I’m pleased to present my first post at The Dissenter. I’m excited to be here with Kevin Gosztola. I’ll be writing on subjects such as the torture scandal, the politics of psychology, civil liberties, and pretty much the kind of topics I have been covering in the past two years at Firedoglake. My previous postings can be accessed at http://my.firedoglake.com/valtin/.

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What one writes in a blog article can have an impact in the “real” world, for good — or for ill. The following is a cautionary tale, or an outrage, take your pick.

In a couple of recent articles at Truthout and Firedoglake, I critically examined what I termed a “hit piece” by Adweek’s Alex Koppleman attacking Scott Horton’s January 2010 Harper’s article, “The Guantanamo Suicides.”

Horton’s article questioned the official narrative the Department of Defense offered after their investigations into three Guantanamo detainees purportedly discovered hanging in their cells the night of June 9-10, 2006. The Harper’s investigation relied, among other things, on eyewitness testimony from Army guards in the guard towers that night, on independent autopsies conducted on two of the bodies, and on new information about a black site at Guantanamo, dubbed “Camp No.”

Koppelman’s article was posted on May 23. The article claimed that Horton relied on unreliable stories from the Army guards. Koppelman derided Horton, whose article had just won the National Magazine Award, for “conspiracy building, favoring the evidence that supports the conspiracy view and minimizing the evidence that does not.” His article, despite its misrepresentation of the facts, and got a lot of play in the press, including a big boost from Benjamin Wittes at Lawfare, who wrote, “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.”

On July 13, the attorneys for the defendants in Talal Al-Zahrani and Nashwan Ali Abdullah Al-Salami et al. v. Estaban Rodriguez, Director, Joint Intelligence Group, et al., along with Assistant Attorney General Tony West, filed a brief (PDF) in the U.S. DC Court of Appeals opposing the appeal of an earlier dismissal of the case. Al-Zahrani and Al-Salami are parents of two of the Guantanamo detainees whose fate was the subject of Horton’s article. On page 21 of the brief, the government cited Koppelman and Wittes’ stories as examples of “numerous articles addressing serious flaws with the HARPER’S MAGAZINE story.”

The Koppelman and Wittes articles (the latter is mainly a compendium of links to Koppelman and other like-minded attacks on the Harper’s investigation) are cited as examples of how the plaintiffs’ use of the new information uncovered by Scott Horton’s investigation is “not itself admissible evidence.” The fact that there was another investigation, cited in the Harper’s article, by the Seton Hall School of Law Center for Policy and Research (PDF), is never cited in the government’s brief, just as it was never mentioned by Koppelman and Wittes. The Seton Hall investigation, like Horton’s, found serious deficiencies in the government’s narrative and supposed “evidence.”

According to the government’s brief, referencing the Harper’s story:

Rather, it was, at best, a reporter’s version of the recollections of individuals who were allegedly present at Guantanamo Bay on June 9-10, 2006, but “who did not at any time see or interact with Al-Zahrani or Al-Salami or have any knowledge, first-hand or otherwise, of Al-Zahrani or Al-Salami’s treatment.” App. 39. The hearsay accounts in the article of van movements, second-hand reports, baseless speculation about a secret “Camp No,” and frenzied reactions at Guantanamo in reaction to the deaths hardly amount to compelling evidence warranting reconsideration of the district court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims.5 [p. 21]

Footnote 5, at the end of the quote above, leads us to the citation of the Koppelman and Wittes articles.

The Worst Possible Persons in the World

The subhead, of course, is a takeoff on a well-known bit by news commentator Keith Olbermann, but the award is all my own. Both Alex Koppelman and Benjamin Wittes must now live with themselves, knowing their misrepresentations of the Scott Horton article are being used by the government to deny the parents of the dead former Guantanamo prisoners any justice in American courts. One of the dead men, Yasser al-Zahrani, was only 16 years old when he was picked up by U.S. forces.

It would be onerous upon the reader to reproduce all the arguments from my initial articles in order to repudiate the assertions in the government brief. Suffice it to say, the government didn’t bother to link to them. However, a portion of those arguments are provided here, in order to give a flavor of the mischief Koppelman and Wittes have sown in the name of their particular political agenda.

From the Truthout article:

The Koppelman article also followed attacks on those critical of the DoD investigation of the “suicides” by Donald Rumsfeld, in a May 12 op-ed at The Washington Post, and a May 17 blog post by Cully Stimson, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs at the time of the prisoners’ deaths, lambasting ASME’s “disgraceful award” to Horton….

Nothing is stranger, perhaps, than Koppelman’s reliance on DoD assurances, not least that of a primary actor in the controversy, Colonel Bumgarner. The JDG commander, who had been at Guantanamo from April 2005 and was due to leave command at the end of June 2006, was stripped of his command only days after the detainees’ deaths, possibly for having told the press that each of the detainees had been found with a ball of cloth in their mouths.

The DoD later denied that the dead detainees all had such cloths or “rags” stuffed down their throats, saying, despite evidence from the NCIS investigation to the contrary, that such cloths were present in only one prisoner’s mouth.

According to Horton, Bumgarner’s speech to the guards, telling them to stick to the hanging story, was derived via a number of sources. Meanwhile, Koppleman asks us to rely on the word of a man who called the detainees under his control totally untrustworthy, as “nothing short of a damn animal that can’t be trusted”….

Koppelman’s fudging of the facts regarding Mangin’s autopsy is egregious. In fact, the autopsy report says that the cause of death is mechanical asphyxiation consistent with a hanging, but also “sans pouvoir exclure formellement un autre mécanisme,” that is, unable to formally exclude another mechanism or cause.

The primary reason for the lack of a definitive decision was the decision of US authorities not to provide crucial neck organs – the larynx, the hyoid bone and the thyroid cartilage – whose examination, for instance, could rule out death by hanging versus death by strangulation or other means. The government’s autopsy noted that one detainee had a broken hyoid bone. Such an injury, according to forensic experts, is more consistent with strangulation than hanging and quite rare in younger persons.

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”….

That Mangin did not definitively rule the cause of death as suicide by hanging at his press conference, as maintained by Koppelman, also is reported in an Associated Press article on the press conference at the time. Koppelman is totally wrong in his Adweek assertion about Mangin’s findings.

So, Koppelman and Gittes Wittes [see update below] have won a bit of infamy by having their attacks cited in a government brief seeking a denial of a lawsuit filed by the parents of two of the dead prisoners. What’s even more galling is that their articles were poorly researched and basically government apologia. The U.S. government appears to have taken notice, and used their articles for their own purposes, making Koppelman and Wittes, wittingly or not, government proxies in the matter of the Guantanamo suicides controversy.

For the record, the other defendants in the suit include former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; Gen. Richard Myers; Gen. Peter Pace; Gen. James T. Hill; Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert; Brig. Gen. Michael E. Dunlavey; Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller; William Winkenwerder, Jr., M.D.; Vice Adm. Donald Arthur, M.D.; and a host of others. The case was originally dismissed on February 16, 2010 by the district court, and dismissed on reconsideration last September. The current appeal was filed last November.

The case files are published, along with other information, at the Center for Constitutional Rights website.

UPDATE, 7/24/2011: Benjamin Wittes responded to this blog post on July 21 at Lawfare. While “Happy to be a government proxy on this one,” Wittes replied to my assertion he was “wittingly or not” a government proxy “in the matter of the Guantanamo suicides controversy,” he was disturbed that I misspelled his name at one point. So I’ve corrected that, with apologies for offending his feelings on that score. Possibly that’s why he was “Verklempt.”