American Society of Magazine Editors’ Disgraceful Award

Cully Stimson /

Last week, the American Society of Magazine Editors’ awarded writer Scott Horton with their National Magazine Award for Reporting.  The problem is, his story was a complete fiction and its flaws had been exposed from every conceivable quarter.

It was June 2006 and the phone rang in the middle of the night.  I knew it had to be something bad.  My employee on the other end of the line said, “three detainees killed themselves at Gitmo.”  As the head of detainee policy at the Pentagon, I ordered him to get everyone in to the office pronto, where we stayed for the next 24 hours dealing with the crisis.

A thorough investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service confirmed what was obvious to us on the day of the suicides: three detainees, with the assistance and encouragement of other detainees, killed themselves in their cells by hanging themselves with bed linens.

Apparently, however, the truth is a hard pill to swallow for some, especially those who wallow in conspiracy theories.

In January 2010, a writer named Scott Horton wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine in which he argued that the detainees deaths were not suicides, but “most likely” caused by U.S. personnel stationed at Guantanamo.  Not only does he accuse U.S. military personnel of homicide, he accuses senior attorneys in both the Bush and Obama administration of lying to federal judges about the affair.

Harper’s Magazine knew that Horton’s article was chock full of factual errors.  In fact, the former Chief Defense Counsel for Military Commissions, Marine Colonel Dwight Sullivan, contacted the article’s editor at Harper’s to notify him about a key factual mistake.  This happened after the article was posted online, but before it went to print.  Not only did the editor not contact Colonel Sullivan (who in his own words “was hardly an apologist for Guantanamo”), they printed the article with the factual inaccuracies nonetheless.

Others pointed out the wildly inaccurate aspects of Horton’s delusional article, including a distinguished member of the Marine Corps.  See here, here, here, here and here.

Furthermore, as Colonel Dwight Sullivan points out here, McClatchy Newspapers quoted from an interview conducted in Afghanistan in 2008 with a former Guantanamo detainee who said that in June 2006, a Taliban detainee at Guantanamo bragged to him “that there soon would be ‘martyrs.’”  Of course, Horton did not include this in his fantasy article.

And then there is Wikileaks.  According to published reports, previously classified documents released by Wikileaks show that the suicides were indeed suicides, and were deliberate acts by the detainees.

All of this information, of course, was in the public domain before the American Society of Magazine Editors’ bestowed their prestigious award for reporting. Mr. Horton’s work may merit an award for fiction, but it certainly does not reflect well on the standards for reporters. What a disgrace.

Charles “Cully” Stimson is a Senior Legal Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs (2006-2007).