Sunday, November 13, 2016

NYT Article on Psychiatric Care at Guantanamo Hides More Than It Reveals

I suppose that The New York Times' recent article, Where Even Nightmares Are Classified: Psychiatric Care at Guantanamo, will be welcomed by some as a reminder of the horror that is Guantanamo. While I cannot expect that others will find significant the same episodes in the wide-ranging torture scandal as I do, this article by Sheri Fink (assisted by others, including James Risen) does a disservice to the public by misrepresenting many facts about what actually happened. The article hides and misrepresents more than it claims to reveal. It is, in fact, a classic example of a "limited hangout," something that The New York Times excels in producing.

The article gives us glowing photos of former Guantanamo mental health providers. It offers testimony from supposedly conflicted former doctors, psychologists, nurses and psych techs, without ever noting that retrospective testimony could be self-serving. Fink herself can't seem to make up her mind if these so-called conscientious medical professionals showed "willful blindness" to "abuse," or whether in fact "psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health teams... were often unaware of what happened." (I don't think anyone at Guantanamo was unaware of the torture going on, but they may have deliberately or unconsciously numbed themselves to it. No doubt recent reports of high levels of PTSD among guards assigned to Guantanamo is related to the exposure to widespread torture of detainees.)

Actual contemporaneous documentation of the attitudes of health care workers, or the subordination of medical decision making to military command authorities, was amply available to The New York Times, but they chose to ignore it. This omission amounts to a misrepresentation of the material, as the article promises in its very title to be an examination of psychiatric care at Guantanamo. Is the failure to provide such material because it would reflect very badly on the medical professionals there? The article suggests at times serious deficiencies in the behavior of medical personnel, only to pull its punches or offer up mea culpas.

The signal importance of mental health problems actually leading to suicide was mostly ignored by Fink and her collaborators. Not one concrete example of an actual suicide was given, though there exists copious public documentation (and though you'd think an article on psychiatric care would say more about suicides of detainees held in Guantanamo's psychiatric unit). 

In a powerful example of such evidence, we have on public record the sworn statement of the Chief of Behavioral Health Services at the Guantanamo prison camp, given to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) in June 2009 as part of the investigation into the purported suicide of Mohammed Al Hanashi. Al Hanashi had come to the Chief the very day he was to die and complained about being tortured. The Chief told NCIS what happened from his perspective, which is damning enough. They had been talking about pending changes to rules to take place in the Behavioral Health Unit:

“[Al Hanashi] then said he felt was [sic] being tortured. This is a normal response to a verbal disagreement between staff and a detainee. In this case, to avoid an argument with [Al Hanashi] I walked away from him without a response. This is what I usually do when a detainee accuses staff of torture." [Kaye, Jeffrey (2016-09-10). "Cover-up at Guantanamo"/  (Kindle Locations 150-152). Kindle Edition. - See also June 4, 2009 “Statement” of the Chief of Behavioral Health Services for JTF GTMO. See Al Hanashi documents, Part 8, pp. 16-18, URL:]

In what NCIS regarded as Al Hanashi's suicide note, Al Hanashi described his response, and his descent into suicidal despair: "... when the highest ranking officer in the camp came and talked to me while I was walking he informed me that this camp [the Behavioral Health Unit] will have the same rules as the others, and when I asked the help of the [Chief] psychologist who was present, he said the rules will apply on everybody then he left without saying anything more. Even the officer who was close to him was surprised by his inappropriate behavior as someone who is supposed to be in a humanitarian position. At that time I knew that the only solution is death before they transgress on our religion the way they do in the other camps.” In fact, Al Hanashi died only hours later, purportedly at his own hand. [Kindle Locations 145-148 in "Cover-up at Guantanamo"; also Al Hanashi documents, Part 2, pp. 2-3, URL:]

None of this is even hinted at in Sheri Fink's article.


But even if The Times had covered these issues, I'm not sure it would have balanced out the falsehoods in the article, including the assertion that medical records were not shared with interrogators after 2005, and that "abusive tactics" ended at Guantanamo in early 2009. Both assertions are false. Taking on the latter claim, whether one references the ongoing forced cell extractions at Guantanamo, the forced feedings, or the Appendix M interrogations (which the UN Committee on Torture recently condemned) -- not to mention the fact that indefinite detention is itself a form of torture (according to the International Committee of the Red Cross) -- it is irrefutable that "abusive tactics" continue at Guantanamo. Fink's article presents a fairy tale.

Meanwhile, the American Psychological Association now has recognized that it is impossible to conduct ethical psychological services in a place like Guantanamo and has told the government to pull all psychologists serving detainees clinically out of that setting. This was not mentioned in the article either, though James Risen, who has written on that story before, was a contributor to the Sheri Fink article. You'd think such information would be relevant in a news article reviewing psychiatric care at Guantanamo, but The New York Times saw fit to censor their own reporting.

As for the sharing of medical information with interrogators, the article describes the mistrust of detainees who knew their sensitive communications with mental health providers was being shared with the interrogators and used in their torture. Fink et al. claim this stopped in 2005, but in fact serious problems on this score continued even into Obama's term. According to a DoD Inspector General Review of the Joint Task Force Guantanamo, "Inclusion of Detainee Mental Health Information in Intelligence Information Reports," issued May 4, 2010, "Present regulatory guidance authorizes health-care providers to share detainee medical information with interrogators, but does not provide specific guidance on how to do so. As a result execution of these policies at Guantanamo has been inconsistent, resulting in confusion for both health-care providers and interrogation elements." (See this link, page G-5.)

In other words, sharing of mental health information with interrogators continued well into the Obama administration, and there's no reason to believe they ever changed, nor that detainees were ever wrong to be suspicious of such providers.


There are at least two detainees who appear to have had their suicides facilitated by Guantanamo personnel: Mohammed al Hanashi and Adnan Latif. Four others were likely murdered or killed as part of some experiment, the three detainees who died in 2006, and Abdul Rahman Al Amri, found in his cell dead hanging with his hands tied behind his back and his body tested afterwards for the presence of the psychiatrically disabling drug mefloquine.

According to my own research published in my book cited above, Guantanamo personnel are documented as interfering with the computer recording of events surrounding these suicides, entering false information about these events (according to DoD investigators), or even shutting down computer systems so no one would know what was going on (according to NCIS records). Fink's article obliquely refers to some "critics" questions about the "suicides," but pointedly leaves examination of these suicides out of her article about psychiatric conditions at Guantanamo. The Big Lie lives on.

An encyclopedic deconstruction of Fink's article would be something few readers probably would have the stamina to complete. Just consider the article's whitewashing of retired Navy Captain Albert Shimkus, who signed off on the abusive mefloquine protocol used at Guantanamo, which led to widespread "pharmacological waterboarding," according to one medical professional. Or consider the abusive use of "chemical restraints" on prisoners, part of the unrestrained use of drugs on prisoners at Guantanamo, the full story of which at Guantanamo or formerly at CIA black sites is still not fully known.

It is infuriating to see an article put forth something meaning to do good -- and the article is not without some good points, such as its critique of the rotation system among Gitmo health care providers, or its examination of the manipulation of diagnoses to minimize the perception of damage caused to detainees -- while in actuality perpetuating untruths and misrepresentations, or even altering history. This is not reporting, it is the exercise of the  "limited hangout," the offering of so-called new information such that the public believes it is really getting something important, while key information remains hidden or a different, less damaging story is put in its place.


Unknown said...

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my article. Your feedback and criticism are genuinely appreciated, as is your depth of research and writing on these subjects. The reporting I did does not support some of the conclusions in this posting, however I do share your frustration that I was not able to include more details about the suicides in this particular article. Each individual article can only tell part of the story, which as you know is vast. Thanks again for reading and for your important work.

Valtin said...

Sheri, Thank you for your feedback. I should note than when I make criticisms it is not without appreciation that you and the Times continue to cover the torture story. The final result may not have been everything you intended. I am, as you know, passionate on this subject. I believe the retrospective accounts of the medical personnel you interviewed cannot be trusted. It's not that some of the individuals aren't sincere in their own way. I don't know them. But the entire system at Guantanamo is so corrupted, so unable to police itself, so drowned in lies and secrets and crimes that, from my perspective, any information that comes out of there that isn't documentable is tainted. My research emphasis on the suicides is in part because there were institutional mechanisms that allowed for some documentation of the evidence, as part of the investigation into the deaths. In my opinion, that presents a unique opportunity to understand what went on or goes on there. Thanks for your kind response.

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