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Adweek Article Misrepresents Autopsy Results on Guantanamo “Suicide”

Charles Fried and Scott Horton (Harper's, human rights attorney) at Justice After Bush Panel, Princeton

Charles Fried and Scott Horton (Harper's, human rights attorney) at Justice After Bush Panel, Princeton by Cheryl Biren

A lot of people were apparently very upset when Scott Horton beat out Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article on the Koch brothers and Michael Hasting’s Rolling Stone article on Gen. McChrystal and won the National Magazine Award for Reporting this year. Horton’s January 2010 article in Harper’s, “The Guantanamo Suicides,” was based on a number of named sources, including the guard in the watch tower mere yards away from the scene of much of the action, and questioned the official story given by the Department of Defense about the purported suicide of three detainees on the evening of June 10, 2006.

Despite articles written that Horton claimed the murder of the detainees, Horton, along with a report by Seton Hall University School of Law, Center for Policy and Research released around the same time, strongly questioned the procedure and results of the DoD investigations and called for a new investigation. Guantanamo authorities had already announced their position within 24 hours of the discovery of the dead bodies: the deaths were supposedly planned suicides, part of an act of “asymmetrical warfare” on the part of the Taliban and Arab prisoners.

After Donald Rumsfeld and ex-DoD flak Cully Stimson wrote articles last month lambasting those who would question the official investigation, former WarRoom editor Alex Koppelman produced his own critique in the pages of Adweek. The story, “The National Magazine Award and Guantánamo: A Tall Tale Gets the Prize,” posted May 23, got a big reception.

I’m not going to repeat all that was wrong with that story here. I’ve already produced a comprehensive examination of Koppelman’s points in an article posted at Truthout. But I will highlight one crucial area here, and expand upon the Truthout article.

What did Patrice Magnin’s Autopsy report really say?

After the death of one of the detainees, Ali Abdullah Ahmed (ISN 693), a 27-year-old Yemeni national, Ahmed’s father, not believing his son would transgress Islamic law and kill himself, asked for an independent autopsy after his son’s body was returned to the family.(continued)

Well, not all his body was returned. The Department of Defense withheld crucial neck organs that would be necessary to determine if the death was due to hanging or other form of asphyxiation. Swiss pathologist Patrice Mangin examined the body. According to Alex Koppelman, the autopsy report (written in French and linked here — the link originally posted by Horton and Harper’s, by the way) “ended with the conclusion that hanging was, in fact, the most likely cause of death.”

Koppelman even quotes from the autopsy report: “Yet Horton left out a key conclusion of Mangin’s report. ‘The cause of death is most likely the consequence of mechanical asphyxia by violence exercised against the neck as part of a hanging, without being able to formally exclude a different mechanism,’ said the report, which was written in French. Mangin reiterated this point in a press conference.”

Apparently Koppelman cannot read even English. The quote clearly shows that the death was by “mechanical asphyxia” (“asphyxie mécanique par une violence exercée contra la cou”), and adds that one cannot “formally exclude a different mechanism” (“sans pouvoir exclure formellement un autre mécanisme”). In other words, it may not have been hanging, and without the missing organs, he could not deliver a definitive cause.

But let’s hear what Mangin himself told the press in an interview delivered in English, from the Truthout article:

Mangin was quite explicit about his findings in a March 3, 2007 interview in English with Carol Vann at InfoSud. Mangin told Vann, “There was asphyxiation which could be due to suicide but also to other reasons. We have too little information to make any definitive conclusions…. And above all, what was the state of the missing organs? We have written to the American authorities, but so far we have not had any reply.”

So Koppelman misinterpreted or misrepresented the autopsy report. But did he even really read it? Another portion of the report, heretofore unreported, notes (French followed by English):

Il est par ailleurs nécessaire de souligner les limites de l’interprétation médico-légale, résultant d’une part d’un début d’altération postmortem, et d’autre part des remaniements induits par la première autopsie, entraînant l’impossibilité de prélever certains échantillons biologiques en vue d’analyses toxicologiques (notamment sang périphérique et urine), et l’impossibilité d’examiner certains ou de parties d’organes, tel que le larynx avec son squelette.

It is also necessary to emphasize the limits of the medico-legal interpretation, resulting on one hand from postmortem deterioration, and on the other hand from rearrangements induced by the first autopsy, resulting in the inability to collect some biological samples for toxicology testing (including peripheral blood and urine), and the impossibility of examining some or parts of organs such as the larynx with its skeleton.

Another portion of the autopsy report states:

Les lésions odontostomatologiques constatées, en particulier l’exarticulation fraîche de l’incisive inférieure à gauche, en l’absence de contusion des lèvres, nécessite impérativement de pouvoir accéder aux rapport établis par les autorités américaines.

Dentistry lesions are detected, especially fresh exarticulation [loss] of the lower left incisor, in the absence of any bruising of the lips, one imperatively needs to have access to reports by American authorities [wondering, as a later sentence elaborates, if the tooth’s loss was due to trauma during attempts to resusciate the body].

In other words, Mangin went to some lengths to spell out problems with any medical or legal conclusions from the autopsy, including the inability to even make toxicological sampling on some portions of the body and its fluids. More than once he reiterates the necessity of more information or items from the U.S. authorities. In the end, the autopsy mainly rules out other forms of death besides mechanical asphyxiation, which could have been caused by hanging, or frankly, from the rags found in each of the mouths and/or throats of the deceased (a fact that was covered up in DoD’s report, but can be readily accessed by reading the CITF recorded statements by medical personnel at Guantanamo — large PDF), or some other cause. One such cause would be strangulation, but lacking the neck’s hyoid bone, withheld from the independent autopsy, the crucial forensic determinations could not be made.

Michael Ratner, Scott Horton Justice After Bush Panel at Princeton

This is very different from what Koppelman declared, and which has been picked up and spread all over the Internet like a virulent virus. Still, Koppelman was joining a quite large gaggle of neo-con bloggers and supposedly liberal apostates, like Mark Benjamin.

One of the more purple descriptions of incredulity was made by Benjamin Wittes, who blogged after Harper’s and Horton won the magazine award, “The Harpers story is nothing more than a set of wholly unfounded accusations of murder and conspiracy directed against our men and women in uniform dressed up as investigative journalism.” He followed this thundering pronouncement with a full reposting of Cully Stimson’s own blog post on “Horton’s delusional article.” (Stimson was former deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs at the time of the prisoners’ deaths, a fact that does not cause Wittes to pause a second for possible examination of bias.)

Wittes, Koppelman and a host of others, have chosen to do the bidding of the Department of Defense for reasons of their own. Truth is the victim, and truth-seekers are vilified. That’s the way it is in 21st Century Obama’s America.

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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.