The Oil and the Glory

Six Questions for Scott Horton, author of “The Guantanamo ‘Suicides'”

Six Questions for Scott Horton, author of “The Guantanamo ‘Suicides'”

Last night, Harper’s Magazine writer Scott Horton (pictured above left) won a National Magazine Award in the reporting category, beating out the favorite, Michael Hastings’s Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who lost his job as commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. Horton’s winning entry was "The Guantanamo ‘Suicides': A Camp Delta Sergeant Blows the Whistle." The piece is an investigation of the suspicious deaths of three inmates at Guantánamo. I have known Horton since the mid-1990s, when we met in Central Asia. He was an unusual hybrid of corporate lawyer and human rights defender. His writing career began a bit later — in the early years of the Bush administration with an email blast called "No Comment," a compilation of links and short commentary on national politics that he distributed to friends and interested colleagues. Its searing approach attracted much attention, led to the blog being absorbed by Harper’s, and now recognition for this breakthrough article. Horton conducts his own email interviews in a "Six Questions" format, so I asked him to submit to the same. His replies follow.

O&G: In your main piece, you tell the story of Col. Michael Bumgarner. Can you catch us up as to what has happened in the meantime with the Justice Department’s treatment of the three men’s deaths, and in addition with Staff Sgt. Joseph Hickman, the main whistle-blower in your story?

Sergeant Hickman continues to serve with his unit, as do several other guards that night whose observations supported the article. In fact, after the story appeared a source in the office of Secretary of Defense told me that an effort would be made to "reach out" to these "disgruntled soldiers," but I’m sure the Pentagon discovered the same thing I did: These soldiers were not remotely "disgruntled." They were and are all proud to serve and proud of their service at Guantánamo, which won them commendations. They were concerned about telling the truth, however. There is no sign of any further examination of the facts by the Justice Department — though it did use dubious national security claims to block a congressional investigation when a House Judiciary subcommittee attempted to look into it.

What more do we know now about Camp No, the black site at Guantanamo where the men appear to have been taken? Is this a CIA-run section of the camp?

I am still investigating Camp No. In the meantime I have developed more evidence that Camp No was used by the intelligence community in connection with interrogations — including by the CIA from 2003 through 2006. But it’s not clear that the CIA was the only agency authorized to use Camp No.

One of your points is that the Obama administration has treated the issues of rule of law and justice, as practiced with prisoners at Guantanamo, with the type of cavalier attitude that you documented during the Bush administration. One issue is going along with a coverup from the Bush period, but you think that similar highly suspicious suicides have occurred on Obama’s watch as well. Do the cases in the two administrations match up? And how the Justice Department talks about them?

I think it’s clear that the Bush and Obama Administrations have more or less the same attitude about accountability for the mistreatment of prisoners connected with the "war on terror" — they condemn it officially but believe that those in senior positions must be fully protected from any meaningful review or punishment. "Don’t look back" is the Obama motto — which poses a dilemma for law enforcement since, aside from the world of science fiction, all crime occurs in the past. But I have to acknowledge that the Obama Administration overhauled the standards for prisoners in its first six months, and this resulted in a sharp decline in reported incidents of abuse at Guantánamo and in Afghanistan. That being said, there are still some troubled spots — such as the forced-feeding program at Gitmo and the JSOC-run "black prison" at Bagram, where I am skeptical about the extent of changes.

The deaths in detention are particularly worrisome. On one hand, suicides are a problem common to prisons everywhere, and particularly so when the conditions of internment heighten despair (as when there is no prospect of release). On the other hand, prisons around the world routinely press claims of suicide to cover deaths in detention since that may be the least horrible explanation for the deaths. These two considerations have to be held in balance when deaths in detention are studied. I am very concerned about the deaths associated with the forced-feeding program at Guantánamo. It remains enshrouded in unjustifiable secrecy and it merits much closer study. Something is plainly wrong about this program.

Read on to the jump for more of the Horton interview.

The administration would argue that politics have not allowed it to close down Guantanamo, nor to hold public civilian trials for prisoners accused of crimes. It might even argue that these issues are third-rails in a highly charged political environment that could sandbag the administration’s other priorities. Your take? What reaction are you getting when you raise these issues privately at the senior levels of the Pentagon?

It’s very clear that the Obama team set out to implement the Obama campaign promise to close down Guantánamo and to reform the rules governing prisoners. They accomplished a good deal, but somewhere in the first half year they ran into an immovable obstacle that was sheltering some aspects of the Bush-era program, especially the murky role played by the intelligence community in this process — that obstacle was plainly named Robert Gates. Greg Craig and Phil Carter, Obama’s two lieutenants most committed to the changes he promised, then resigned within a few weeks of one another. There’s an important story there that has not — so far — been told. Secretary Gates clearly agreed with President Obama that torture was counterproductive, that the Bush-style extraordinary renditions program should be shut down, and he agreed to pull back on many Bush-era excesses. But he has protected core aspects of the Bush-era programs, and he has adamantly and rigorously opposed any kind of accountability — shielding the intelligence side with particular zeal.

President Obama plainly had the power fully to implement his promises, but he chose not to do so. This almost certainly reflects a political calculus that national security issues generally and detention issues in particular were Republican turf and he should avoid anything that put them on the political front burner. This shows us a Barack Obama who is driven by tactical election year concerns, not by the ideals of a young law professor, who addressed these issues with eloquence and vision during his 2008 campaign.

Osama Bin Laden was just killed. Obama says he got justice. Your take?

I am immensely proud of the SEALs Team Six members whose assault on the Bin Laden compound bore fruit. I am also especially proud of my high school friend Bill McRaven, who organized the mission. John Yoo says that Bin Laden should have been taken prisoner. Of course that would have been desirable. On the other hand, I don’t think any of us are in a position to second-guess the SEALs and the split-second decisions they took on the ground in Abbottabad. They had every right to use lethal force if they considered themselves at risk, and I wouldn’t for a second take that away from them. The mission has also served to expose the enormous problem we have had for years with Pakistan’s perfidious military and intelligence service which the Obama team — to their great credit — have treated with a far higher level of skepticism than their extremely gullible predecessors.

You are a lawyer. Now you beat out some stiff competition to win the National Magazine Award. Are you going to go back full time to law, a continued mix of the two careers?

Now that’s what we lawyers call a compound question. Still, I’ll answer most of it. As a lawyer, I am focused on international or cross-border investigations. As a writer, as you will see from my work for both Harper’s and Foreign Policy, I am focused on legal and national security affairs, but a good part of my work focuses on the same fields in which I practice — although I don’t write about my clients or matters in which they are interested. So my work is in the border zone. I have been writing and practicing simultaneously for a number of years now, and the blend varies from time to time, but I don’t anticipate giving up either end of the game.