SPOILER ALERT: my review of this 5 star book is not only a recommendation but a summary of its plot
This book has it all. Patriotic American soldier compelled by his conscience to prove his government’s attempt to cover up a war crime? Check. Neckless corpses of prisoners of war returned to their families with no further explanation? Check. Autopsy reports showing mysteriously high dosages of an unnecessary vaccine whose side-effects at such a high dose are the psychological equivalent of the terror of 30 days of nonstop waterboarding? Check. Tom Clancy style intelligence community tipsters who call late at night from a blocked phone number to drop URL breadcrumbs leading to missing pages of a 3,000 page NCIS report so redacted it takes a team of law students to make heads or tails of it over months of research? Check. But this is no novel. “Murder at Camp Delta” is a true story written by a marine who values his oath to serve his country and protect the Constitution so intensely that it trumps all concern for any potential consequences he might suffer as a result of this book’s publication.
Sgt Joseph Hickman paints a picture of his experience at the prison at Guantanamo Bay in a series of vivid and sometimes even funny memories of his deployment to JTF-GTMO, among them a bit of culture-shock when an English speaking detainee, replete with British accent, calls him “mate” and asks him to toss a fugitive soccer ball back over a fence, the time he gets called Satan and told he fights like a demon by a group of detainees who rush his team in a communal cell, or the brotherly (and hilarious) grief he gets from his squad for going to a movie with a younger female medic. All of these vignettes show us the unique personality of a soldier who serves in the military with pride and honor. But it is the moments where Sgt Hickman serves our country, willing to make sacrifices many in his position might not, that make this story one of heroism. One of the most memorable is when he stops two guards from playing a game with a detainee who had a prosthetic leg. The guards liked to make the man, al-Gazzar, put on his prosthetic leg, shackle him, and make him walk that way so that when one of them tapped the prosthetic leg, the detainee would collapse and flail on the ground. Why? When Sgt Hickman asks them why, they say because it’s “f—ing hilarious.” In contrast, Hickman addresses this man as a human being — an alleged terrorist — not as a monster, and speaks to him in a rapport-building manner, affording him basic decency, the kind the United States used to lead the world in displaying even in times of desperation such as war. Sgt Hickman’s resistance to the steamrolling of our national moral compass, not only when he protects al-Gazzar from torment (and, no, not because reverse-Stockholm syndrome kicked in and he was sympathizing with al-Gazzar or even because Geneva Convention dictates: he did it because treating prisoners of war humanely is the right thing to do) but again when he goes to the Inspector General, adhering to all military protocol, to report discrepancies in the official Pentagon version of the story of the deaths of 3 detainees on the night of June 9, 2006. What the Pentagon announces to the media is that the three deaths were part of a suicide pact among 3 detainees determined to commit asymmetrical warfare against the US by hanging themselves in their cells. The discrepancy? Sgt Hickman was on duty as SOG (Sergeant of the Guard) and assigned to watch over the entire Alpha Block where all 3 of those detainees were housed, standing fewer than 200 feet away from those very cells. As he states in the book, he was a witness to the fact that three men were not carried from Alpha block to the medical clinic after midnight or at any time that evening, contrary to what the NCIS investigation report stated; but he was witness to three men – three alive men – being let out and taken away from their cells hours before the “suicides” were alleged by the Pentagon to have taken place. (For those familiar with recent history’s revelations that GTMO was also used as a black site for the EIT program, you can guess that they were being taken to that black site building for some “Q & A;” Sgt Hickman is very careful, however, to merely state the facts as he observes them which in my view, lends even greater credibility to his testimony. And he does state that it was a common occurrence for detainees to be removed from their cells and brought back at a later time.)
Haunted by his memories and how they compare to the “official version” of the night of June 9, 2006, Sgt Hickman describes the anguish that compels him to find out if his government was involved in a true cover-up. When he realizes he’ll need help to prove it — or, as he initially and optimistically hopes, to disprove any hint of conspiracy — he chooses Seton Hall University School of Law’s Center for Policy and Research based on their impressive “Report on Guantanamo Detainees: A Profile of 517 Detainees Through Analysis of Department of Defense Data” which deduced that only 8% of Guantanamo detainees were actually al qaeda fighters. The most interesting thing about Seton Hall’s team of researchers is the methodology they employ, relying only on the government’s own public reports and public federal court findings to identify contradictions and then use the process of elimination to reveal the truth, much like solving an elaborate logic square puzzle. So without knowing anything about any Joseph Hickman or his side of the story, the graduate students on the Seton Hall team focus only on the heavily redacted and incomplete 3,000 page NCIS report of the investigation into the events of June 9, 2006 and slowly but surely scrape away the layers of misdirection that inundate it. Their conclusion? Three prisoners died but not in their cells.
Three Guantanamo prisoners died on the night of June 9, 2006. But not in their cells.
Additionally, after the research team learns that the cell blocks had cameras both inside the cells and out, they are shocked to see that NCIS had made this illogical note in the report: “No video evidence is available.” Really? And conveniently, when the the bodies of the dead were sent back to their families, the families could not have their sons properly autopsied to independently verify death by hanging. Why? Because they were sent back without the necks. And then there was the repeated reference NCIS made to an unnamed Senior Medical Officer (SMO) who had examined all three of the detainees and pronounced them dead, yet, oddly, none of the investigators had taken a statement from him or her.
The reader soon learns that, meanwhile, the IG (Inspector General) has declined to order the FBI to investigate Sgt Hickman’s claims, and then, disappointingly, that ABC declines to air the TV interview of Sgt Hickman they had filmed (after running it by the Pentagon, they changed their mind). Harper’s magazine does run an award winning story about the deaths in 2010, but the backlash from both government officials and the mainstream media is endless. All hope seems lost when — very suddenly — the story takes an unexpected Tom Clancy turn and Sgt Hickman gets a mysterious phone call from someone whose caller id is blocked. Someone, the reader gasps to discover, within the intelligence community who won’t even say his name before rushing to alert Hickman to an obscure file on the Department of Defense website, one of over 200,000 released in response to a FOIA request, showing a memo from, and signed by, Admiral Harris – the highest ranking military official at GTMO on June 9, 2006 – to General Craddock (then head of SouthCom) encouraging him to encourage NCIS to specifically seek evidence of a suicide plot in their investigation despite the fact that NCIS had already concluded that there was not one. While this is surprising and a blatant attempt to manipulate the outcome of the investigation, this reader concluded that the real point of Unnamed Caller’s tip was to get Sgt Hickman onto the page of the DoD website with the data dump so that Hickman would eventually ask himself, “wait – if this Admiral Harris memo somehow mysteriously ended up on here, what if something else having to do with the NCIS investigation got inadvertently uploaded too?” Which something else did. Two something elses that Hickman finds after three weeks of sifting through a hay-mountain.
Remember the missing Senior Medical Officer’s statement? The one the Seton Hall researchers were shocked was never taken by NCIS when that person would have been the one to examine the bodies and pronounce them dead? Lo and behold, that missing page of the NCIS report was part of the same FOIA “data dump” as the Admiral Harris Memo, and in it, the Senior Medical Officer clearly states the cause of death of one of the three detainees who died on June 9, 2006, al-Zahrani: asphyxiation caused by a blockage of the airway, a result of cloth inserted through his oral cavity and into the windpipe. Not hanging. Not suicide. Cloth. Rags stuffed so far down his throat that he choked to death.
The second document Sgt Hickman found in the data dump was the sworn statement — three pages long — of a master-at-arms (military police officer here identified as an MA3) who said he saw al-Zahrani in the early hours of June 10, 2006 in the medical clinic still alive, but limp, his feet blue. This MA3 and his partner had been called to assist by the use of a medical brevity code that indicated a living detainee having life-threatening symptoms, a code used frequently to call responders to hunger-striking detainees who had become faint from lack of food, not one used to indicate a suicide in progress. And, this MA3 described medical staff then telling the Camp 1 guards to remove al-Zahrani’s handcuffs so an IV could be inserted. (Slightly difficult for a person to hang themselves with handcuffs on – even more odd for a person to put his or her head in a noose and get all set to jump and then put handcuffs on before jumping.) This MA3 makes 2 more astounding claims, under oath: 1) that after the handcuffs were removed, he observed a corpsman binding an altered detainee bed sheet to each of al-Zahrani’s wrists, leaving approximately a foot of cloth in between and 2) that two Combat Camera personnel began to film all three detainees before “Colonel B” stopped them.
Then we learn that those three pages comprising the MA3’s statement were not only removed from the 3,000 page NCIS report, but three other pages of it were copied and RE-NUMBERED BY OUR GOVERNMENT and inserted back into the 3,000 page report as if no one would ever pore over each page and realize that three pages had duplicates. (The Seton Hall students at first merely assumed those pages were misnumbered, not that they were re-numbered by a federal government employee and deliberately falsely substituted in place of the actual pages. However, I would like to give that person the benefit of the doubt, because perhaps he or she is actually a whistleblower and had planned all along to release the missing three pages during a FOIA data dump, and once they were available online, to call an IC tipster with the specific DoD website folder they were uploaded to who would then contact someone in the press if it wasn’t discovered by them without any clues.)
Then the plot takes a blood-curdling turn as Sgt Hickman makes another devastating discovery. And the specific horror we learn our government allowed to be inflicted on other human beings at GTMO at the direct behest of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld defies all sense of wrong and right and knowing the difference between the two. Each detainee, upon arrival at GTMO, was given the drug mefloquine at 5 times the normal dose, a dose known to cause hallucinations, suicidal thoughts and the feeling of being terrified — non-stop — for at least 30 days. And while these human beings were being subjected to the equivalent of psychological waterboarding from the mefloquine, they would also be held in isolation. That’s the government’s word for solitary confinement which we now know can cause insanity on its own, to say nothing of combining it with pharmacological warfare.
There is no doubt in my mind that “Murder at Camp Delta” will be required reading in every U.S. high school’s American History class half a century from now. If only it were required reading for Congress, today. And there is a commensurate lack of doubt in my mind that this book’s author’s testimony will be instrumental in the conviction and sentencing of alleged war criminal Donald Rumsfeld. If reading this review makes you wonder what happened to your country, stop. We know what happened. A culture of vengeance-gone-wild, nurtured by Orwellian terms like “detainees” instead of prisoners, “enhanced interrogation” instead of torture and “unlawful combatants” instead of prisoners of war, a Wall Street incentivized by incredible returns on investments made in companies like Halliburton, a Congress incentivized by re-election campaign donations from behemoth national security contractors, and an entire intelligence community held hostage by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld as surely as the passengers on flights on September 11, 2001 were held hostage by terrorists, all contributed to the stain on our nation’s history that is Guantanamo Bay. Mix in a recession so damaging to national morale that Americans were too consumed with worry over imminent layoff, foreclosure and/or bankruptcy to protest the Bush Administration’s moral bankruptcy, and presto, change-o: unbridled tyranny.
Buy this book. Read this book. Ask your Senators and Representative to read this book. Ask the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to hold a congressional hearing to fully investigate the factual information available to them through this book and from other sources regarding the Special Access Program that, through the stroke of a secret, classified 2002 executive order issued by President Bush, turned a detention center into a battle lab, one in which the most heinous of war crimes were allegedly committed.
**Think no one at GTMO back in 2002 protested the horrors being done in the American people’s names? Think again. Hickman learned over the course of writing this book that Mark Fallon, then the deputy commander of the Criminal Investigation Task Force at Guantanamo, wrote an email to a CIA lawyer and a military lawyer about the use of torture techniques, stating, “This looks like the kind of stuff Congressional hearings are made of. Someone needs to be considering how history will look back at this.”
**See also the impeccable investigative reporting in this 2010 truthout article by Jason Leopold and Jeff Kaye mentioned by Sgt Hickman in the book on the use of mefloquine on all GTMO detainees as part of the “Standard Inprocessing Orders for Detainees” given in 1250 mg dosages, five times the normal dose, which the military already knew would cause “severe neuropsychiatric side effects, including seizures, intense vertigo, hallucinations, paranoid delusions, aggression, panic, anxiety, severe insomnia, and thoughts of suicide.”