Guantanamo

Speechless

By Benjamin Wittes
Monday, May 23, 2011, 9:16 AM

I had somehow missed until this morning that Harpers Magazine had won a National Magazine Award for this Scott Horton story from 2010 about suicides at Guantanamo Bay--a story that spuriously suggests that the detainees in question were actually tortured to death. There are journalism awards that honor great journalism. There are journalism awards with which one can argue. And then there are journalism awards theat completely discredit the awarding entity itself. This is one of those latter category of awards. Adweek magazine, whose story this morning brought this to my attention, offers some of the reasons that this was a singularly poor choice of stories to honor. Jack Shafer of Slate offered more at the time the story ran--as well as this exchange with the Harpers editor responsible for publishing this piece of work. 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. That the American Society of Magazine Editors has chosen to honor this work ensures that it will be a long time before I take seriously one of their awards again.

UPDATE: Apparently, I had missed this post by Cully Stimson last week on this issue. Cully writes:

Last week, the American Society of Magazine Editors’ awarded writer Scott Horton with their National Magazine Award for Reporting.  The problem is, his story was a complete fiction and its flaws had been exposed from every conceivable quarter.

It was June 2006 and the phone rang in the middle of the night.  I knew it had to be something bad.  My employee on the other end of the line said, “three detainees killed themselves at Gitmo.”  As the head of detainee policy at the Pentagon, I ordered him to get everyone in to the office pronto, where we stayed for the next 24 hours dealing with the crisis.

A thorough investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service confirmed what was obvious to us on the day of the suicides: three detainees, with the assistance and encouragement of other detainees, killed themselves in their cells by hanging themselves with bed linens.

Apparently, however, the truth is a hard pill to swallow for some, especially those who wallow in conspiracy theories.

In January 2010, a writer named Scott Horton wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine in which he argued that the detainees deaths were not suicides, but “most likely” caused by U.S. personnel stationed at Guantanamo.  Not only does he accuse U.S. military personnel of homicide, he accuses senior attorneys in both the Bush and Obama administration of lying to federal judges about the affair.

Harper’s Magazine knew that Horton’s article was chock full of factual errors.  In fact, the former Chief Defense Counsel for Military Commissions, Marine Colonel Dwight Sullivan, contacted the article’s editor at Harper’s to notify him about a key factual mistake.  This happened after the article was posted online, but before it went to print.  Not only did the editor not contact Colonel Sullivan (who in his own words “was hardly an apologist for Guantanamo”), they printed the article with the factual inaccuracies nonetheless.

Others pointed out the wildly inaccurate aspects of Horton’s delusional article, including a distinguished member of the Marine Corps.  See here, here, here, here and here.

Furthermore, as Colonel Dwight Sullivan points out here, McClatchy Newspapers quoted from an interview conducted in Afghanistan in 2008 with a former Guantanamo detainee who said that in June 2006, a Taliban detainee at Guantanamo bragged to him “that there soon would be ‘martyrs.’”  Of course, Horton did not include this in his fantasy article.

And then there is Wikileaks.  According to published reports, previously classified documents released by Wikileaks show that the suicides were indeed suicides, and were deliberate acts by the detainees.

All of this information, of course, was in the public domain before the American Society of Magazine Editors’ bestowed their prestigious award for reporting. Mr. Horton’s work may merit an award for fiction, but it certainly does not reflect well on the standards for reporters. What a disgrace.

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