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Risen and Sirkin Discuss Obama’s Call for Facts, Elaborate on NY Times Reporting

by on July 13, 2009

New York Times reporter James Risen, who wrote the story published on Saturday, about the US cover-up of the Dasht-e-Leili massacre, and PHR Deputy Director Susannah Sirkin appeared today on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman.

Towards the end of the interview, Risen and Sirkin each provide some interesting elaborations on the information that appeared in The Times.

In The Times, Risen noted:

While a dozen or so bodies were examined and several were autopsied, a full exhumation was never performed, and human rights groups are concerned that evidence has been destroyed. In 2008, a medical forensics team working with the United Nations discovered excavations that suggested the mass grave had been moved. Satellite photos obtained by The Times show that the site was disturbed even earlier, in 2006.

Today, Susannah Sirkin elaborated:

Physicians for Human Rights has repeatedly called for protection of that site. There has never been any kind of protection, even though President Karzai and others have promised that they would investigate the site and protect it.

What we now know is, first of all, in 2008, one of our forensic scientists was able to go up to the area and noticed that there were very large holes in the area. This was reported by McClatchy in December 2008.

What we now know from satellite imagery that appears in James Risen’s New York Times piece, and that has been provided by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is that in 2006 there are photos with not much area destroyed, but maybe one large hole. And then a few months later, we see pictures of images that are very consistent with large earthmoving equipment. Within a month of that picture, we see a very large hole right at the area where what appears to be a backhoe and a dump truck on the site. So it looks as though, actually, within a month of Physicians for Human Rights filing a Freedom of Information Act request to get what the US government knew, all branches knew, about the Dasht-e-Leili massacre, the site has been dramatically damaged.

Risen’s Times article discussed how the first attempted investigation into the Dasht-e-Leili massacre was via the FBI:

Dell Spry, the F.B.I.’s senior representative at the detainee prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, heard accounts of the deaths from agents he supervised there. Separately, 10 or so prisoners brought from Afghanistan reported that they had been “stacked like cordwood” in shipping containers and had to lick the perspiration off one another to survive, Mr. Spry recalled. They told similar accounts of suffocations and shootings, he said. A declassified F.B.I. report, dated January 2003, confirms that the detainees provided such accounts.

Mr. Spry, who is now an F.B.I. consultant, said he did not believe the stories because he knew that Al Qaeda trained members to fabricate tales about mistreatment. Still, the veteran agent said he thought the agency should investigate the reports “so they could be debunked.”

But a senior official at F.B.I. headquarters, whom Mr. Spry declined to identify, told him to drop the matter, saying it was not part of his mission and it would be up to the American military to investigate.

“I was disappointed because I believed that, true or untrue, we had to be in front of this story, because someday it may turn out to be a problem,” Mr. Spry said.

Today, Risen said further:

[Spry] told me that during those times that he kept getting these—the agents who worked for him were interrogating and questioning detainees and that he kept getting this pattern of reports from the detainees all talking about surviving this massacre. And he said that they would volunteer this information to the FBI agents. And that, so he felt—he really didn’t think—at first he didn’t believe the stories, because he thought that—he’d been told that al-Qaeda tried to, you know, fabricate stories of torture and abuse as part of their training. And so, he didn’t believe it, although when he began to hear all of these, he thought it would be important for the US to at least investigate the allegations so that they could be debunked. Or else, if they didn’t try to investigate it, then this story would still—it would hang out there, and the US would pay the price in its reputation eventually.

What he said was that he passed—he wrote up what the FBI call 302 reports, which are, you know, reports of an interview with someone, and that he got word back from FBI headquarters to drop the issue. And he was told that it was not his mission at Guantánamo to investigate a potential—you know, a massacre in Afghanistan. And instead, he should be focused on his role as looking for, you know, evidence to be used in trials of detainees and also for evidence—intelligence on possible future attacks against the US.

What he told me was he understood it wasn’t part of his mission, but thought that, still, it was something that should be looked into, and he was disappointed that the FBI didn’t want to look into it. They told him that this was something for the Pentagon to look into. But as I said, it turns out that the Pentagon never really did look into it.

Risen concluded the interview saying:

It’s very unclear what US personnel knew at the time. And I think the investigation should focus rather on what happened afterwards in the Bush administration.


Places: Afghanistan

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