Let me start off by saying I don’t hold any particular brief for Scott Horton, although I was impressed with his recent Harper’s report into some dubious 2006 suicides at Guantanamo Bay. But Jack Shafer’s attempt at refuting Horton is unpersuasive. This, for  instance:

[I]f you were going to torture prisoners to the point of death in interrogations, would you really draw three prisoners from the same cell block, inside the same hour, for that punishment? It would make more sense to torture one to death, cover up that murder, and after a decent interval proceed with the gained information to torture the second prisoner to death.

That assumes way too much rationality, I think we can all agree. If you’re killing detainees, maybe you’re not thinking everything through, and maybe the long history of impunity at Guantanamo — beatings, prolonged isolation, etc — on some level you don’t think you need to think everything through. Shafer also assumes that interrogations were ongoing in July 2006, despite the lack of influx of new detainees and the near-halt to interrogation operations by 2005. (You can read pieces in the New Yorker by Jane Mayer in July 2005 and me in TNR in August 2005 for more on that.) In fairness, Horton suggests that the possibly-concealed detention facility he dubs “Camp No” (after what his sources say their shorthand for the thing-that-might-have-been was) might have been used for interrogations as well, possibly on the June 9 timeline, and that should have jumped out at me earlier as dubious.

I’m not saying the thing happened the way Horton said it did, because I don’t know.  I’ve interviewed guards at Guantanamo and heard their frustrations, to the point where I was kind of shocked there weren’t more severe beatings at the hands of 19 year olds who have cocktails of excrement thrown at them. Obviously I’m not excusing any such beatings; I’m just saying that when someone is given responsibility over other people in an environment of legal impunity, standards of acceptable behavior can slip very fast. That’s just human nature.

Shafer also premises his piece on the idea that Horton “proved” his case, which is not how I read Horton’s article. Like with much investigative work, Horton cobbled together a case for further investigation, pulling together information that demands additional inquiry. By his standards — undue deference to knowledgeable officials-turned-whistleblowers, clashes with the “official record,” “ignoring facts and statements collected by the government” – Dana Priest didn’t “prove” the CIA’s black sites exist, either.

Finally, there’s this:

But maybe the CIA is capable of such a crime and the entire U.S. government—across two administrations—is willing to devote its energies to a cover-up.

That’s just credulous. If you call it a “cover-up,” then sure, people will take it to be unserious and conspiratorial. But think of all of the unanswered questions around torture that Eric Holder’s torture inquiry won’t get at. What was the relationship between contract psychiatrists Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell and the CIA ahead of their 2001 contract for torture? How did the CIA know to tap those two for the basis for its torture programs? How many black sites did the CIA maintain, and for how long? How long, and for what purpose, did the CIA maintain a seperate facility at Guantanamo (as Shafer concedes)? And on and on. Shafer’s piece would make a lot more sense if we didn’t go through five years of revelations about torture — but maybe then he wouldn’t have written this in the first place.

I should say that I haven’t read the First Things blog posts Shafer hat-tips. I’ll read them today; maybe they’ll convince me Horton messed up.