Laughlin's story deals with the barriers which persist in limiting journalistic access to goings-on at the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay.
The story drew my attention because a story like that in a liberal paper like the Times means I'll have a good chance to evaluate some bad reporting.
Sure, there was the unsurprising-though-unexpected snideness from the reporter, transmitted through the frequent use of one word/short phrase quoted snippets from officials at the facility. Allowing the facade of journalistic objectivity to routinely slip has turned passe, however. Laughlin made her award-winning flub by attributing a string of facts to an unnamed report from the Department of Justice:
Camp X-Ray is infamous for the prisoners' exposure to the elements and the interrogations that took place there. According to a 2008 Department of Justice report, interrogation techniques used on detainees — many of whom have since been released — included the following:
Hands and feet shackled together so closely they couldn't stand, sit or lie down comfortably for days; exposure to extreme heat and cold; being forced to wear leashes and perform dog tricks with women's underwear on their heads; sleep deprivation for days with rock music, strobe lights, gurgling noise machines and ice-water dousing; bending thumbs back, wrapping heads in duct tape, slamming prisoners into walls and punching them to the ground.
The techniques listed in the second paragraph were used on many prisoners who have since been released? That is what the first paragraph implies, and it also implies that the techniques were used routinely. We will see that the impression conveyed by Laughlin is misleading.
I'm over 90 percent sure that Laughlin's supposed source for the interrogation techniques was an inspector general's report for the Department of Justice from May 2008, called "A Review of the FBI's Involvement in and Observations of Detainee Interrogations in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, and Iraq."
Equipped with the source, we can evaluate Laughlin's claims about the treatment meted out to detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
"Hands and feet shackled together so closely they couldn't stand, sit or lie down comfortably for days"
From page 157 of the report:
The agents who were interviewed reported a variety of observations regarding detainee mistreatment, including:
- A detainee was shackled in a stress position
The "they" is not justified on the basis of the above evidence, at least in terms of its suggestion of plurality.
"(E)xposure to extreme heat and cold"
A relevant segment in the report, titled "Extreme Temperatures," begins on page 184:
Approximately 29 agents provided information to the OIG regarding the use of extreme temperatures on detainees at GTMO. Some agents simply observed that most interview rooms were cold. In a few cases, however, it appears that detainees were intentionally subjected to extreme temperatures by unknown interrogators in an apparent effort to break the detainee's resolve to resist cooperating.The report goes on to say that the "most common version of this technique" consisted of using an air conditioner to cause the prisoner "moderate discomfort"--quoting an earlier document known as the Church Report.
The section on stress positions mentions some specific cases in which a detainee was kept in a room in which an FBI agent estimated the temperature at 90-95 degrees. Another account revealed how a short-shackled prisoner was kept in a room with the air conditioner on all night. The FBI agent found a "shivering" detainee the next day, but the report does not include any estimate of the temperature.
I suspect that the ordinary reader of the Times thinks of something in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit when hearing of detainees being subjected to "extreme heat." "Extreme cold" is probably below 55 degrees or so in most minds, I would think.
"(B)eing forced to wear leashes and perform dog tricks with women's underwear on their heads"We should expect to find at least some evidence supporting this claim from a section titled "Placing Women's Clothing on a Detainee."
The incident listed there:
(D)uring their fourth interview Al-Shihri told them that "the mean ladies" came and got him from his cell in the middle of the night and interrogated him for hours. Al-Shihri said that during this interrogation he was also forced to listen to a recorded loop of the "meow mix" jingle for hours, was sprayed with perfume, and had a woman's dress draped on him.That doesn't sound like a match.
Nor does the rest of the section help Laughlin out much, summed up with the following:
Other FBI employees told us they heard rumors of the use of women's clothing on detainees. And FBI Investigative Report Specialist said that while at GTMO he heard rumors that a detainee was forced to wear women's clothing and makeup during an interrogation and that this same detainee was also given a "lap dance" by a female guard.No leash? No dog tricks?
The leash and dog tricks apparently came solely from the case of Muhammed Al-Qahtani, one of the earlier Gitmo detainees and a 9-11 co-conspirator (p. x, xi):
Between late November 2002 and mid-January 2003, the military used numerous aggressive techniques on Al-Qahtani, including attaching a leash to him and making him perform dog tricks, placing him in stress positions, forcing him to be nude in front of a female, accusing him of homosexuality, placing women's underwear over his head and over his clothing, and instructing him to pray to an idol shrine.I do not get the impression from the IG report that all of the techniques listed were applied simultaneously. But I don't see how one gets the underwear on Al-Qahtani's head while he's doing dog tricks without making an assumption along those lines.
"(S)leep deprivation for days with rock music, strobe lights, gurgling noise machines and ice-water dousing"
If the reader received the impression that sleep deprivation took place "for days" and in conjunction with all the additional factors she lists (suggested by the use of "and"), that's too bad, since the report does not suggest it except in a footnote mention specific to the interrogation of Al-Qahtani:
Is this sleep deprivation for "days"?
A detainee named Mohamedou Ould Slahi gave an unconfirmed claim of sleep deprivation (page 124):
Laughlin's claim of sleep deprivation for "days" could not have come from the uncorroborated claim of a detainee, could it?
Slahi made allegations to military interrogators that he had been mistreated during the summer of 2003. He made similar allegations in interviews with the OIG. He alleged that:
- He was left alone in a cold room known as "the freezer," where guards would prevent him from sleeping by putting ice or cold water on him or making noise;
- He was subjected to sleep deprivation for a period of 70 days by means of prolonged interrogations, strobe lights, threatening music, forced intake of water, and forced standing.
From page 183 of the report, dealing with the collected observations of FBI employees:
An FBI agent ... stated that under the program detainees were moved every 4 hours, but that that (sic) the program could only be continued for about a week or two.
That immediate section contained no reference to any sleep disruption apart from that occurring as a consequence of the times reassigning of quarters.
Again from the report (page 184):
(O)ne Uighur detainee, Bahtiyar Mahnut (#277) claimed that the night before his interrogation by Chinese officials he was awakened at 15-minute intervals the entire night and into the next day.Sleep deprivation for "days"?
A section in the report titled "Use of Bright Flashing Lights or Loud Music" mentions nothing about the use of those techniques in conjunction with sleep deprivation. They are mostly reported as occurring during interrogation sessions, though a footnote adds that during the Camp X-ray period music was played through a PA system audible throughout the camp--but again without any mention of its use to disrupt sleep.
Despite the absence of an account suggesting sleep deprivation via music and flashing lights in the body of the report, other than in the case of Al-Qahtani,the conclusion of the report suggests otherwise (p. 209-210):
Other FBI agents described observing military interrogators using bright lights, loud music, and extreme temperatures to keep detainees awake or otherwise wear down their resistance.
I suppose the discrepancy may be explained if detainees might have taken naps while left alone in the interrogation rooms. The detainees would thus be kept awake without being subjected to sleep deprivation.
With all due respect to Foy's opinion from the footnote, it seems ludicrous to automatically define a technique as sleep deprivation if it simply keeps a person awake instead of rousing him after he nods off. Context ought to matter, and the report offers insufficient evidence to properly judge Foy's consideration of context.
Though it might be satisfying to see one of my old high school teachers charged with a crime for keeping me awake with their lectures.
"Bending thumbs back"
The bending of thumbs, plural, did apparently occur. But the plural applies primarily because the one detainee involved had two thumbs, both of which may have been bent back.
The following account occurs on page 175:
After the military interrogators were finished with this detainee, Brett asked the Marine guard what the female interrogator had done to the detainee. The guard told Brett she was bending his thumbs back and grabbing his genitals.Is it possible that the same interrogator performed the same technique on a different prisoner? Sure, that's possible. But only one incident occurs in the report, and the evidence may be criticized as hearsay. Footnote 123 (page 176) includes a similar observation that may be the same incident but without the bending back of thumbs.
"(W)rapping heads in duct tape"
From the report (page 191):
Five OIG respondents stated that they observed or heard about the use of duct tape on a detainee. We believe that most or all of these agents were referring to the same incident.Times readers may be forgiven if they assumed, based on Laughlin's account, that "wrapping heads in duct tape" occurred either routinely or more than once.
So were these heads gift-wrapped in duct tape? Kind of like the Sand People from the "Star Wars" saga?
Lyle said that two bands of tape went entirely around the detainee's head, one that covered his eyes and one that covered his mouth. Lyle said that the detainee had a full head of hair and a beard.The incident is described in more detail on page 192. On the other hand, a summary of allegations on page 158 says:
The phrase "wrapping heads," does not come from the report, though the summary does mention the lone example above by describing it (p. 210) as "wrapping a detainee's head in duct tape."
- A detainee's entire head was duct-taped to stop him from chanting the Koran.
Laughlin's version sustains the misleading impression contained in the report itself and expands it to the point of making the incident look more commonplace.
"(S)lamming prisoners into walls and punching them to the ground"
The AG report mentions one instance of slamming a prisoner into a wall (p. 1, quoting a separate Army report):
(A)llowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell ...
Two problems: First, there is no mention of who did the slamming. Second, it happened in Iraq instead of at Guantanamo. Laughlin strongly implies that the techniques from her list were done at Guantanamo.
The report also references something akin to "punching"--again from Iraq (p. 3):
The forms of abuse included punching and kicking detainees ...Guantanamo detainees made a number of allegations of beatings, but apparently without any corroboration (pp. 178, 179).
It remains a mystery to me what Laughlin had in mind when she added this item to her list.
Laughlin makes two characteristic errors in her descriptions of alleged detainee treatment. First, she conflates disparate events together, implying that the simultaneous application of techniques that probably occurred separately if they occurred at all. Second, she reports isolated events as though they were not isolated events.
Laughlin's story on the whole fails to sustain the impression of objective reporting, and while her persistence in pressing her hosts for a little bit more information in every instance is laudable in some respects, I find it easy to empathize with GTMO officials when they stymied her attempts.
Laughlin was at her best in trying to get accurate information about current treatment of detainees, and at her worst in trying to get the present GTMO staff to comment on past allegations of abuse. The latter had nothing to do with the reason she was permitted at GTMO, and it served only to diffuse the focus of the objective story. Unless we give credit for using the abuse allegations as a vehicle for editorializing.
The Times ought to run a correction notice with respect to the claims about the contents of the IG report. Laughlin's account is fundamentally misleading, for it conveys an impression far different than one gets from a careful reading of the report.
Note: The time stamp on this post is misleading. I started the post last Sunday and kept working on it until I finally published it Saturday morning.