palestinians inside the West Bank and Gaza,” he added. “Our participation in the second intifada wasn’t just a show of solidarity. We showed that there was a political effect against the Oslo agreements.”
Jabbarin said that the current direct talks are leading the general Palestinian population to a similar response. “It’s urgent for people to go out and demonstrate daily,” he said. “The demonstrations that take place here are much more massive, and happen more often than in the West Bank. I think that politically, the energy is here in the ’48 territories. And the next big political or militaristic uprising would be a two-headed enemy: it would struggle against the Vichy government of the Palestinian Authority, and against Zionism itself. And from inside the state, we will help lead the resistance of Palestinians everywhere.”
For his part, Dr. Zahalka said that the responsibility towards justice lies with the international community to recognize the intentions of the Israeli government — and Zionism itself — through these policies. “If the politicians say that it’s an internal matter to describe itself as a Jewish state, this is something that is against even the international values which say that racism is never — in any case — a domestic issue,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
“One of the lessons of the struggle against South African apartheid is very simple: racism should be defeated, not compromised,” he said.
Nora Barrows-Friedman is an award-winning independent journalist, writing for The Electronic Intifada, Inter Press Service, Truthout and other outlets. She regularly reports from Palestine, where she also runs media workshops for youth in the Dheisheh refugee camp in the occupied West Bank.
How Hazardous Waste Ended Up in Our Drinking Water and the Bad Science and Powerful Politics That Keep It There
“Sweden rejected fluoridation in the 1970s and, in this excellent book, these three scientists have confirmed the wisdom of that decision. Our children have not suffered greater tooth decay, as World Health Organization figures attest, and in turn our citizens have not borne the other hazards fluoride may cause. In any case, since fluoride is readily available in toothpaste, you don’t have to force it on people.”—Arvid Carlsson, Nobel Laureate in Medicine or Physiology (2000) and Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology, University of Gothenburg
When the U.S. Public Health Service endorsed water fluoridation in 1950, there was little evidence of its safety. Now, six decades later and after most countries have rejected the practice, more than 70 percent of Americans, as well as 200 million people worldwide, are drinking fluoridated water. The Center for Disease Control and the American Dental Association continue to promote it–and even mandatory statewide water fluoridation–despite increasing evidence that it is not only unnecessary, but potentially hazardous to human health.
In this timely and important book, Dr. Paul Connett, Dr. James Beck, and Dr. H. Spedding Micklem take a new look at the science behind water fluoridation and argue that just because the dental and medical establishments endorse a public health measure doesn’t mean it’s safe. In the case of water fluoridation, the chemicals that go into the drinking water that more than 180 million people drink each day are not even pharmaceutical grade, but rather a hazardous waste product of the phosphate fertilizer industry. It is illegal to dump this waste into the sea or local surface water, and yet it is allowed in our drinking water. To make matters worse, this program receives no oversight from the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency takes no responsibility for the practice. And from an ethical standpoint, say the authors, water fluoridation is a bad medical practice: individuals are being forced to take medication without their informed consent, there is no control over the dose, and no monitoring of possible side effects.
At once painstakingly documented and also highly readable, The Case Against Fluoride brings new research to light, including links between fluoride and harm to the brain, bones, and endocrine system, and argues that the evidence that fluoridation reduces tooth decay is surprisingly weak.
About the Authors
Dr. Paul Connett is the Director of the Fluoride Action Network (FAN), and the Executive Director of its parent body, the American Environmental Health Studies Project (AEHSP). He has spoken and given more than 2,000 presentations in forty-nine states and fifty-two countries on the issue of waste management. He holds a bachelors degree from the University of Cambridge and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Dartmouth College and is a retired professor of environmental chemistry and toxicology at St. Lawrence University. He lives in Canton, New York.
Dr. James S. Beck is a Professor Emeritus of Medical Biophysics at the University of Calgary and holds doctorates in medicine from Washington University School of Medicine and biophysics from the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
H. Spedding Micklem is a Professor Emeritus in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. He holds a D.Phil from the University of Oxford. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Last week’s grotesque revelation about American public health doctors infecting nearly 700 Guatemalans with venereal disease to test penicillin from 1946-48 marked just the start of the U.S. government’s post-World War II abuse of that Central American country.
Indeed, as troubling as the VD experiments were, U.S. administrations from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan would do much worse, treating Guatemala as a test tube for Cold War counterinsurgency experiments that led to the slaughter of some 200,000 people, including genocide against Mayan Indian tribes.
Guatemala’s special place as Washington’s experimental lab for repression began in 1954 when President Eisenhower authorized the CIA to try out new psychological warfare strategies in destabilizing and removing Guatemala’s democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz.
Arbenz had offended U.S. business and government leaders by implementing a land reform project that threatened the massive holdings of United Fruit and by letting leftists compete within the political process.
The CIA ousted Arbenz with a combination of clever propaganda and armed insurrection, leading to a series of repressive military dictatorships that further radicalized Guatemala’s indigenous poor and urban intellectuals.
Washington grew more alarmed after Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution in 1959, his alliance with the Soviet Union and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. As the Cold War heated up with the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson’s administration looked for new strategies to thwart the spread of leftist revolution elsewhere, especially in Latin America.
By the mid-1960s, the United States was assisting the Guatemalan military in developing more refined methods of repression. Guatemala’s first “death squads” took shape under anti-terrorist training provided by a U.S. public safety adviser named John Longon, according to U.S. government documents released in the late 1990s.
In January 1966, Longon reported to his superiors about both overt and covert components of his anti-terrorist strategies. On the covert side, Longon pressed for “a safe house [to] be immediately set up” for coordination of security intelligence.
“A room was immediately prepared in the [Presidential] Palace for this purpose and … Guatemalans were immediately designated to put this operation into effect,” according to Longon’s report.
Longon’s operation within the presidential compound became the starting point for the infamous “Archivos” intelligence unit that evolved into a clearinghouse for Guatemala’s most notorious political assassinations.
Just two months after Longon’s report, a secret CIA cable noted the clandestine execution of several Guatemalan “communists and terrorists” on the night of March 6, 1966.
By the end of the year, the Guatemalan government was bold enough to request U.S. help in establishing special kidnapping squads, according to a cable from the U.S. Southern Command that was forwarded to Washington on Dec. 3, 1966.
By 1967, the Guatemalan counterinsurgency terror had gained a fierce momentum. On Oct. 23, 1967, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research noted the “accumulating evidence that the [Guatemalan] counterinsurgency machine is out of control.” The report noted that Guatemalan “counter-terror” units were carrying out abductions, bombings, torture and summary executions “of real and alleged communists.”
A Diplomat’s Complaint
The mounting death toll in Guatemala disturbed some American officials assigned to the country. The embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Viron Vaky, expressed his concerns in a remarkably candid report that he submitted on March 29, 1968, after returning to Washington. Vaky framed his arguments in pragmatic terms, but his moral anguish broke through.
“The official squads are guilty of atrocities. Interrogations are brutal, torture is used and bodies are mutilated,” Vaky wrote.
“In the minds of many in Latin America, and, tragically, especially in the sensitive, articulate youth, we are believed to have condoned these tactics, if not actually encouraged them. Therefore our image is being tarnished and the credibility of our claims to want a better and more just world are increasingly placed in doubt.”
Vaky also noted the deceptions within the U.S. government that resulted from its complicity in state-sponsored terror.
“This leads to an aspect I personally find the most disturbing of all — that we have not been honest with ourselves,” Vaky said. “We have condoned counter-terror; we may even in effect have encouraged or blessed it. We have been so obsessed with the fear of insurgency that we have rationalized away our qualms and uneasiness.
“This is not only because we have concluded we cannot do anything about it, for we never really tried. Rather we suspected that maybe it is a good tactic, and that as long as Communists are being killed it is alright.
“Murder, torture and mutilation are alright if our side is doing it and the victims are Communists. After all hasn’t man been a savage from the beginning of time so let us not be too queasy about terror. I have literally heard these arguments from our people.”
Though kept secret from the American public for three decades, the Vaky memo obliterated any claim that Washington simply didn’t know the reality in Guatemala. Still, with Vaky’s memo squirreled away in State Department files, the killing went on. The repression was noted almost routinely in field reports.
On Jan. 12, 1971, the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that Guatemalan forces had “quietly eliminated” hundreds of “terrorists and bandits” in the countryside. On Feb. 4, 1974, a State Department cable reported resumption of “death squad” activities.
On Dec. 17, 1974, a DIA biography of one U.S.-trained Guatemalan officer gave an insight into how U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine had imbued the Guatemalan strategies.
According to the biography, Lt. Col. Elias Osmundo Ramirez Cervantes, chief of security section for Guatemala’s president, had trained at the U.S. Army School of Intelligence at Fort Holabird in Maryland. Back in Guatemala, Ramirez Cervantes was put in charge of plotting raids on suspected subversives as well as their interrogations.
The Reagan-Era Slaughter
As brutal as the Guatemalan security forces were in the 1960s and 1970s, the worst was yet to come. For several years the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter took steps to shut down U.S. complicity in Guatemala’s state-sponsored butchery. Besides condemnations from his new human rights office at the State Department, Carter had imposed an embargo on U.S. military aid.
However, that brief period of American disapproval ended with Ronald Reagan’s election in November 1980. Celebrations swept well-to-do communities across Central America as the region’s anti-communist hard-liners were thrilled that they had someone in the White House who understood their problems.
The oligarchs and the generals viewed Reagan as a longtime defender of right-wing regimes that had engaged in bloody counterinsurgency against leftist enemies.
For instance, in the late 1970s, when Carter’s human rights coordinator, Patricia Derian, criticized the Argentine military for its “dirty war” — tens of thousands of “disappearances,” tortures and murders — then-political commentator Reagan joshed that she should “walk a mile in the moccasins” of the Argentine generals before criticizing them. [For details, see Martin Edwin Andersen's Dossier Secreto.]
After his inauguration in 1981, Reagan gave enthusiastic support to right-wing governments in El Salvador and Honduras, while ordering the CIA to organize a counter-revolutionary movement of Nicaraguan exiles to harass and overthrow Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista regime. Reagan also began whittling away at Carter’s arms embargo on Guatemala.
Yet, even as Reagan was looking for ways to support the Guatemalan military, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies were confirming more slaughters by the army of indigenous Guatemalans in the countryside.
In April 1981, a secret CIA cable described a massacre at Cocob, near Nebaj in the Ixil Indian territory. On April 17, 1981, government troops attacked the area believed to support leftist guerrillas, the cable said.
According to a CIA source, “the social population appeared to fully support the guerrillas” and “the soldiers were forced to fire at anything that moved.” The CIA cable added that “the Guatemalan authorities admitted that ‘many civilians’ were killed in Cocob, many of whom undoubtedly were non-combatants.”
Despite the CIA account and other similar reports, Reagan permitted Guatemala’s army to buy $3.2 million in military trucks and jeeps in June 1981. To permit the sale, Reagan removed the vehicles from a list of military equipment that was covered by the human rights embargo.
Apparently confident of Reagan’s sympathies, the Guatemalan government continued its political repression without apology.
According to a State Department cable on Oct. 5, 1981, Guatemalan leaders met with Reagan’s roving ambassador, retired Gen. Vernon Walters, and left no doubt about their plans. Guatemala’s military leader, Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia, “made clear that his government will continue as before — that the repression will continue.”
Human rights groups saw the same picture. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission released a report on Oct. 15, 1981, blaming the Guatemalan government for “thousands of illegal executions.” [Washington Post, Oct. 16, 1981]
But the Reagan administration was set on whitewashing the ugly scene. A State Department “white paper,” released in December 1981, blamed the violence on leftist “extremist groups” and their “terrorist methods,” inspired and supported by Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
Yet, even as these rationalizations were pitched to the American people, U.S. intelligence agencies in Guatemala continued to learn of government-sponsored massacres. One CIA report in February 1982 described an army sweep through the so-called Ixil Triangle in central El Quiche province.
“The commanding officers of the units involved have been instructed to destroy all towns and villages which are cooperating with the Guerrilla Army of the Poor [known as the EGP] and eliminate all sources of resistance,” the report stated. “Since the operation began, several villages have been burned to the ground, and a large number of guerrillas and collaborators have been killed.”
The CIA report explained the army’s modus operandi: “When an army patrol meets resistance and takes fire from a town or village, it is assumed that the entire town is hostile and it is subsequently destroyed.”
When the army encountered an empty village, it was “assumed to have been supporting the EGP, and it is destroyed. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of refugees in the hills with no homes to return to. … The well-documented belief by the army that the entire Ixil Indian population is pro-EGP has created a situation in which the army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and non-combatants alike.”
The Rise of Rios Montt
Yet, as grim as the violence was in 1981, it was only going to get worse.
In March 1982, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, an avowed fundamentalist Christian, seized power in a coup d’etat and immediately impressed official Washington, where Reagan hailed Rios Montt as “a man of great personal integrity.”
By July 1982, however, Rios Montt had begun a new scorched-earth campaign called his “rifles and beans” policy. The slogan meant that pacified Indians would get “beans,” while all others could expect to be the target of army “rifles.” In October, he secretly gave carte blanche to the feared “Archivos” intelligence unit to expand “death squad” operations.
The U.S. embassy was soon hearing more accounts of the army massacring Indians, even as the Reagan administration sought to minimize the bloodshed.
On Oct, 21, 1982, one cable described how three embassy officers tried to check out some of the massacre reports but ran into bad weather and canceled the inspection. Despite the thwarted field trip, the embassy fired off an analysis that the Guatemalan government was the victim of a communist-inspired “disinformation campaign.”
Reagan embraced that claim when he met with Rios Montt in December 1982 and insisted that the Guatemalan government was getting a “bum rap” on human rights.
On Jan. 7, 1983, Reagan formally lifted the military embargo on Guatemala, authorizing the sale of $6 million in military hardware, including spare parts for UH-1H helicopters and A-37 aircraft used in counterinsurgency operations. State Department spokesman John Hughes said political violence in the cities had “declined dramatically” and that rural conditions had improved too.
In February 1983, however, a secret CIA cable noted a rise in “suspect right-wing violence” with kidnappings of students and teachers. Bodies of victims were appearing in ditches and gullies. CIA sources traced these political murders to Rios Montt’s order to the “Archivos” in October to “apprehend, hold, interrogate and dispose of suspected guerrillas as they saw fit.”
These grisly facts on the ground didn’t stop the annual State Department human rights survey from praising the supposedly improved human rights situation in Guatemala. “The overall conduct of the armed forces had improved by late in the year” 1982, the report stated.
A different picture — far closer to the secret information held by the U.S. government — was coming from independent human rights investigators. On March 17, 1983, Americas Watch representatives condemned the Guatemalan army for human rights atrocities against the Indian population.
New York attorney Stephen L. Kass said these findings included proof that the government carried out “virtually indiscriminate murder of men, women and children of any farm regarded by the army as possibly supportive of guerrilla insurgents.”
Rural women suspected of guerrilla sympathies were raped before execution, Kass said. Children were “thrown into burning homes. They are thrown in the air and speared with bayonets. We heard many, many stories of children being picked up by the ankles and swung against poles so their heads are destroyed.” [AP, March 17, 1983]
A Happy Face
Publicly, however, senior Reagan officials continued to put on a happy face.
On June 12, 1983, special envoy Richard B. Stone praised “positive changes” in Rios Montt’s government. But Rios Montt’s vengeful Christian fundamentalism was hurtling out of control, even by Guatemalan standards.
In August 1983, Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores seized power in another coup. Despite the power shift, Guatemalan security forces continued to show little restraint in killing anyone who got in the way, even local U.S. government employees.
When three Guatemalans working for the U.S. Agency for International Development were slain in November 1983, U.S. Ambassador Frederic Chapin suspected that “Archivos” hit squads were sending a message to the United States to back off even mild pressure on human rights.
In late November 1983, in a brief show of displeasure, the U.S. administration postponed the sale of $2 million in helicopter spare parts. The next month, however, Reagan sent the spare parts anyway. In 1984, Reagan succeeded, too, in pressuring Congress to approve $300,000 in military training for the Guatemalan army.
By mid-1984, Chapin, who had grown bitter about the army’s stubborn brutality, was gone, replaced by a far-right political appointee named Alberto Piedra, who was all for increased military assistance to Guatemala.
In January 1985, Americas Watch issued a report observing that Reagan’s State Department “is apparently more concerned with improving Guatemala’s image than in improving its human rights.”
Other examples of Guatemala’s “death squad” strategy came to light later. For example, a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency cable in 1994 reported that the Guatemalan military had used an air base in Retalhuleu during the mid-1980s as a center for coordinating the counterinsurgency campaign in southwest Guatemala – and for torturing and burying prisoners.
At the base, pits were filled with water to hold captured suspects. “Reportedly there were cages over the pits and the water level was such that the individuals held within them were forced to hold on to the bars in order to keep their heads above water and avoid drowning,” the DIA report stated.
The Guatemalan military used the Pacific Ocean as another dumping spot for political victims, according to the DIA report. Bodies of insurgents tortured to death and live prisoners marked for “disappearance” were loaded onto planes that flew out over the ocean where the soldiers would shove the victims into the water to drown, a tactic that had been a favorite disposal technique of the Argentine military in the 1970s.
The history of the Retalhuleu death camp was uncovered by accident in the early 1990s when a Guatemalan officer wanted to let soldiers cultivate their own vegetables on a corner of the base. But the officer was taken aside and told to drop the request “because the locations he had wanted to cultivate were burial sites that had been used by the D-2 [military intelligence] during the mid-eighties,” the DIA report said.
Guatemala, of course, was not the only Central American country where Reagan and his administration supported brutal counterinsurgency operations and then sought to cover up the bloody facts. Nor where these experiments in counterinsurgency strategies strictly limited to the hapless countries where the actual killings occurred.
The Reagan administration also tested out new concepts for deceiving and manipulating the American public, a secret strategy called “perception management” which was viewed as essential to enable the brutal policies in Central America to go forward, by confusing and diffusing any domesitic U.S. opposition. Part of the propaganda strategy involved discrediting journalists and human rights investigators who dug up the grim truth.
For instance, Reagan personally lashed out at a human rights investigator named Reed Brody, a New York lawyer who had collected affidavits from more than 100 witnesses to atrocities carried out by the U.S.-supported contras in Nicaragua. Angered by the revelations about his contra “freedom-fighters,” Reagan denounced Brody in a speech on April 15, 1985, calling him “one of dictator [Daniel] Ortega’s supporters, a sympathizer who has openly embraced Sandinismo.”
Privately, Reagan had a far more accurate understanding of the true nature of the contras. At one point in the contra war, Reagan turned to CIA official Duane Clarridge and demanded that the contras be used to destroy some Soviet-supplied helicopters that had arrived in Nicaragua.
In his memoir, A Spy for All Seasons, Clarridge recalled that “President Reagan pulled me aside and asked, ‘Dewey, can’t you get those vandals of yours to do this job.’”
So, to manage U.S. perceptions of the wars in Central America, Reagan authorized a systematic program of distorting the facts and intimidating American journalists. The project was run by a CIA propaganda veteran, Walter Raymond Jr., who was assigned to the National Security Council staff.
The project’s key operatives developed propaganda “themes,” selected “hot buttons” to excite the American people, cultivated pliable journalists who would cooperate, and bullied reporters who wouldn’t go along.
The best-known attacks were directed against New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner for disclosing Salvadoran army massacres of civilians, including the slaughter of some 800 men, women and children in El Mozote in December 1981.
But Bonner was not alone. Reagan’s operatives pressured scores of reporters and their editors in an ultimately successful campaign to minimize exposure of human rights crimes committed by U.S. clients. [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History or Secrecy & Privilege.]
The tamed U.S. reporters gave the administration a far freer hand to pursue counterinsurgency operations in Central America.
Despite the tens of thousands of civilian deaths and now-corroborated accounts of massacres and genocide, not a single senior military officer in Central America was given any significant punishment for the bloodshed, nor did any U.S. officials pay even a political price.
The U.S. officials who sponsored and encouraged these war crimes not only escaped legal judgment, but many remained respected figures in Washington, with some, like former U.S. Ambassador to Honduras John Negroponte, returning to senior government posts under President George W. Bush.
Reagan has been honored as few recent presidents have with major public facilities named after him, including National Airport in Washington. A major celebration of his 100th birthday is planned for 2011.
The concept of perception management also emerged from the Reagan years as a tested method for manipulating the American people through propaganda and fear. The same tactics were used in 2002-03 to herd the public behind George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
The broader success of perception management and its impact on an intimidated U.S. press corps was revealed, too, in the general disinterest shown by most of the major news media when the historical record about Guatemala’s atrocities was released in the late 1990s.
On Feb. 25, 1999, relying heavily on documents made available by the Clinton administration, a Guatemalan truth commission issued a report on the staggering human rights crimes that U.S. governments from Eisenhower through Reagan had aided, abetted and concealed.
The Historical Clarification Commission, an independent human rights body, estimated that the Guatemalan conflict claimed the lives of some 200,000 people with the most savage bloodletting occurring in the 1980s.
Based on a review of about 20 percent of the dead, the panel blamed the army for 93 percent of the killings and leftist guerrillas for three percent. Four percent were listed as unresolved.
The report documented that in the 1980s, the army committed 626 massacres against Mayan villages. “The massacres that eliminated entire Mayan villages … are neither perfidious allegations nor figments of the imagination, but an authentic chapter in Guatemala’s history,” the commission concluded.
The army “completely exterminated Mayan communities, destroyed their livestock and crops,” the report said. In the northern highlands, the report termed the slaughter a “genocide.”
Besides carrying out murder and “disappearances,” the army routinely engaged in torture and rape. “The rape of women, during torture or before being murdered, was a common practice” by the military and paramilitary forces, the report found.
The report added that the “government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some [of these] state operations.” The report concluded that the U.S. government also gave money and training to a Guatemalan military that committed “acts of genocide” against the Mayans.
“Believing that the ends justified everything, the military and the state security forces blindly pursued the anticommunist struggle, without respect for any legal principles or the most elemental ethical and religious values, and in this way, completely lost any semblance of human morals,” said the commission chairman, Christian Tomuschat, a German jurist.
“Within the framework of the counterinsurgency operations carried out between 1981 and 1983, in certain regions of the country agents of the Guatemalan state committed acts of genocide against groups of the Mayan people,” Tomuschat said.
In 1999, the U.S. national press corps, which had obsessed for months over allegations regarding President Bill Clinton’s sex life, treated the Guatemalan disclosures, including the Reagan administration’s complicity in genocide, as a one-day story that got almost no attention on the 24-hour cable TV networks.
During a visit to Central America, on March 10, 1999, President Clinton apologized for the past U.S. support of right-wing regimes in Guatemala.
“For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake,” Clinton said.
Last week, the Obama administration issued a similar apology for the medical experiments in the 1940s, but there is no indication that either the U.S. government nor the American news media has learned any lasting lessons or will act any differently in the future.
If the United States were really sorry for all the harm it has inflicted on Guatemala — and other developing nations in Latin America and around the world — it might at least dial back next year’s celebrations of Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday. But there is no sign even of that.
[Many of the declassified U.S. government documents regarding Guatemala are posted on the Internet by the National Security Archive.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek.
On Wednesday, in the District Court in Washington D.C., Judge Ellen Huvelle turned down (PDF) a second attempt by the families of Yasser al-Zahrani, a Saudi, and Salah al-Salami, a Yemeni (two of the three men who died in mysterious circumstances in Guantánamo on June 9, 2006, along with Mani al-Utaybi, another Saudi) to hold US officials accountable for the circumstances in which their family members were held and in which they died.
Judge Huvelle’s ruling came in spite of additional evidence submitted by the families (PDF), drawing on the accounts of four US soldiers who were present in Guantánamo at the time of the deaths, and who have presented a number of compelling reasons why the official story of the men’s triple suicide (as endorsed by a Naval Criminal Investigative Service report in 2008) is a cover-up. Those accounts, reported by Scott Horton, were published by Harper’s Magazine in January this year, and I covered it here, and also in an update in June, although it has largely been ignored in the mainstream US media.
The case, Al-Zahrani v. Rumsfeld, was initially filed in January 2009, and primarily involved the families of the dead men seeking to claim damages through the precedent of a case known as Bivens, decided by the Supreme Court in 1971, in which, for the first time, damages claims for constitutional violations committed by federal agents were allowed. The families claimed relief under the Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause (preventing individuals from being deprived of life, liberty, or property without “due process of law”) and the Eighth Amendment (which prohibits the infliction of “cruel and unusual punishments”), as well as submitting a claim, under the Alien Tort Claims Act, “alleging torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and violations of the Geneva Conventions.”
Despite the families’ claims, the case was dismissed by the District Court on February 16, 2010, for two particular reasons. One involved a handful of legal precedents — including Rasul v. Myers, a case brought in 2006 by four former Guantánamo detainees from the UK, which was finally turned down by the Supreme Court in December 2009. In the hope of making tortuous legal reasoning comprehensible to the lay reader, these rulings essentially provide precedents for preventing the courts from providing a Bivens remedy and entitle the defendants to “qualified immunity against plaintiffs’ constitutional claims.”
Rather more readily comprehensible, and deeply shocking, is a clause in the Military Commissions Act, passed by Congress in the fall of 2006 and unchanged in the legislation revived under President Obama in 2009, which, as well as creating — or bringing back to life — the much-criticized Military Commission trial system for Guantánamo prisoners that was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in June 2006, also granted blanket immunity to anyone involved in any activities relating to the detention and treatment of prisoners held in the “War on Terror.”
As Judge Huvelle explained in her opinion:
Specifically, the Court found that the section of the MCA removing from the courts ‘jurisdiction to hear or consider any other action against the United States or its agents relating to any aspect of the detention, transfer, treatment, trial, or conditions of confinement’ of an alien detained and determined to be an enemy combatant by the United States is still valid law.
With these precedents, there was, to be blunt, little hope that Judge Huvelle would grant the complaint filed by the families of Yasser al-Zahrani and Salah al-Salami, even though the families had made an emotional appeal, pointing out:
The fact that Defendants fought to keep secret virtually all information concerning the cause and circumstances of Al-Zahrani and Al-Salami’s deaths from their families, the public and the courts until compelled by FOIA litigation in 2008, and that details of an elaborate, high-level cover-up of likely homicide at a “black site” at Guantánamo are only now emerging nearly four years after the fact, should disturb the Court and caution it against permitting unspecified national security concerns to trump all other factors in this case without question.
Perhaps more to the point, the families of al-Zahrani and al-Salami attempted to persuade Judge Huvelle that “Courts have allowed Bivens claims by detainees in the post-9/11 context to proceed … despite the presence of national security factors,” citing, amongst other cases, Ertel v. Rumsfeld, an ongoing case in Chicago “permitting US citizens detained by the United States in Iraq [former contractors Donald Vance and Nathan Ertel] to bring Bivens claims against Donald Rumsfeld for authorizing their detention and abuse,” and Padilla v. Yoo, another ongoing case (in California), in which Jose Padilla, a US citizen detained as an “enemy combatant” in the United States as part of the “war on terror,” was permitted “to bring a Bivens suit against John Yoo [the lawyer who wrote the Bush administration’s notorious “torture memos”] for authorizing his detention and torture.”
The families also urged the court to “scrutinize bald assertions of national security and secrecy because the government’s account of the risks has in many cases been overblown,” adding, “As an apt case in point, after years of dire warnings to justify the indefinite detention of Guantánamo detainees and forestall court review, the government has by now released the majority of detainees without incident, including approving dozens of detainees for transfer on the eve of habeas review.” For reference, the families drew again on the case of Jose Padilla, citing Padilla v. Hanft, and “observing that the government had ‘steadfastly maintain[ed] that it was imperative in the interest of national security’ to hold Padilla in military custody for three and a half years, yet abruptly changing course on the doorstep of Supreme Court review, seeking to move him into criminal custody, at a ‘substantial cost to the government’s credibility before the courts.’” They also cited the case of Yasser Hamdi, a US citizen held briefly in Guantánamo, who was also held as an “enemy combatant” on the US mainland. In Hamdi’s case, the Bush administration argued that “military necessity required Hamdi’s indefinite detention, yet [the authorities] releas[ed] him to Saudi Arabia seven months later.”
Despite all these arguments, Judge Huvelle was clear in her ruling that, although the allegations were of a “highly disturbing nature,” that alone “cannot be a sufficient basis in law” for the case to be heard. She also explained that the legal precedents established that “matters relating to the conditions of detention in Guantánamo remain the purview of Congress alone — not the courts — due to national security concerns,” as AFP explained.
“The question before the court,” she said, “is not whether homicide ‘exceeds the bounds of permissible official conduct in the treatment of detainees in US custody and demands accountability’ or whether the families of Al-Zahrani and Al-Salami deserve a remedy. Rather, the question is ‘who should decide whether such a remedy should be provided.’”
Following the ruling, Yasser al-Zahrani’s father Talal, spoke for everyone disturbed by the revelations of Joe Hickman and his colleagues, when he stated, “The courts should be investigating my son’s death and holding those responsible accountable. President Obama should be defending human rights and the democratic values the US preaches to the world, rather than going to court to defend the lies and gruesome crimes of the Bush administration.”
Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the lawsuit with William Goodman of Goodman & Hurwitz, P.C. and the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the Washington College of Law, added, “The very secrecy of Guantánamo is what allowed the government to torture and illegally imprison innocent men there for years, as we now know from leaked government memos, whistleblowers, and repeated wins in court in detainees’ habeas cases. Yet the court’s decision today allows secrecy to continue to shroud the truth about these deaths, in the face of compelling evidence of a four-year cover-up of murder.”
With this ruling, it is uncertain how the families of Yasser al-Zahrani and Salah al-Salami can continue their quest for truth and justice, as it appears certain that Congress has no desire to investigate the circumstances of the men’s deaths. Sadly, only one major media outlet, AFP, covered the latest ruling, demonstrating how the story of the men’s deaths is viewed as such a toxic issue by most of the mainstream media that it is being ignored. If you care about what appears to be a particular vile cover-up by parts of the US administration, please do all you can to help to keep this story alive.
Below, I publish the sections of the families’ complaint, submitted as part of the “Motion for Reconsideration,” filed on May 3, 2010, that Judge Huvelle turned down last week, which spell out the deeply distressing story exposed by Harper’s Magazine in January this year.
Excerpts from the “Motion of Reconsideration in Light of Newly Discovered Evidence,” Al-Zahrani v. Rumsfeld, Submitted May 3, 2010
In early 2009, as Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint was pending before this Court, a former soldier by the name of Joe Hickman approached the law school of Seton Hall University, which had produced several reports dealing with the deaths and whose work Hickman had followed. Hickman was a decorated Army officer who had served a distinguished tour of duty at Guantánamo from March 2006 to March 2007 and had been on duty as sergeant of the guard the night Al-Zahrani and Al-Salami died. Hickman said he had decided to come forward with his story because what he had seen “was “haunting me” and he thought that “with a new administration and new ideas I could actually come forward.” While he did not want to speak to the press, he felt that “silence was just wrong.”
On January 18, 2010, Hickman’s account and interviews from three other soldiers under his supervision — Specialist Tony Davila, Army Specialist Christopher Penvose, and Army Specialist David Caroll — were reported by Harper’s Magazine. The article, which serves as the source for this motion and Plaintiffs incorporate in full herein, was the first time Plaintiffs and their counsel became aware of the soldiers’ accounts.
Those accounts are dramatically at odds with the official version of events on June 9-10, 2006. The soldiers describe a cover-up initiated by the authorities within hours of the deaths and say they were affirmatively told not to speak out. Despite having first-hand observations of camp activity that night, they were never approached or interviewed for the NCIS investigation. While the official account of the deaths concluded that Al-Zahrani, Al-Salami and the third deceased, Mani Al-Utaybi, had hanged themselves in their cells, the soldiers’ accounts strongly suggest that the men were transported from their cells to an undisclosed, unofficial “black site” nicknamed “Camp No” that was outside the perimeter of the main prison camp, and died there or from events that transpired there.
Specifically, according to the soldiers’ reported accounts:
• Between approximately 6-8 p.m. on June 9, Hickman observed the van used to transport detainees drive up to the camp where the deceased were held three separate times in short succession. Each time, guards escorted a detainee from the camp to the van and drove away in the direction of Camp No. By the third time he saw the van approach the deceased’s camp, Hickman decided to drive ahead of the vehicle in the direction of Camp No to confirm where it was going. From his vantage point shortly thereafter, he saw the van approach and turn toward Camp No, eliminating any question in his mind about its destination.
• Camp No is an unnamed and officially unacknowledged facility located outside the perimeter of the area enclosing the prison complex at Guantánamo. Guards nicknamed the facility “Camp No” because anyone who asked if it existed would be told, “No, it doesn’t.” Hickman was never briefed about the site, despite frequently being put in charge of security for the entire prison. He reported once hearing a “series of screams” coming from the facility.
• At approximately 11:30 p.m., from his position in a watch tower, Hickman watched the van he had seen transporting the detainees to Camp No return to the camp. This time, the van backed up to the entrance of the medical clinic, as if to unload something.
• At approximately 11:45 p.m., nearly an hour before the NCIS claims the first dead body was discovered in the cells, Army Specialist Christopher Penvose was approached by a senior navy officer who appeared to be extremely agitated and instructed Penvose to go the prison chow hall, identify a specific officer who would be dining there, and relay a specific code word. Penvose did as he was instructed. The petty officer leapt up from her seat and immediately ran out of the chow hall.
• At approximately 12:15 a.m. on June 10, Hickman and Penvose reported that the camp was suddenly flooded with lights and the scene of a frenzy of activity. Hickman headed to the medical clinic, which appeared to be the center of activity, and was told by a medical corpsman there that three dead prisoners had been delivered to the clinic, that they had died because they had rags stuffed down their throats, and that one of them was severely bruised.
• According to Specialist Tony Davila, guards he talked to also said the men had died as the result of having rags stuffed down their throats.
• While the NCIS report’s narrative is that the deceased were found dead in their cells and transported from there to the medical clinic, Penvose, who was on guard duty in a watch tower at the time the deceased would have been transported to the clinic, had an unobstructed view of the walkway between the camp and the clinic, which was the path by which any detainee would be delivered to the clinic. Penvose reported that he saw no detainees being moved from the camp to the clinic.
• Army Specialist David Caroll, who was also on guard duty in another watch tower at the time the NCIS report says the deceased would have been transported to the clinic, also had an unobstructed view of the alleyway that connected the men’s specific cell block to the clinic. He similarly reported that he had seen no detainees transferred from the cell block to the clinic that night.
• By dawn, the news had circulated through the prison that three detainees had committed suicide by swallowing rags.
• On the morning of June 10, Defendant Mike Bumgarner, Commander of the Joint Detention Group at Guantánamo at the time, called a meeting of the guards during which he announced that three detainees had committed suicide during the night by swallowing rags, causing them to choke to death. Defendant Bumgarner said that the media would instead report that the detainees had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells. He said that it was important that the guards make no comments or suggestions that in any way undermined the official report, and reminded them that their phone and email communications were being monitored. This account of the meeting was corroborated by various guards in independent interviews conducted by Harper’s.
• On the evening of June 10, Defendant Harry Harris, Commander of the Joint Task Force at Guantánamo and Defendant Bumgarner’s superior at the time, read this statement to reporters: “An alert, professional guard noticed something out of the ordinary in the cell of one of the detainees. … When it was apparent that the detainee had hung himself, the guard force and medical teams reacted quickly to attempt to save the detainee’s life. The detainee was unresponsive and not breathing. [The] guard force began to check on the health and welfare of other detainees. Two detainees in their cells had also hung themselves.”
• In a press interview at the time, Defendant Bumgarner, contrary to his own admonition to the guards, let slip that each deceased detainee “had a ball of cloth in their mouth either for choking or muffling their voices.”
• As soon as Defendant Bumgarner’s interview was published, Defendant Harris called him for a meeting and told him that the article “could get me relieved.” The same day, an investigation was launched to determine whether classified information had been leaked from Guantánamo. Defendant Bumgarner was subsequently suspended.
• Hickman and Davila later learned that Defendant Bumgarner’s home was raided by the FBI over a concern that he had taken classified materials and was planning to send them to the media or use them for writing a book.
• The only apparent discrepancy between Defendant Bumgarner’s interview and the official Pentagon narrative was on one point: that the deaths had involved cloth being stuffed into the detainees’ mouths.
• For several months after Hickman first came forward, he and his attorneys attempted to pursue an investigation through the Department of Justice. Their first meeting was on February 2, 2009, where they related a detailed account of Hickman’s observations and later handed over a list of corroborating witnesses with contact information. The Justice Department ultimately closed its investigation on November 2, 2009, concluding without explanation that “the gist of Sergeant Hickman’s information could not be confirmed” and his conclusions “appeared” to be unsupported.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK)