Murders at Gitmo?

A new report alleges that the U.S. covered up the 2006 murders of three detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Conor Friedersdorf on why the GOP must reckon with the illegal, immoral acts of the Bush administration before mounting a return to power.

John Moore / Getty Images

With their victory in Massachusetts, Republicans are eager to defeat the Democratic health-care bill and obstruct a big-government domestic agenda that they regard as creeping tyranny. But an article in Harper’s magazine reminds us that the right is far less willing to question government and champion liberty in foreign policy. In the magazine’s March issue, writer Scott Horton provides circumstantial evidence that the United States government covered up the 2006 murders of three Guantanamo Bay detainees.

The official report issued by the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service called the deaths suicides, implausibly claiming that the trio simultaneously hung themselves in separate, non-adjacent cells after binding their own hands and shoving rags down their own throats. Now four military personnel assigned to guard duty on the night in question “provide evidence that authorities initiated a coverup within hours of the prisoners’ deaths,” Mr. Horton writes, disclosing evidence “that strongly suggests that the three prisoners who died on June 9 had been transported to another location prior to their deaths.”

We may never know exactly how he and his fellow detainees died: A conclusive, independent autopsy is impossible because their bodies were returned to their families with their throats missing.

Why raise this story now that a new administration is running the war on terrorism? We’ve long known that under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney the U.S. government set up a secret prison system where detainees were tortured, and that numerous prisoners held in extra-legal settings died due to extreme abuse by American guards or interrogators.

This new case is nevertheless worth our attention. Beyond the fact that laws were broken and lives extinguished, the Gitmo Three may provide additional proof that the United States perpetrated extreme abuses of power in recent memory—a painful fact that we must acknowledge if we’re to prevent its recurrence.

And yet conservatives are so far content to ignore the story.

If I may address the skeptics on the right directly, it is penny wise and pound foolish to worry about creeping tyranny via government-run health care or gun control when we’re another terrorist attack away from popular support for an archipelago of secret prisons where anyone can be whisked away and tortured without any evidence against them. Look to Europe if you doubt whether government-run health care or black sites run by secret police are a more immediate threat to the liberty of innocents.

Do you think that I exaggerate?

Know that one of the Gitmo Three was arrested at age 17, held for some years without being charged, and scheduled for release at the time of his death due to the military’s conclusion that no evidence linked him to al Qaeda or the Taliban. We may never know exactly how he and his fellow detainees died: A conclusive, independent autopsy is impossible because their bodies were returned to their families with their throats missing.

But it is notable that the ongoing coverup of circumstances surrounding their deaths implicates enlisted men; naval officers; interrogators from the CIA or the Joint Special Operations Command; the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology; and civilians in the Defense Department and the Justice Department. When a country’s armed forces and civilian leadership conspire in coverups involving dead bodies, it is inevitably corrosive to the rule of law, the morale of the brave folks who risk their lives to protect us, and our standing in a world that rightly abhors deadly corruption at secret prison sites like the one now revealed to be at Gitmo. We’ll continue to suffer all those consequences whenever we use “harsh interrogation techniques” so indefensible in their particulars that government officials sooner break the law than admit their real-world consequences.

The Obama administration is to be commended for ending the torture of detainees. But President Obama is derelict in his oath to protect and defend the Constitution if he refrains from aggressively investigating cases like the Gitmo Three, and prosecuting any significant illegal acts. Equally bound by the Constitution of the United States are members of the Republican opposition. I happen to agree with them that the Democratic domestic agenda imprudently seeks to concentrate too much power in the federal government. But the GOP doesn’t deserve to control any branch of government so long as its members defend or ignore illegal, immoral acts that weakened our armed forces and disgraced our intelligence agencies the last time they held power (including years long after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks—remember that the Gitmo Three did not die until 2006).

As Megan McArdle wrote, “I don’t think it’s particularly bleeding heart to think that we shouldn’t have to fake suicides to cover up for abusing prisoners. In fact, I think that’s the stance of a hard-core believer in law and order.” It is my stance because I am anxious about concentrating too much power in the federal government, and cognizant that a complex of secret prisons where we torture is a far more perilous mile marker on the road to serfdom than anything proposed by our current elected officials, however misguided their policies.

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Conor Friedersdorf, a Daily Beast columnist, also writes for The American Scene and The Atlantic Online's ideas blog.