A newly declassified document, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, confirms that weeks after Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo started to receive detainees, Department of Defense officials expected some of these prisoners to die. Camp authorities were also informed that burial at the U.S.-run naval base in Cuba was “authorized for detainees.”
According to a February 4, 2002 directive to Camp X-Ray from the Mortuary Affairs division at Guantanamo’s new JTF-160 medical department, “As a consequence of disease, battle injury, and non-battle injury it is assumed that some loss of life may occur among detainees.”
This directive was released in response to a FOIA request I made in 2013, using the Muckrock News website.
“Detainees have died”
This newly released memo lends credence to my December 2010 report on early deaths at Guantanamo. My report described how at a February 19, 2002 meeting of the Armed Forces Epidemiological Board, a key Navy official announced that as regards Guantanamo, “[a] number of the detainees have died of the wounds that they arrived with.”
At this point, there were already 300 detainees held at the primitive cages the Defense Department called Camp X-Ray.
The statement about the deaths were made by Captain Alan “Jeff” Yund, a preventive medicine doctor from the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, and the Navy’s liaison officer to the AFEB, as he discussed “mortuary affairs” at Guantanamo, part of a larger discussion on health issues at the new prison facility.
During the meeting, Captain Yund identified himself as working directly with Admiral Steven Hart, the Director of Navy Medicine Research and Development, as well as “a number of other admirals.”
In 2006, the AFEB was dissolved by order of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and its functions incorporated with other advisory boards into the omnibus Defense Health Board.
The 2002 Mortuary Affairs directive provided instructions about disposal of the deceased: “Disposition of remains shall be carried out in accordance with the above reference instruction and/or as directed by cognizant authorities…. Given the inherent difficulty in next of kin notification, no health care surrogates will be chosen. The JTF Commander will act as the health care surrogate for all detainees under advisement of the JTF Surgeon and JTF Staff Judge.”
Links to mefloquine administration
The JTF Surgeon at the time was Captain Albert J. Shimkus, who was also commanding officer of the U.S. Naval Hospital at Guantanamo. In addition, Capt. Shimkus was the medical official who authorized an unprecedented administration treatment doses of the controversial antimalarial drug mefloquine to all detainees arriving at Guantanamo. Later, as I reported, Shimkus said that someone in his chain of command told him he wasn’t to discuss the mefloquine issue.
In his Feb. 2002 AEFB presentation, Capt. Yund discussed antimalarial measures taken at Guantanamo, but never mentioned the use of mefloquine. In fact, Yund told me that he never heard anything about the use of mefloquine at Guantanamo.
Ostensibly described as an antimalarial measure, there are numerous reasons to question the use of mefloquine, not least because of its well-known high rates of neuro-psychiatric side effects, and also because such mass empiric treatment of mefloquine has never occurred and experts found such use potentially harmful and without medical justification.
According to Capt. Yund, Shimkus possibly was the source of his information about the early deaths at Guantanamo.
In a December 7, 2010 email interview with Captain Yund, who is now retired, Yund stated he does “not recall that I was ever very directly involved in detainee health issues” at Guantanamo. Accordingly, he said the following in regards to his statement about detainee deaths:
“I did not make that statement from personal or direct knowledge. It may have come from CAPT Shimkus’ presentation, or possibly from conversations or meetings with other Navy Preventive Medicine personnel colleagues. It is not the type of statement I would have made without having learned it from a source I considered reliable.”
Captain Lund did insist he remembered hearing a “a detailed and fascinating account” of “events and issues” at Guantanamo, though he couldn’t remember the date or place.
In a phone interview with me for the Dec. 2010 article linked above, Capt. Shimkus, who was by then an Associate Professor that the U.S. Naval War College, denied any knowledge of any early deaths at Guantanamo, and denied telling Capt. Yund of any such deaths.
Shimkus said that “no deaths occurred” while he was there, but that he did speak to others at the time of the task force preparing for possible deaths. He could not offer any explanation for what Captain Yund reported.
In the AFEB transcript itself, there is no surprise or other comment or correction made on on Yund’s announcement concerning detainee deaths. The meeting was also attended by other military medical staff, civilian medical advisers, and upper-levels of the DoD bureaucracy, including Admiral Hart, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Health Protection and Readiness, Dr. William Winkenwerder, and his deputy, Ellen Embrey. The meeting, held at the Island Club, North Island Naval Air Station, San Diego, was chaired by Dr. Steven Ostroff from the Centers for Disease Control.
The North Island Naval Air Station, San Diego, was also the site of the Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, or SERE program, and it was Navy SERE officials who pushed hard for waterboarding to be part of the SERE curriculum.
The Department of Defense also went on the record at the time of my first article, stating that the first death at Guantanamo did not occur until the three “suicides” in June 2006.
It is not disputed that some detainees arrived at Guantanamo with serious battlefield injuries. According to Karen Greenberg, in her book The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days, hundreds of detainees had been rendered to Guantanamo by February 15, 2002, and there were many who needed major surgery.
According to Greenberg, Capt. Shimkus had been told to expect battlefield wounds. “Surgeries had become a regular event at the facility. The first of several amputations had taken place on February 7. Surgeons had also performed neurosurgery and thoracic surgery….”
Notes from a doctor working at the facility, dated February 22, 2002, which I reviewed, discuss the previous day’s cardio-thoracic and neurosurgeries. A thoracotomy (excision of a portion of a lung) was said to have been performed on detainee “205.” The same day’s notes also describe an incident in which a detainee was handcuffed via a broken arm.
Despite all these major surgeries, we are supposed to believe that Guantanamo doctors did not lose one patient, even after their patients were transported under onerous conditions thousands of miles from where their injuries occurred!
It does not seem out of the realm of possibility that DoD would want to keep early deaths secret during the highly sensitive period when it was first setting up its “battle lab” — as they called it — at Guantanamo. Nor can the influence of the CIA, which ran at least one black site at Guantanamo in its early days, be ruled out.
Nor is it strange that we do not have more first-hand accounts of certain events at Guantanamo, as all personnel there must sign a security clearance waiver, and are under significant legal and practical pressures not to talk about what they saw or experienced. Consider the sanctions aimed at former Guantanamo guard Albert Melise for talking to reporter Jason Leopold back in 2011.
A bureaucracy for deaths
The directive recently released by FOIA also described in some detail how detainee deaths would be handled through the Pentagon’s large bureaucracy.
“USCINCSO will notify the National Military Command Center (NMCC) when a detainee dies either enroute or while incarcerated at Naval Base GTMO,” the Mortuary Affairs document explained. “The NMCC will notify the Department of State (DOS) and request that DOS notify the decedents’ home of record. NMCC will also notify the National Detainee Information Center (NDIC). The NDIC is responsible for notifying the International Chapter of the Red Cross (ICRC) of a detainee death.”
Though I have searched diligently, I could find no record of a National Detainee Information Center. Perhaps the memo’s author meant to refer to the National Detainee Reporting Center (NDRC), which sends information on detainees to the International Committee of the Red Cross, while it also “obtain[s] and store[s] information concerning unprivileged Enemy Combatants and their confiscated personal property.”
More practically, the document explains, “The processing of detainee remains shall be handled by the Command Mortician and Head, Patient Administration…. In the event a detainee is buried in GTMO, the location of the grave will be recorded with the Graves Registration Service.”
Ultimately, the Department of Mortuary Affairs was to cede authority in regards to detainee deaths to the new Joint Task Force 160 being set up at Guantanamo.
According to the FOIA-released directive, “Once the JTF is established and capable of conducting mortuary services, Navbase GTMO will transition mortuary affairs responsibility to the JTF… Limited mortuary services are available at Naval Hospital Navbase GTMO.”
Instructions for burial
Instructions were also provided on preparing a detainee for burial: “A Muslim should be buried within 24 hours of death, in a grave that is 6 feet in depth with the head facing Mecca and marked with a stone above the head… After the body is washed, it is rubbed with ‘Kafoud,’ a pleasant smelling substance, Muslim chaplains should have this product readily available…. The [Department of State] will contact the embassy of the decendents home of record for disposition instructions…. If determination is made that the U.S. will inter the deceased the remains will be buried at Navbase GTMO…. Burial at Navbase GTMO is authorized for detainees.” (bold emphasis added)
In a strange assertion of detainee rights, given the U.S. government argued at the time that detainees did not have the right to secure attorneys, Guantanamo authorities were told “detainees have the right to self-determination and the opportunity to request advance directives or living wills.”
Back in 2010, Dr. Steven Miles, author of Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror, who wrote on the Department of Defense’s history of hiding deaths by torture and falsifying autopsies, shared his reaction to news of the possible deaths I reported at that time:
This is an enormously important event. I have tried, without success to have the DoD or the media, clarify the huge inconsistencies in prisoner death reporting to no avail. My article on this remains unpublished by the medical media and by Slate etc.
Since that time, there was the release of a portion of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA black site program. But that redacted section of the report left many questions unanswered.
In 2010, I wrote, “There is a tremendous need for Congressional and/or independent investigations that have full mandate and subpoena power to ferret out the truth about what has occurred at Guantanamo and other U.S. ‘war on terror’ prisons.
“The biggest obstacle to this, besides the Pentagon and the GOP, is the Democratic Party leadership itself, which refuses to undertake or fund such investigations, and whose leader in the White House, President Barack Obama, opposes — against treaty obligations described in Article 12 of the Convention Against Torture — such investigations.”
Sadly, President Obama did not press for further investigations, and the current crop of Democratic Party nominees for the presidency show no appetite for doing so either. President Trump and the GOP support the ongoing operations at Guantanamo, and have even less interest in investigations. It will take public pressure — thus far sorely lacking — to change the direction of history towards accountability and justice.