How a Prison Guard and Former OC Journalist Exposed Shocking Abuses Inside Guantanamo

How a Prison Guard and Former OC Journalist Exposed Shocking Abuses Inside Guantanamo
Jeff Drew

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt of Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood by OC Weekly managing editor Nick Schou. (Part of a series of investigative works edited by Hot Books creator and Salon co-founder David Talbot, the book will be released by Skyhorse Publications on Tuesday.) Historians of OC journalism should note that Jason Leopold, the intrepid Vice News investigative reporter featured below, is a former employee of Costa Mesa's Daily Pilot. As Leopold recounts in his entertaining memoir, News Junkie (Rare Bird Books, 2014), he was fired from that job after a co-worker complained that he played loud heavy-metal music at work; when Leopold heard about the complaint, he facetiously screamed that he'd "kill" the next person who went to human resources rather than confront him directly. This "threat" violated the paper's policies and led to Leopold's dismissal by then-editor Bill Lobdell.

Later on, Leopold kicked a drug addiction, helped break the Enron imbroglio and filed countless other stories, including ones that ultimately produced the ongoing Hillary Clinton email scandal. His admirable refusal to depend on anonymous national security sources for his reporting—relying instead mostly on Freedom of Information Act requests—led to him being nicknamed the "FOIA Terrorist" by the FBI. It also won him a trip last year to Washington, D.C., where he testified to Congress about the need to strengthen FOIA on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the law. Special thanks goes to both Leopold and former Guantanamo Bay prison guard Joseph Hickman, who, for reasons that sadly have yet to be accepted by the Pentagon, is exactly the kind of watchdog America needs in the war on terror.

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The dust had barely settled at the lower Manhattan site of the collapsed World Trade Center towers in September 2001 when America's national security state began setting into motion a series of secret policies that would lead to seemingly endless war and the exponential growth of a global surveillance and detention system. The story of how the CIA, working in tandem with White House and Pentagon officials and handpicked constitutional lawyers, created a massive spying system, an "extraordinary rendition" (officially sanctioned kidnapping) program, and widespread "enhanced interrogation" (torture) at "black sites" (secret prisons)—all outside the framework of domestic and international law—has been well-told. At the heart of this "extra-legal" system was the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, operated by the Pentagon on the oldest overseas U.S. Navy base, at the southern tip of Cuba. Since this facility held some of the highest-profile prisoners and came under the most international scrutiny, Washington put a major effort into choreographing media coverage of "Gitmo."

"They used to bring us down there on these dog-and-pony shows to see how great the facilities were," said Brian Bender, Politico's defense correspondent.

Jason Leopold of Vice News, who has also made numerous trips to Guantanamo Bay, agreed the experience was essentially a media circus. "I don't even know if you'd call it manipulation because it's just propaganda and brainwashing," he said. "Guantanamo is a place where the military is simply trying to put out its version of how great Guantanamo is: 'Look at all these video games; look at all these books. Look at the meals! Taste the food we give to them.' Are you kidding me? These guys are in prison."

Predictably, many reporters who paid personal visits to the base have all too eagerly lapped up the military's propaganda that, if anything, the Guantanamo detainees are being treated too kindly. In his reporting on Guantanamo Bay, Leopold said he has been careful to avoid buying into the Pentagon's euphemistic press releases, which, for example, refer to leg irons as "humane restraints" and force-feeding, which is commonly used against hunger-striking detainees at the prison, as "enteral feeding." Leopold can't remember ever feeling so manipulated as a reporter than while at Guantanamo Bay. "Everything was staged; everything was rehearsed," he recalled. "They [rehearsed] what they were going to say; they told the guards what to say; they sat in on the interviews, wouldn't allow guards to answer questions. I have never seen more secrecy than I have when I visited Guantanamo Bay. It is a black hole."

On one trip, in 2013, when Leopold happened to be the only reporter touring the base, the Pentagon's metaphorical curtain briefly fell away from the stage when Leopold's military handler left him alone for a few minutes inside the Media Operations Center on the naval side of the base. "I'm in there by myself and see all these different cards spread on the floor," he recalled. Leopold picked up one of the cards and read both sides. "Holy shit," he thought. "I scored. The trip is worth it just for this." What Leopold had in his hands was a Public Affairs Smart Card, a set of instructions on what could and couldn't be shared with reporters.

 

Fooling reporters since 2001
Fooling reporters since 2001
Kathleen T. Rhem/Public Domain, Department of Defense

Under the section "What You CAN Talk About" were catchphrases such as "Mission: Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent," as well as suggested story pitches including "[A] Day in the Life of a Guard." The card urged Gitmo spokespeople to "Own the Interview, Stay Confident" and "Stay in Your Lane," adding that under no circumstances was it permissible to discuss "high-value detainees," detainee "suicide," "attorney allegations," the "results of investigations" or "speculation on detainee release." Finally, the card urged prison media handlers to remember that "everything is on the record and to never say, 'No comment.'"

After Lesley Stahl and her 60 Minutes camera crew won a tour of the prison, which the CBS program billed as "unprecedented access," Leopold called the Pentagon's public-affairs office, demanding to know how this had been arranged. When the Pentagon refused to answer, Leopold filed a FOIA request demanding access to all emails and other correspondence relating to the 60 Minutes visit. "When [other reporters] go to Guantanamo, we are not afforded great access," he complained. "You get to see a cell block. It's empty. We get to observe detainees at a distance." So Leopold couldn't believe his eyes when he saw the 60 Minutes segment. "You've gotta be fucking kidding me," he recalled thinking.

"They showed Lesley Stahl walking down an active cell block with detainees yelling, 'They are torturing us; get us out of here,'" he said. "Access that was not afforded to us. How the fuck did this happen?"

Two months after making the FOIA request, Leopold received a call from the Pentagon public-affairs office complaining they were being forced to comply with his time-consuming request. "Can you explain to me why you're doing this?" the spokesperson asked Leopold. "Can you explain to me how you would feel if I was to say to you, 'I want to see all your emails'?"

Leopold responded by saying it was nothing personal: "I had no idea they were going to ask for all your emails. But I want to know how [CBS] got access."

According to Leopold, the Pentagon's public-affairs office punished him by leaking information he had requested to a rival reporter. "I had a FOIA for a document, and the document that was eventually given to me was first given to my competitor at the Miami Herald," he said. "And the argument that was made was 'Well, once we release it under FOIA, it's available to everyone.' Sure it is, I know that, but it's not usually the way it works. . . . That was payback."

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Leopold at Gitmo
Leopold at Gitmo
Courtesy Jason Leopold

Unlike most of Guantanamo Bay's prison guards, whose average age hovers somewhere around 20 years old, Joseph Hickman was already in his thirties when he arrived on the island in 2006. A former correctional officer, Hickman enlisted in the army after 9/11; upon completing airborne ranger training, he joined the Maryland National Guard, which is how he ended up at Guantanamo Bay. "It was a huge charade; it was absolutely ridiculous how we manipulated the press," Hickman recalled. Every time a reporter was scheduled to visit the prison, Hickman said, the public-affairs officers would begin preparing a week ahead of time. "Two or three days before the reporters arrived, they would do rehearsals of where they were taking them," he said. "They would have guards playing the reporters. It was rehearsed to the tiniest detail."

In order to keep reporters from realizing how thoroughly scripted their prison tours were, the Gitmo public-affairs officers would even practice supposedly spontaneous events, according to Hickman. "The public-affairs officer would say, 'Why don't we head this way? Let's see what's happening here.' They did this the whole time." Hickman said that the only area of the prison complex where journalists were allowed to visit was the one reserved for compliant prisoners. "If some [prisoners there] were still mouthy, they would move them to maximum-security cells prior to the reporters getting there. They filtered out the ones they were worried about. And if they did yell out, they'd be put in maximum security."

The one time Hickman can recall Guantanamo public affairs getting nervous about a reporter's upcoming visit involved Ted Koppel, the well-respected former anchor for ABC's late-night news program, Nightline, who was working at the time on a three-hour special about the war on terror for the Discovery Channel; the piece aired in September 2006. "Koppel scared the shit out of them for some reason," Hickman said. "I don't know if they were afraid of information he had, but they practiced for two weeks every day." Conversely, only two days of rehearsals took place when FOX News' Bill O'Reilly showed up. "They knew from the beginning that O'Reilly would give them a good report."

 

As it turned out, the Pentagon had very little to fear from Koppel, who spent three days at Guantanamo only to depart with such penetrating observations as "the men all have long beards" and, just like prison inmates anywhere, "they don't look nearly so dangerous as they might if you were meeting them in a different situation in which they were holding a weapon." During an interview the TV news legend gave NPR about his documentary, when asked whether the prisoners seemed to be well-treated, he responded blandly that they "look all right." The headline of a New York Times review of his show noted that instead of asking the tough questions viewers might have expected, Koppel had essentially given "officials a cozy forum" to talk about terrorism.

Not only did the outside world have almost no real understanding of the conditions in Guantanamo Bay, but, according to Hickman, the same was also true for most of the guards working inside the prison. For Hickman, all that changed one afternoon when he and another guard were conducting a mobile patrol along the perimeter of Camp America, a sprawling area that contains the much smaller Camp Delta where the detainees are housed. While patrolling, Hickman spotted a secret complex nestled on a hillside. The facilities looked newly built, with aluminum siding. "I felt a really strange feeling in my gut," Hickman recalled. "It wasn't on any of our maps of the entire island. This place wasn't supposed to be there at all."

The guard who was with Hickman shared his suspicions. "You know what we just found?" he asked. "We just found our Auschwitz." Hickman and the guard gave the secret facility the nickname "Camp No," as in "no such camp."

Not long after—on the evening of June 9, 2006—Hickman, while working his shift as Camp Delta's sergeant of the guard and standing duty in a 35-foot tower, watched a prisoner being taken out of one of the detention blocks and placed in a white van that went in the direction of Camp No. The van returned 20 minutes later and picked up a second prisoner, then a third. Shortly before midnight, the van returned and backed up to the medical clinic. That's when all the lights came on at the camp, and the siren went off. Hickman approached a Navy corpsman he knew from the medical clinic, who told him that three detainees had just died and that rags had been stuffed down their throats. The Pentagon issued a press release stating that in an act of "asymmetrical warfare," the three detainees had committed suicide by simultaneously hanging themselves. But Hickman became convinced the men had been killed, perhaps accidentally, while being interrogated at Camp No.

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Leopold testifying before Congress in 2015
Leopold testifying before Congress in 2015
Courtesy Jason Leopold

After leaving the service with an honorable discharge, Hickman continued to investigate the mysterious Guantanamo deaths, with the help of researchers at New Jersey's Seton Hall University School of Law. Hickman and his research team found evidence that the dead prisoners had been subjected to unusually high doses of mefloquine, a powerful anti-malarial drug. Malaria doesn't exist in Cuba, and Hickman insisted that neither he nor any of the guards with whom he had served were inoculated against it. But he found evidence that mefloquine—which at high levels can cause psychotic reactions, including suicidal thoughts—was sometimes used on interrogation subjects by U.S. security agencies.

In 2010, Hickman shared his story with journalist Scott Horton, who published a lengthy investigation of the detainees' deaths the following year in Harper's Magazine, which won the 2011 National Magazine Award for reporting. Horton concluded that the three detainees did not commit suicide by hanging themselves with blankets, as the military claimed, but died—either accidentally or intentionally—while being tortured.

Despite winning the prestigious National Magazine Award, the Gitmo exposé met with stiff resistance from major newspapers and TV networks. Hickman, with his spotless military record, knew the Pentagon would have a difficult time discrediting him. "I had some of the highest ratings as an NCO [non-commissioned officer] you can get," he said. "When I was on duty in June 2006 [when the detainees died], for that quarter—April, May and June—I was rated the best NCO in Guantanamo, and prior to going [to Cuba], I was soldier of the year for the whole year in the state of Maryland."

While this protected Hickman against any smear campaigns, it didn't prevent the press from ignoring his story. Veteran reporters such as Brian Ross, head of ABC News' investigative unit, and Jim Miklaszewski, NBC News' chief Pentagon correspondent, interviewed Hickman and his Seton Hall Law School researchers but suddenly dropped the story without explanation after talking to Pentagon officials.

Besides the Harper's award-winning cover story, the only exception to the media blackout of Hickman's exposé was a December 2010 story by Leopold and Jeffrey Kaye for the online news site Truthout. Leopold learned of Hickman while pursuing his own inquiry into the suspicious deaths of Gitmo inmates. By interviewing lawyers for detainees, Leopold had already learned of longstanding allegations of torture at the prison. So when he heard that three detainees had all supposedly committed suicide at the same time in an act of "asymmetrical warfare," he didn't believe it for an instant. "That was obviously a turning point in the history of Guantanamo Bay," Leopold said.

 

Hickman
Hickman
Deptartment of Defense

In 2008, Leopold discovered that a man named Scott Gerwehr—who said he worked for the CIA at the prison and had apparently just begun reaching out to reporters about what he knew—died in a motorcycle crash in Los Angeles. "I had learned he was working for the CIA, setting up the cameras there, doing what was called 'deception detection' during interrogations," Leopold recalled. "In the course of that investigation, I learned that one person who may have information about him was Joe Hickman. So I reached out to Joe."

During their conversation, Hickman told Leopold he should look into mefloquine. "It set me on a path to investigate this drug," Leopold recalled. "It turned out to be this incredible, strange story that to this day remains a mystery." A mystery, it should be added, that remains so thanks to military censors and media spin artists—as well as a national security press with no stomach for compelling the Pentagon to account for its actions.

In 2015, Hickman wrote about what he witnessed at Guantanamo Bay in a riveting book, Murder at Camp Delta—which also chronicled the media blackout of the story. Unsurprisingly, Hickman's book was also largely ignored by the press. Meanwhile, the hand of military spin artists could be seen at work on Amazon, where Murder at Camp Delta came under vitriolic attack. A reviewer identifying himself as James Crabtree blasted the book. "The only good thing I can say about Murder at Camp Delta is that, having read many volumes about the facility, it is refreshing to find a fantasy book about Gitmo torture written by someone other than a former detainee for a change," Crabtree wrote on the book's Amazon page. Although he didn't mention it in his review, Crabtree is a former public-affairs officer at Guantanamo Bay.

Fifteen years after the beginning of the war on terror, not a single U.S. official, military officer or CIA interrogator at Guantanamo Bay or any of the other post-9/11 detention centers around the globe has been convicted in connection with the torture or death of a detainee. The only people associated with America's global gulag to be tried and punished were 11 low-level soldiers who served at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Those higher up in the chain of command have enjoyed legal immunity because there is virtually no public pressure in the United States for these officials to be held accountable. The massive public indifference to these crimes stems from the fact that the corporate media has almost entirely accepted the national security complex's rationale for the endless state of emergency imposed by the government after 9/11. The normal rules and legal constraints no longer apply, the government told the world after 9/11. And the media, by and large, continues to let this authoritarian state of affairs go unchallenged.

In fact, the only CIA officer even remotely connected to the agency's torture program to have so far faced justice is former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who spent two years in a federal prison in Pennsylvania for leaking classified information to a reporter. "I didn't think I was saying anything particularly controversial, but it turned out I was the first CIA official to ever acknowledge the fact that we were torturing prisoners," Kiriakou told me shortly after his release. Kiriakou's crime was not participating in waterboarding, but rather exposing it. This is the upside-down world that America's major press institutions have allowed to become entrenched in Washington, by refusing to challenge the national security state's Orwellian mentality. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.


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