WASHINGTON – Three Guantanamo Bay detainees whose deaths were ruled a suicide in 2006 apparently had been transported from their cells hours before their deaths to a secret site on the island, an article in Harper's magazine asserts.
The published account released Monday raises serious questions about whether the three detainees actually died by hanging themselves in their cells and suggests the U.S. government is covering up details of what precisely happened in the hours before the deaths on the night of June 9, 2006.
In response to the magazine article, the Justice Department said Monday that it had thoroughly reviewed the allegations and found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Harper's reported that the deaths of the three detainees, or the events that led directly to their deaths, most likely occurred at a previously undisclosed facility a mile or so from the main Guantanamo Bay prison complex.
Harper's based much of its account on interviews with several prison guards who said they knew of the existence of the "black" site and that they saw three detainees removed from Camp Delta several hours before the deaths were reported and said the prisoners were transported in a white van toward the secret site.
Those who knew of the black facility referred to it as "Camp No," reported the magazine, quoting Army Sgt. Joe Hickman, one of the guards.
Anyone who asked if the black site existed would be told, "No, it doesn't," the magazine reported, quoting Hickman. The article will be published in the magazine's March issue.
After the terror attacks on U.S. soil on Sept. 11, 2001, the CIA set up a number of so-called "black" sites around the world, where harsh interrogations of terrorism-era suspects took place. The Harper's article suggested such a site at Guantanamo Bay may have belonged to the CIA or to the U.S. military's Joint Special Operations Command.
The three Guantanamo detainees were Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, 37, of Yemen; Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi, 30, and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani, 22, both of Saudi Arabia.
The article says that at a 7 a.m. meeting on June 10, 2006 with 50 or so soldiers and sailors, Army Col. Michael Bumgarner said that the three men had died by swallowing rags, causing them to choke to death. Bumgarner was a commander at Guantanamo Bay.
According to the magazine, Bumgarner went on to say that the news media would be guided to report something different — that the three prisoners had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells.
The servicemen were to make no comments or suggestions that in any way undermined the official report, Bumgarner reminded them, according to the Harper's piece, written by Scott Horton, an attorney who has worked for years on Guantanamo Bay detainee issues.
Four guards on duty the night of the deaths gave an account to the magazine that differs from the official account and the four were not interviewed by the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service which looked into the deaths, Harper's reported.
On Monday, in response to the article, Bumgarner said in an e-mail that "this blatant misrepresentation of the truth infuriates me."
Bumgarner said that Hickman "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." Camp 1 is the facility where the three detainees were ordinarily held.
Bumgarner added that he would have to get clearance before he can talk to the news media, "but rest assured, I do want to talk to you very badly and set the record straight."
The month after the Obama administration took office, according to the magazine, a father-son legal team that had been in contact with Hickman met in Washington, D.C., with two Justice Department lawyers and related what Hickman said he had seen the night of the three detainees' deaths. That led to a meeting between Hickman and Teresa McHenry, head of the criminal division's domestic security section at the Justice Department, who told Hickman's lawyers that she was heading up an inquiry, Harper's reported.
Two and one half months ago, McHenry called one of Hickman's lawyers, Mark Denbeaux, and said that the Justice Department was closing the inquiry.
"The department took this matter very seriously," Justice Department spokesperson Laura Sweeney said in response to the Harper's article. "A number of department attorneys extensively and thoroughly reviewed the allegations and found no evidence of wrongdoing."
Denbeaux told the magazine that the recent contact with McHenry "was a strange conversation."
Denbeaux was quoted as saying that McHenry explained that "the gist of Sergeant Hickman's information could not be confirmed."
When Denbeaux pressed for more information, McHenry reiterated that Hickman's conclusions appeared to be unsupported, the magazine added.
Mark Denbeaux is a Seton Hall University law professor who oversaw a recent report on the deaths of the three detainees.
The law school report says 1,700 pages of government-released documents fail to explain how three bodies could have hung in cells for at least two hours while the cells were under constant supervision, both by video camera and by guards continually walking the corridors.