Sunday, January 10, 2016

Regime of Lies: 500 pages withheld in FOIA on death of Guantanamo detainee

While some detainees continue to be released, and the population of the prison camp known as Guantanamo continues to slowly shrink, 14 years after it began accepting "war on terror" prisoners the secretive regime continues to operate.

Guantanamo's slogan is "safe, humane, legal, transparent." But Guantanamo is really none of those things.

Last summer I received a response to a three-year old FOIA request from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) on its investigation into the death of Abdul Rahman Al Amri in May 2007. According to his autopsy report, quietly released in 2012, Al Amri was found dead in his cell, hanging from a noose presumably cut from his bedsheets, and with his hands tied behind his back.

I want to briefly discuss the Al Amri case as an exemplar of the lies and cover-up that emanate from Guantanamo, and secondarily, as an example of the complicity of the press, who while they churn out commemorative pieces for dates like this latest anniversary, have shown (with a few exceptions) no appetite to really get to the truth of what was and is still is going on in that remote island prison. Current censorship policy includes, among other things, the classification of things detainees have said, and what attorneys have heard from them.

As I noted in a February 2012 story at the webiste Truthout on Al Amri's death, and that of another detainee, Mohammad Ahmed Abdullah Saleh Al Hanashi in June 2009, "Authorities consulted... agreed, as one source put it, that having hands tied behind one's back in a hanging 'does not necessarily indicate homicide but certainly requires additional investigation.'"

But the Department of Defense never released publicly the fact Al Amri - who DoD sometimes refers to in documents as Al Umari - was found with his hands bound, and while I broke the story that he was indeed discovered that way, no other member of or agency or institution in the news media saw fit to follow up on the story, or even report it. In the meantime, I filed a FOIA for the investigative reports on his death completed by NCIS, and for the Army's 15-6 statutory report on the death filed at Guantanamo's ruling headquarters, Southern Command (SOUTHCOM).

I had also asked for the toxicology report (PDF) on Al Amri's death, because according to his autopsy report (PDF), he had inexplicably been tested for the presence of the anti-malaria drug mefloquine after his death. This was very strange. While there is no malaria problem in Cuba, all incoming detainees were administered a full treatment dose of mefloquine (also known as Lariam) upon entry into the prison, for supposed prophylactic purposed, i.e., as a public health measure.

But even if the public health rationale were true - and Jason Leopold and I published a series of articles demonstrating that the use of the controversial drug mefloquine had likely nefarious purposes, or as one military doctor put it, constituted "pharmacologic waterboarding" - Al Amri had been in Guantanamo for five years, and there was no reason to assume mefloquine had been in his blood stream for years.

One can only presume that someone thought he had possibly been administered mefloquine sometime in the near period prior to his death, and then asked the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology to see if it was present at the time of death. The possibility of such use of a drug whose only use was prophylaxis or treatment of malaria, and was already under tough criticism within DoD over its use on U.S. military personnel, raises serious questions regarding the purpose of administering that drug. Was mefloquine's common side-effects of inducing dizziness, nausea and paranoia or hallucinations in some people being used to chemically torture detainees?

Even more perplexing... why would Al Amri tie his hands behind his back before killing himself? Did he in fact do so, or was he actually murdered in his cell by guards, or others? I had hoped the FOIA material on the investigations would answer some of these questions.

But when the materials arrived from the NCIS FOIA office last July, they were heavily censored. Even more, hundreds of pages were withheld in their entirety as supposedly consisting of "documents proprietary to another Command." I was told, "Those documents have been referred for a classification review and releasability determination and return to this office."

All told, approximately 500 pages from the investigation have been withheld, awaiting "classification review." From what was released, much is redacted.

[Update (April 14, 2017): NCIS has released the 500 or so pages after the "classification review" by another Command. There are some startling new revelations in this release. I will be reporting on them very soon, so please continue to check or follow this blog.]

NCIS would not tell me what other "Command" they were referring to: that was classified, too (although I highly suspect the other Command is JTF GTMO itself). Meanwhile, six months later, I'm still waiting for clearance of this huge section of the FOIA, which was originally filed in 2012.
As for the SOUTHCOM AR 15-6 investigation, that is still under classificatory review as well, and months away from release... if I'm lucky.

Such delay in the matter of a FOIA on a detainee's death is not always so protracted. Yemeni detainee Adnan Latif was found dead in his cell in the Behavioral Health Unit at Guantanamo in September 2012. His AR 15-6 report was released in a reasonable period after a FOIA request was filed (and was the basis of news reports in 2013, again, by both Jason Leopold and myself).

Is this because Al Amri died under even incredibly more suspicious circumstances than Latif? According to one document I obtained that made it past the censors, someone after Al Amri's death tried to dispose of some of the evidence, as part of the sheet material that supposedly bound his hands was discovered by one NCIS agent tossed in "medical waste" (see accompanying photo). That doesn't sound like how a death scene is secured.

Readers may (or may not) be glad to know that I am still pursuing my investigation into Al Amri's death (and that of Mohammad Al Hanashi), and will have more to report on them in the near future. I feel this is a moral obligation, as the rest of the press has decided this is not a story worth reporting. But I think given the efforts to stymie the truth from getting out, the Pentagon knows better than that. The story will be reported, and I hope we will not have to wait for the 15th anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo torture camp to know the truth about the death of one of its victims.

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