Murder in Guantanamo

Ron Ridenhour became a famous journalist, with an annual prize for bravery awarded in his name after his early death at 52. Will Joseph Hickman get one this year?

Victoria Brittain
21 January 2015
My Lai massacre, 1968.

My Lai massacre, 1968. Ronald B.Haeberle/Wikicommons. Public domain.In the wake of the much-redacted partial Senate report on CIA torture of Muslim prisoners in secret prisons across the world no American is, yet, facing trial, as international law against torture demands.

Two CIA secret sites inside Guantanamo – codenamed Maroon and Indigo – were identified in the Senate report, but did not get the attention they deserve. That could change. A new book charges that CIA operatives murdered three prisoners in a secret camp inside Guantanamo on the night of June 9 2006. It describes too how the camp hierarchy and the official Naval Criminal Investigation Service orchestrated a cover-up of the crimes by reporting the deaths as suicides inside the mens’ own cells. This information should be the basis of trials for murder and perversion of the course of justice.

Joseph Hickman, now 50, was a marine and then a soldier in the army and the National Guard, a veteran of US foreign wars, a prison guard, and the recipient of more than 20 awards and commendations. Ronald Reagan is his favourite US president and he describes himself as a conservative. As a Staff Sergeant at Guantanamo Bay he was with a Military Intelligence battalion. He was the first soldier to fire on prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. But, with a chance offer to cover the night shift as Sergeant of the Guard for a friend with a severe migraine on June 9 2006, Hickman was transformed into the most significant whistleblower on Guantanamo in the 13 years of its war on terror history. He is now an Adjunct Professor and Senior Research Fellow at a prestigious law school.

Murder at Camp Delta, published on January 20 by Simon and Schuster in the US, goes far beyond what Hickman and other soldiers saw that night as the guards in charge of observing all exits and entrances of Camp 1 and the rest of Camp America. It describes too the research done independently by Seton Hall University Law School into the official NCIS report.

The university team discovered that every page of the report had been carefully vetted, redacted, and released with erratic page numbering making it almost impossible to follow. There were major contradictions of witnesses – including whether one victim was actually still alive when he arrived at the medical faculty or whether all three had total rigor mortis. Another stunning finding was a two line statement from an unidentified CID officer that “the page or pages from 9 june 2006 were not available for me to examine. The page or pages pertaining to 9 june are missing from the log book.”

Professor Mark Denbeaux, who heads the law school Guantanamo programme, has for years led the field in research into Guantanamo using careful examination of US government documents to explode one official narrative after another. When Hickman initially phoned him the professor simply did not believe the story of what the staff sergeant said he had seen, which pointed to three murders by the CIA and a mammoth cover up – it was just too big. But after speaking independently to a number of other guards on duty that night who all confirmed that no one could have died in their cells in Alpha block without being seen, and that no one was taken from the cell block to the medical facility, Denbeaux knew it was the worst Guantanamo story of all that he and his researchers had seen.

The deaths of Yasser Al Zahrani, Salah Ahmed Al Salami, and Mani Shaman Al Utaybi were never accepted as suicides by their families, two in Saudi Arabia and one in Yemen, or by former prisoners who knew them, especially as autopsies showed the men’s necks had been removed. But the official narrative prevailed. It was “an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us,” Rear Admiral Harry B Harris Jr, the commander of the camp, told a press conference about the deaths. He described a “mystical belief” at Guantanamo that three men had to die at the camp for all of the prisoners to be released.

Harris went on to be a Vice-Admiral in command of the Sixth Fleet and his story to the journalists that the guards had found first one and then the two other men hanging in their cells and been unable to save them, was essentially the story in the NCIS report two years later, largely accepted.

The journalists listening to Harris in 2009 did not know that the men were the camp’s last three hunger strikers, nor that they had been brought to the medical facility with rags stuffed down their throats. But the soldiers on duty in Camp 1 or on general watch all knew that, because they had been told by Colonel Bumgarner, the most senior officer in the area that night. But they had also been told by him in a special early meeting in the camp cinema, that they would hear “a different story in the media.”

Hickman writes that the 75 soldiers there were given a direct order not to talk about the night. “It might sound strange ordering us to not even discuss the matter with people in the military. But to us, secrecy was routine. … It was called 'op sec' or 'operational security'.” Hickman waited for the Colonel to ask him for his statement, wondering if “they’d make me report that my men saw the three guys carried out of Alpha block. I couldn’t imagine implicating my guys in a crime like that.” But he was never asked for his report either then, or for the NCIS team.

A Seton Hall report in 2009 based on analysis of the NCIS report, and two major articles by the veteran writer Scott Horton in Harpers Magazine, all exposed extremely serious flaws of logic in the official version and some cited testimony from Hickman. Meanwhile, after three years of work in seven countries the Norwegian journalist Erling Borgen produced (with the aid of his father, Colonel Talal Al Zahrani,) a heart-breaking film on Yasser, a 17 year old when he was taken to Guantanamo in 2002 after being sold to the Americans by Afghan bounty hunters.

Hickman had by chance earlier found Camp No – a secret part of Guantanamo that did not officially exist. He had watched from the guard tower on that June night as an unmarked white van, which all soldiers had been told never to log and which they believed belonged to the CIA, made three journeys with a prisoner from Camp Alpha to a road which led only to camp No, and a few hours later returned to the medical facility where a major alert was called. Three prisoners were dead. How could all this, followed by an official story of hanging that defied all logic, be virtually ignored in the mainstream?

Hickman’s research into Guantanamo after he had left the military “in pursuit of the truth about Guantanamo Bay,” as his book is subtitled, led him to another prisoner now in the mainstream at last – British resident Shaker Aamer long since cleared. An affidavit given to lawyer Zachary Katznelson told how the same day Aamer too was taken to an unknown location, beaten for two and a half hours, held in a restraint chair, had his airways cut off when he screamed and then had a mask put on him.

Hickman’s book reveals a pattern of secret experimentation in Guantanamo, with prisoners held to practice new ways of torture. (One example was the use of extremely heavy doses for prisoners of the anti-malarial drug Mefloquine, which can cause psychotic effects. No military personnel were given anti-malarial medicine.) The chain of command for all this involved the White House, Rumsfeld, the Generals heading military intelligence – a conspiracy too big to be challenged.

This is déja vu for anyone familiar with the 1970s in the US. In 1975/6 Senator Frank Church headed the Senate committee on covert intelligence operations such as the attempted assassinations of foreign leaders. The hearings followed a long New York Times article by Seymour Hersh detailing many CIA and FBI operations, including collecting information on the political activities of US citizens. One of the members of the Ford administration who worked hardest to protect the CIA in the hearings was Donald Rumsfeld.

Senator Church said once, speaking about the government’s new technical ability to monitor its citizens: “I know the capacity is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.” Young Americans like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are paying the price Church feared.

Before Frank Church there was Ron Ridenhour, the young Vietnam veteran who tried to stir Congress and the Pentagon to look into the Mylai massacre – one of the US army’s blackest episodes in Vietnam. I interviewed him in Washington on a park bench as he sought any allies, and I remember how what he recounted seemed just too big and too evil to be possible. Against all the odds Ridenhour got his story out, as Hickman has done. Ridenhour became a famous journalist, with an annual prize for bravery awarded in his name after his early death at 52. I hope Hickman gets it this year.

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