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Suicide or Murder: US Clandestine Services Play the Oldies

photo: SacredDestinations via Flickr

photo: SacredDestinations via Flickr

On Monday, Scott Horton blew a hole straight through the government’s lies when Harpers Magazine published the results of his investigation into the supposed suicides of three Guantanamo prisoners in June 2006. It’s clear now that the men were murdered — possibly tortured to death — at a secret heretofore undisclosed black site at Guantanamo, and then made to look as if they killed themselves, while other evidence to the contrary was ignored or suppressed or destroyed.

But this is not the first time that murders have been cooked up to look like suicide. Recently, Human Rights Watch has been publicizing the case of Afghan citizen Abdul Basir, who was tortured while in custody of Afghan security forces last Decemenber. His captors then threw him out a window and claim he died jumping in a suicide attempt, which is what his family was also told. But when the family received the body it had marks of torture all over it, and now HRW has posted pictures of the evidence on Basir’s body.

The Basir case is very important, as it highlights the actions of Afghan security forces, who have long been accused of torture, just as the U.S. has announced that it will turn over administration of its Bagram prison to the Afghan government.

As for the CIA, it has been accused of using assassination to remove supposed “enemies” of the United States. Plots involving the assassination of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba and multiple attempts on the life of Fidel Castro by the CIA were investigated by the Church Committee and the Rockefeller Commission in the 1970s.

Indeed, the CIA had published an assassination manual (HTML text version), for in-house use only, in the 1950s.  Within its strange and clinically stilted prose, delineating the various modes of killing people, one finds the following (keeping in mind the Basir case mentioned above):

The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface. Elevator shafts, stair wells, unscreened windows and bridges will serve. Bridge falls into water are not reliable. In simple cases a private meeting with the subject may be arranged at a properly-cased location. The act may be executed by sudden, vigorous [excised] of the ankles, tipping the subject over the edge. If the assassin immediately sets up an outcry, playing the “horrified witness”, no alibi or surreptitious withdrawal is necessary. In chase cases it will usually be necessary to stun or drug the subject before dropping him. Care is required to insure that no wound or condition not attributable to the fall is discernible after death.

I found the above quote first in an article by journalist H.P. Albarelli, writing about the decades-old murder case of U.S. government bioweapons specialist, Frank Olson. Olson worked in a top secret directorate at the military’s Fort Detrick, a biological weapons research site. In the early morning hours of Saturday, November 28, 1953, he jumped (or was pushed or thrown) out of the tenth floor window of his room at New York’s Statler Hotel. In the room was his CIA handler, who told the family he was taking Olson for psychiatric care because he was disturbed. The death was ruled suicide.

The case made headlines in the mid-1970s when the Rockefeller Commission admitted that rather than suicide, Olson had been drugged with LSD at a November 19, 1953 rural retreat-meeting of CIA and Ft. Detrick Special Operations Division personnel. This new story carried the same claims of suicide, but now had Olson reacting poorly to the LSD, and ultimately killing himself.

But the whole story never fit together, and various investigators over the years have tried to solve the case and prove that Frank Olson was murdered. Author H.P. Albarelli surveys these various theories, and expands upon the background material in the Olson case, while providing compelling proof of both who killed the civilian contractor father of three, and why, in his new book, A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Cold War Experiments.

The somewhat surprising death of an otherwise little-known Midwestern scientist would become for contemporary historians, journalists, and researchers — years after the event — a crucial nexus providing a gathering point for the multitudinous strands connecting a welter of secretive Cold War intelligence and military programs.

Mr. Albarelli will be a guest this coming Saturday, January 23, at FDL’s Book Salon, from 5-7pm, Eastern Time. I will be hosting the get-together, and I believe it be both entertaining and rewarding, as Mr. Albarelli has written an account of more than a dusty expose of an antiquated crime. The Olson murder touches upon issues that are as important and crucial as today’s most shocking headlines, and demonstrates that U.S. government involvement in torture and research into coercive interrogations has been a scandal decades in the making.

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Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a retired psychologist who has worked professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus, previously wrote regularly for Firedoglake’s The Dissenter, as well as at The Guardian, Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record. He is the author of Cover-Up at Guantanamo, a new book examining declassified files on treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention camp.