Did Gitmo "Suicides" Cover Up Murder? U.S. Sgt. Speaks Out on Deaths & Prison’s Secret CIA Site

In a month marking its 13th anniversary, we look at one of the great mysteries of the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay: what happened the night of June 9, 2006, when three prisoners died. The Pentagon said the three — Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, Salah Ahmed al-Salami and Mani Shaman al-Utaybi — all committed suicide. But were they actually actually tortured to death at a secret CIA black site at the base? In a broadcast exclusive, we are joined by Joseph Hickman, a Guantánamo staff sergeant and author of the new book, "Murder at Camp Delta: A Staff Sergeant’s Pursuit of the Truth About Guantánamo Bay." We are also joined by professor Mark Denbeaux, director of Seton Hall University School of Law’s Center for Policy and Research, which has just published the new report, "Guantánamo: America’s Battle Lab."


Below is an interview with Hickman, followed by a transcript:

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Thirteen years ago this month, the United States opened its notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. At its peak, nearly 800 men were held there. Today the prison population has dipped to 122. On Wednesday, the Pentagon announced five more prisoners — all of them Yemeni — would be released. Four of the men were transferred to Oman, and the fifth to Estonia. Today, we are going to look at one of the great mysteries of Guantánamo; what happened on the night of June 9, 2006 when three prisoners died there. Authorities at Guantánamo said the three men, Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, Salah Ahmed al-Salami and Mani Shaman al-Utaybi, all committed suicide. The commander at Guantánamo, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, described their deaths as an "act of asymmetrical warfare."

ADMIRAL HARRY HARRIS: They are smart. They are creative. They are committed. Have no regard for life, neither ours, nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, rather an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us.

AMY GOODMAN: But, many questions about the night remain unanswered. Harper’s Magazine contributing editor Scott Horton first raised questions about what happened on that night in a 2010 piece he wrote called, "The Guantánamo Suicides.’" For the piece, Horton won a National Magazine Award for Reporting. He appeared on Democracy Now! at the time, questioning the findings of the Naval Criminal Investigation Service, or NCIS, which investigated the deaths.

SCOTT HORTON: We were able to see how they had concluded the suicides occurred. And they state that these three prisoners bound their feet, bound their hands with cloth, stuffed cloth down their throats, in some some cases at least, put masks over their faces to hold the cloth in place, fashioned manikins of themselves to put in their beds to deceive the guards, put up cloth to obstruct the view of cameras, fashioned a noose, which they attached at the top of an eight foot wire wall, stepped up, as their hands and feet are bound and their gagging on cloth, stepped up on top of a washbasin, put their head through the news, tightened it, and jumped off. And moreover, that these three prisoners in nonadjacent cells did all of these things absolutely simultaneously in a clockwork-like fashion. So the story is just simply incredible. Simply, not believable, I should stress.

AMY GOODMAN: That was reporter and attorney Scott Horton speaking in 2010.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Horton went on reveal the three men who died may have been interrogated that night at a secret CIA black site facility at Guantánamo known as Camp No, or Penny Lane. Horton based his reporting on Guantánamo, in part, on testimony from a whistleblower, Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman who was on guard that night at Camp Delta. Hickman has spent most of his life in the military. He was awarded the Army Achievement Medal and the Army Commendation Medal while he was stationed with the 629th military intelligence Battalion in Guantánamo Bay. He was praised for dealing with a prison revolt in May 2006 when, by his own estimation, he became the first U.S. soldier to give the order to fire on prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.

AMY GOODMAN: Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman has just published a book about the deaths. It’s titled, "Murder at Camp Delta: A Staff Sergeant’s Pursuit of the Truth About Guantanamo Bay." Since leaving the military, Joseph Hickman began working as an independent researcher for the Seton Hall University School of Law’s Center for Policy and Research. He is joining us from Green Bay, Wisconsin. And we are joined here in New York by the director of the Center, Seton Hall Professor Mark Denbeaux. The Center has just published a new report titled, "Guantanamo: America’s Battle Lab." Joseph Hickman, thanks so much for being with us. Can you talk about that night, the night of June 9, 2006? Talk about what you saw.

JOSEPH HICKMAN: On June 9, I was what was called Sergeant of the Guard. I was in charge of many different places in Guantánamo, different posts that were being manned by other soldiers. One of my posts that I was in charge of was the towers in Camp Delta. So, I went to visit the guards that were manning those posts, and I went up to the tower. And when I was up there, I saw a vehicle, a van, we called it the paddy wagon, pull into Camp Delta and back up to the entrance of Camp One. From there I saw the driver get out and his assistant go to Alpha Block, take a detainee out of Alpha Block and put him in the paddy wagon. They then drove off, left camp Delta, made a quick right and then a left that headed down the road out of the camps, out of Camp America, which Camp America housed the camps at the time. About 20 minutes later, the paddy wagon came back, and it repeated the same thing. It backed up to Camp One, the two people in the paddy wagon went to Alpha Block, grabbed another detainee, put him in there and went the same route. At this time I started to get suspicious, wondering where he was going. So, 20 minutes later, they came back a third time. This time when they backed up to one, I knew they were getting another detainee, but I wanted to see where that paddy wagon was going exactly, so I left and went to the entrance in Camp America, which is called ACP Roosevelt — Auto Control Point Roosevelt. When the van finally did pass that checkpoint, if it went straight, it was going to the main base. But 100 meters past the checkpoint, it made a left. Which meant it was going to either two places — you could only go to two places in 2006 at that time. You could go to the beach or you could go to a place that we called, as soldiers there, Camp No.

AMY GOODMAN: No as in n-o.

JOSEPH HICKMAN: As in no. As in no, it’s not there and, no, it does not exist.

AMY GOODMAN: A black site.

JOSEPH HICKMAN: Yes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What did you know about the site when you first came across it that night on June 9, 2006?

JOSEPH HICKMAN: I knew a little bit about it before hand. We did not know much at all at the time. We discovered it while we were on a mobile patrol one day when we stopped to take a break, me and a couple of other soldiers. I’ll actually never forget the day because when we stopped, it was hot. We just wanted to take a break and find some shade under some brush. And when we did stop, we noticed a fence in concertina wire, so, we got close to it to see what was there, me and another soldier that was in the Humvee with me at the time. And when we went up to the fence we could actually see the buildings of camp No. And they were — they looked exactly like a detainee facility. Like camp Echo or — it was constructed the same way. So, we knew — we just knew it was a detainee facility. It was a KBR building, it was a KBR building it looked like. I just remember the guy a was with, the guard I was with, he just said, you know what we just found? And I said, what do you think it is? And he said, we just found our Auschwitz.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What gave him the impression? What did he say Auschwitz?

JOSEPH HICKMAN: Well, it was obvious to us it was a detainee holding facility that was completely off the books.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what happened later that night, Joseph Hickman. Now we are talking about, June 10, it was the night of June 9. What happened to those three prisoners you saw uncharacteristically in metal handcuffs, is that right, when it were taken away as opposed to plastic cuffs?

JOSEPH HICKMAN: Well, they were handcuffed. The one thing that I noticed, after I saw them leave the camps, the rest of the night went pretty quiet until around 11:30 when the paddy wagon returned, but instead of going to camp one, it went to the detainee medical clinic. And it backed up to the detainee medical clinic entrance and open its back doors, where I didn’t have a visual after they opened the back doors because I couldn’t see through them and it appeared they were loading something into the medical clinic. About, just 15, 20 minutes later at the most, all the lights come on and sirens are going off. It is complete panic in the camps. And I didn’t know what was going on, but I went down and I saw a Corpsman — I left the tower and saw Corpsman standing in front of the medical clinic. It was a Corpsman that I knew. So, I went up to her and I asked her, hey what’s going on? She said, three detainees killed themselves. They stuffed rags down their throats. So, right there, a few minutes later, I’m not sure how many minutes later, but I saw Colonel Bumgarner and he told me, we’re going to have a meeting right after work at 0700 at the theater, I want everybody there. Everybody you have on duty, I want them there.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So far as you are aware, Joseph Hickman, how long was Camp No in operation and what happened to the facility after these three men died?

JOSEPH HICKMAN: Well, personally, all I can tell you is it was open in — it was there from March 2006 to March 2007. I don’t know how often they had detainees there or how often it was manned, but I know from — I would say from when we discovered it sometime in April to June when I saw them go to Camp No, it was operational then. Later on other people have reported it was open — it closed sometime in 2006.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Sergeant Hickman, what happened at that meeting that you were all called to attend?

JOSEPH HICKMAN: Well, Colonel Bumgarner, everybody was there that was on duty that night. Colonel Bumgarner got in front of everyone and he said, three detainees committed suicide last night. They shoved rags down their throats. But, you’re going to hear something different on the media — from the media. And he said, you are not to speak to anyone at home. You are not to speak to — you’re not to write letters about this. Remember, we are monitoring you. NSA is monitoring you. And he gave us a direct order not to speak about the suicides.

AMY GOODMAN: There were four reporters on the base at the time?

JOSEPH HICKMAN: There was reporters on the base. They were told to leave the base immediately. They weren’t allowed to stick around after the deaths.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you start to ask questions right away?

AMY GOODMAN: I started to ask questions the next day when I saw Admiral Harris on CNN. I mean, right away it was suspicious with Colonel Bumgarner. But, when Admiral Harris got on the news — I was sitting in the chow hall watching CNN and and Admiral Harris called it asymmetrical warfare and said they hung themselves. I knew right away that no one hung themselves in Camp One. It was completely impossible from my standpoint, from the guards under me, that were serving in that area, no one saw any detainees transferred from Camp One to the medical clinic. It just did not happen.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what did you do?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I waited. I waited because I knew that there was going to be an investigation. I knew NCIS was investigating the deaths. So, I waited for them to come interview me and I would tell them what I saw. That day never came. NCIS never interviewed the guards that were in the towers in the area or the Sally Port guards that were literally 25 meters away at most from the medical clinic. They never interviewed any of us.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re talking to Joseph Hickman, former Army Staff Sergeant, stationed at Guantánamo from March 2006 to March 2007. His book "Murder at Camp Delta" has just been published. This is his first broadcast interview. We will be back in a moment.

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