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Guantanamo Suicides Stir Criticism of U.S. Policy

June 12, 2006 at 3:25 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: The three suicides over the weekend at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. We get the latest from Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald. She’s been reporting from Guantanamo, and she joins us now from there by telephone.

Carol Rosenberg, welcome.

CAROL ROSENBERG, The Miami Herald: Well, thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Carol, is there anything new, first of all, today on possible motives these three men might have had for taking their own lives?

CAROL ROSENBERG: They’re not talking about those sorts of things. They say that the Navy criminal investigators are in control, I believe, of the suicide notes and all of the forensic material and are compiling a report. And the autopsies have been completed in the labs here, and now the pathologists have gone back to the States to analyze the findings.

JIM LEHRER: So there has been no public release of what those autopsies found, correct?

CAROL ROSENBERG: No, they’re still compiling them. They finished the work in the lab and they’ve gone back to the States.

JIM LEHRER: It’s going back. And on the notes, each one had a separate note; is that correct?

CAROL ROSENBERG: Yes, the military says that each one left a note behind, and we aren’t going to see them any time in the near future. The commander I spoke to said he hadn’t seen them himself.

JIM LEHRER: But nothing is leaking around the edges on this story; is that right, Carol?

CAROL ROSENBERG: They’ve been pretty tight — it’s been a pretty close hold on this. This is something that hasn’t happened here in the past 4 1/2 years, and people are being pretty disciplined about dealing with the aftermath of this.

JIM LEHRER: Not only have there not been any suicides, there haven’t been any deaths, am I right about that, in 4 1/2 years?

CAROL ROSENBERG: That’s right. No detainee has died at Guantanamo before Saturday night, according to the military. They had some close calls, another suicide attempt by hanging, but, in that instance, the guards cut that man down a number of years ago.

JIM LEHRER: Now, in these three cases, the best you can piece together — and I realize it’s very difficult, because, as you say, the lid is on tight — but the best you can piece it together, how did these three men avoid detection? In other words, how did they pull it off, particularly at essentially the same time on Saturday?

CAROL ROSENBERG: Yes, they all did it overnight. They were all discovered well before dawn hanging, one after another.

The military says that they’ve sort of shifted tactics from one thing to another. When they were trying to supposedly kill themselves with hunger strikes, they broke the hunger strikes, so, at various times, different detainees, other detainees tried to slit their wrists and cut themselves.

There were drug overdoses; people were found unconscious. And in this instance, they managed to made nooses, they say, out of bed sheets, but they don’t explain why these were not spotted.

U.S. views deaths as an act of war

Carol Rosenberg
The Miami Herald
[T]he military has kind of an interesting formulation on this... They don't say that they killed themselves because they were sick, or they were crazy, or there was despair... The general in charge... compared these suicides to September 11.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes. Now this motives question, as you know, there have been all kinds of speculation about this that, well, they were desperate, they were just desperate, and, you know, just normal human kinds of things. And then versus they were trying to make a statement, this was politics, and they were trying to -- that's why all three of them did it at the same time. Anything you can add or subtract to any of that?

CAROL ROSENBERG: Well, the military has kind of an interesting formulation on this, I think. They don't say that they killed themselves because they were sick, or they were crazy, or there was despair, like the lawyers claim.

The general in charge of SOUTHCOM came down here yesterday, and he compared these suicides to September 11, a bed sheet is like an airliner, and basically he talked about something what he called "asymmetrical idiosyncratic tactics." They see these deaths as an act of war, or that's the way they're characterizing them.

JIM LEHRER: That's the way they're characterized. Now, is there anything about these three particular men that seems to either -- to fly in the face of that or to support that?

CAROL ROSENBERG: We know less about these three men than we know about a lot of others. They have never been charged. As best as we can tell, they've never seen American lawyers, and more than about 130 of 460 down here have actually met lawyers.

They supposedly never asked for lawyers, and they never participated in internal review processes, if you believe the paperwork that's come out of the Pentagon, of transcripts of these internal reviews where detainees went before panels and argued whether they should be let go.

JIM LEHRER: In other words...

CAROL ROSENBERG: The point is that -- sorry.

Still being actively interrogated?

JIM LEHRER: No, I was just going to say, the reviews were designed to determine whether or not there would be a next step, a hearing, or that sort of thing, right?

CAROL ROSENBERG: The reviews were established by the Pentagon to have a panel of military officers who are not involved in the prison look at the allegations or the reasons why the military said they were holding them. It was a separate proceeding.

And they would look at their case files, and they would say, "Should there be enemy combatants or shouldn't they?"

The paperwork has come out through freedom in information. The best that I can see -- and I've gone through all the paperwork -- these men did not take part. They didn't go to the panels, and they didn't make an argument.

I don't know what that tells you. Does it tell you that they were defying American military, as is characterized here, that these were hard-knock cases? Or was it telling you that they didn't believe they'd get a fair shake? We don't have anyone who can speak for them.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Is there any information about whether or not they were still being actively interrogated?

CAROL ROSENBERG: No, the admiral told us a couple of weeks ago that 25 percent of the detainees here are being actively interrogated. One of the Saudis was cleared for release, meaning he could be transferred back to at least his homeland for further jailing. That suggests they didn't want to interrogate him.

And they were being held in a camp called One, which has some interrogation, we believe, going on. But the high-value prisoners with the most active interrogations were being held in a camp called Five. So there's reason to believe that they probably weren't actively interrogated.

What happens to the bodies?

Carol Rosenberg
The Miami Herald
I hear that there's not really any desire on any part to bury them here on this Navy base, and they'd like to get them back to their countries.

JIM LEHRER: All right, now, what happens to the bodies of these three men now?

CAROL ROSENBERG: They went through the autopsies. They are now in the morgue. The military brought in a Navy lieutenant, a Muslim, Bangladeshi-American, who was at Quantico, and he's in there with other Muslim members of the military preparing them.

They're going to wash them, and shroud them, and put them in a coffin facing Mecca, he said, and offer them all the traditional Muslim rights.

As it happens, the State Department is talking to some people in Saudi and some people in Yemen and they're discussing repatriation. I hear that's pretty likely. I hear that there's not really any desire on any part to bury them here on this Navy base, and they'd like to get them back to their countries.

Experienced reporters should leave

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes. Just one quick, professional question. You've been on this story, the Guantanamo story, for what, since the beginning, right, 4 1/2 years?

CAROL ROSENBERG: Yes, since before the first prisoners came, coming back and forth.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. And you're only one -- how many reporters are there now?

CAROL ROSENBERG: There's three of us.

JIM LEHRER: Three of you.

CAROL ROSENBERG: Three print reporters: two who were coming down for the trials, and one who is coming down on a feature story.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. And you're no -- we're talking on the telephone because there are no cameras allowed, right?

CAROL ROSENBERG: No, there was supposed to be a pool camera down here for the military trials, but those were canceled. And most of the military to media invitations were withdrawn on Saturday. We just slipped in real quick to cover this story.

JIM LEHRER: And, just for the record, you're not allowed to talk to any detainees, right?

CAROL ROSENBERG: No detainees. I've never spoken to one.

JIM LEHRER: Never spoken to one? What about any of their lawyers that may show up down there? Can you talk to them?

CAROL ROSENBERG: Yes, I've spoken to the habeas corpus attorneys down here a number of times. They're more comfortable speaking off the island. They don't want to lose the rights to talk to the prisoners. They don't to become -- they don't want to look as though they're pushing the envelope of information until they file in the courts. So some of the lawyers are a little anxious about talking.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. So it's difficult under any circumstance. Has it become worse since Saturday and the three suicides, just in terms of getting information and access to other officials, beyond the people in charge?

CAROL ROSENBERG: The people in charge here have recognized that this is a really big challenge, and they're trying to get ahead on the information. And they've been doing a pretty good job of keeping us up to date, briefing.

I'm getting the impression -- we're getting the impression that there's a little bit of pressure up north, maybe in the Pentagon, to cut off some of the coverage. We've heard that, somewhere at the Department of Defense, they'd like the experienced reporters to leave the island, I think, by Wednesday.

JIM LEHRER: Meaning Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, right?

CAROL ROSENBERG: Meaning, yes, myself and a colleague from the L.A. Times.

JIM LEHRER: I got you. All right, Carol, thank you very much for the update, and we'll be talking to you soon again, we hope.

CAROL ROSENBERG: I appreciate it. Thank you.