For all the talk about State Department rapid media response centers, it's obvious that a top public diplomacy official was woefully unprepared to respond to news that three Guantanamo inmates had killed themselves. Credibility and compassion are essential components of effective public communication in a crisis. Colleen Gaffey's remarks show neither.
"Guantanamo Suicides a 'PR Move'" - BBC News, 11 June 2006
A top US official has described the suicides of three detainees at the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a "good PR move to draw attention".
Colleen Graffy told the BBC the deaths were part of a strategy and "a tactic to further the jihadi cause", but taking their own lives was unnecessary.
But lawyers say the men who hanged themselves had been driven by despair.
A military investigation into the deaths is under way, amid growing calls for the centre to be moved or closed.
Speaking to the BBC's Newshour programme, Ms Graffy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, said the three men did not value their lives nor the lives of those around them.
Detainees had access to lawyers, received mail and had the ability to write to families, so had other means of making protests, she said, and it was hard to see why the men had not protested about their situation....
Ken Roth, head of Human Rights Watch in New York, told the BBC the men had probably been driven by despair.
"These people are despairing because they are being held lawlessly," he said.
"There's no end in sight. They're not being brought before any independent judges. They're not being charged and convicted for any crime."
But earlier, the camp commander, Rear Adm Harris said he did not believe the men had killed themselves out of despair.
"They are smart. They are creative, they are committed," he said.
"They have no regard for life, either ours or their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us."...
Gaffey and Harris might have a point -- assuming the men who killed themselves actually were committed jihadists and not just luckless guys who wound up in Guantanamo by being in the wrong place at the wrong time; assuming they actually did not make any prior efforts to communicate their despair (see the following item for information to the contrary); and assuming that Gaffey and Harris actually can read the minds of the dead. But even if all of that is true, I imagine that what comes through to anyone who heard Gaffey's interview or who read this report is not the message that Guantanamo internees are dangerous people, but rather that American officials are staggeringly self-justifying, stubborn, and callous.
For other reactions to the Guantanamo deaths, see:
"Guantanamo Deaths 'Sad Incident'" - BBC News, 11 June 2006
Downing Street says the deaths of three inmates at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba is a "sad incident".
Three men - two Saudis and a Yemeni - are thought to have hanged themselves with bed sheets on Saturday.
A spokesman said the US Army had promised to make an investigation, and that people should wait before making any further comment.
Briton Moazzam Begg, 37, who was held at the camp for two years, said the three suicides were "just awful".
Prime Minister Tony Blair, a staunch ally of the US in their "war on terror", has described the camp in the Guantanamo Bay naval base as "an anomaly that has to end".
The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, has also described the camp as "unacceptable" and a "symbol of injustice."...
All three men had previously taken part in some of the mass on-and-off hunger strikes undertaken by detainees since last August, and all three had been force-fed by camp authorities.
They had left suicide notes, but no details have been made available....
Mr Begg, who was released from the camp in 2005, told news agency AP: "We all expected something like this but were not prepared. It's just awful. I hope the Bush administration will finally see this is wrong."...
"Camp Suicides 'Hard to Believe'" - BBC News, 11 June 2006
The sister of a UK inmate of Guantanamo Bay has said she is "suspicious" about the suicides of three detainees at the US base in Cuba.
Amani Deghayes and her family have campaigned for the release of her brother Omar, 37, from Brighton, since his detention in 2002.
Ms Deghayes, from Kilburn, north London, said she did not know what to think about the suicides.
"I find it quite hard to believe they managed to kill themselves," she said.
Her suspicions have been raised, she explained, because inmates are allowed to have so few items in their cells.
"It is really shocking. There is a lot of abuse in the camp. My brother lost an eye because of it," she said....
"If they did kill themselves, then it is understandable," said Ms Deghayes.
"It (Guantanamo) is such a closed institution and they are in such a horrible situation."
Mr Deghayes was arrested in Pakistan and accused of committing terrorist acts against the US, but his lawyers claim it was a case of mistaken identity.
Libyan-born Mr Deghayes, fled his homeland with the family in 1986 and was given asylum.
Last month the High Court in London ruled the Foreign Office had no obligation to put pressure on the US to release him, and two other British residents, because they did not have UK citizenship.
Ms Deghayes said as far as she knows her brother is in a different area of the camp to the highest security section where the inmates died.
"But the news I have of him is at least a year old - I have absolutely no idea where he is now," she said.
"Briton Held at Guantanamo Says Suicides 'Inevitable'" - Reuters (London), 11 June 2006, as carried by the Financial Times (London) website
LONDON, June 11 (Reuters) - A British man held for two and a half years at the U.S.'s Guantanamo prison camp said on Sunday he was shocked that three inmates had hanged themselves but said treatment of prisoners there made suicide attempts "inevitable".
Shafiq Rasul, who was held at the Guantanamo camp in Cuba after being arrested in Afghanistan, said that while he was there, inmates who were subjected to constant beatings and interrogations had attempted to take their own lives.
"I was shocked, but at the same time it is inevitable that something like that would happen," he told Sky Television.
"There were numerous suicide attempts while I was there as well -- it happened right in front of me."...
Added 12 June:
"US Steps Back from Guantanamo Suicide Comments," by Peter Graff - Reuters (London), 12 June 2006.
LONDON (Reuters) - A senior U.S. official rowed back on Monday from remarks by colleagues that Guantanamo Bay prisoners' suicides were an act of war and a "good PR move," after the comments were condemned abroad.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs Cully Stimson, speaking to BBC radio, distanced himself from the statements.
"I wouldn't characterize it as a good PR move. What I would say is that we are always concerned when someone takes his own life. Because as Americans, we value life, even the lives of violent terrorists who are captured waging war against our country," he said. [Note: The US Embassy in London has an audiofile of an 'interview' with Stimson on this topic posted to its website - the 'interviewer' sounds like some hapless JO reading off a script. This is a nice use of technology to get a message out to a certain public, and I don't doubt Stimson says the same things in the exchange that he would say to a real journalist; but the pseudo interview format does not inspire respect.]
The camp commander, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, had described the three suicides as an act of war. Colleen Graffy, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, told the BBC on Sunday the deaths were "a good PR move."
In an editorial headlined "Bad Language," the right-leaning Times, normally a defender of Britain's alliance with the United States, said such rhetoric "plays once again into the hands of America's enemies."
The left-leaning Guardian described Admiral Harris's remarks as "cold and odious." "The demented logic of Dr Strangelove hung like a ghost" over the U.S. response to the suicides, it said....
"Bad Language" - lead editorial, the Times (London), 12 June 2006
In its four and a half years of operation, the US camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has provoked a great deal of strong language on both sides, much of it wholly inappropriate. In describing the suicides of three inmates on Saturday as “an act of warfare waged against us”, the camp commander, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, was repeating the kind of unwise rhetoric that President Bush has recently said he so regretted using in connection with Iraq. It is simply foolish to make such insensitive comments. They may be understood in the US, but they will be deliberately misinterpreted by a world eager to believe the worst of America. Yet, in rushing to brand the men “heroes”, human rights groups have also made a grave error of judgment, wilfully distorting the truth for their own purposes....
It is too easily forgotten that Guantanamo Bay was an extraordinary response to extraordinary circumstances. It is an anomaly that is not representative of American justice, much as America’s detractors would like it to seem otherwise. Yet its existence outside legal norms has done enormous damage to America’s image....
The Pentagon must move swiftly to repatriate those inmates whose intelligence value, and risk, is negligible. It is less clear what to do with the really hard cases. But whatever is done with them, it needs to be decided promptly. Rear Admiral Harris is correct that the War on Terror is being fought on many levels. And in the propaganda war, Guantanamo is being used against the US.
"A Tunnel without End," by Zachary Katznelson - op-ed, the Guardian (UK), 12 June 2006. Katznelson is identified as senior counsel at Reprieve, a non-governmental organization representing 36 Guantanamo Bay detainees.
On Friday night, three prisoners in Guantánamo Bay committed suicide. Two Saudis and one Yemeni hanged themselves. In a desperate attempt at spin, the US claims this was an act of war or a public relations exercise. The truth is quite different. Islam says it goes against God to kill yourself. So what would drive a man to take his own life, despite his religious beliefs? The answer shames the US and its allies, Britain prominently included....
Until May, the US refused to even tell us who was in Guantánamo. But before it finally released the names of everyone there, the Bush administration secured passage of a law barring lawsuits by the prisoners held in Guantánamo. That means that at last we know the prisoners' identities, but can do nothing legally to help them. The men who committed suicide found themselves in just this legal black hole. They had no legal recourse, just the prospect of a life in prison, in isolation, with no family, no friends, nothing. They took their lives.
So what now? President Bush stated this week that he wants to close Guantánamo, that he wants to give the men trials. Well, let's have them - immediately. The US has had over four years to gather evidence against the men. Surely that is enough time to prove guilt. And now it is time to show the world the evidence. As Harriet Harman, the British constitutional affairs minister, said yesterday, Guantánamo must be opened up to review or shut down. Will Britain do what is necessary to make this a reality? Because this is about even more than the fate of 460 people, it is about whether the US and its allies will lead the world by democratic example, or whether they will continue to give lip service to human rights and open societies, while denigrating those cherished notions with their actions....
The June 12 State Department noon press briefing led off with reporters' questions about Graffy's comments. I've excerpted only a small part of the transcript here.
Daily Press Briefing with Sean McCormack, Spokesman - US Department of State (Washington, DC), 12 June 2006
...QUESTION: Could you talk about the response by the official in Public Diplomacy calling the suicides at Guantanamo a -- basically a PR gamut?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I would say -- I would say, George, that we would have -- we have serious concern anytime anybody takes their own life. The -- what happened over the weekend at Guantanamo is being fully investigated by the Department of Defense. You've seen numerous statements about the incident from the Department of Defense. And we, ourselves, have reached out to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the people in question were nationals of those countries. We've also done an extensive amount of outreach around the world to explain at least the facts as we know them right now. I don't want to go too much farther down the line, George, because there is going to be an ongoing investigation into the matter.
QUESTION: Do you agree with the --
MR. MCCORMACK: I would not characterize it as a PR stunt.
QUESTION: Would you agree with the statement, though, by I think it's Admiral Harris that it's asymmetrical warfare?
MR. MCCORMACK: I'm not going to -- I'm not going to try to discern what the motives of these individuals were. He's made that statement. I understand that there were some materials left behind. I don't have access to those, so I'm not going to try to -- I'm not going to try to discern what the motives might have been.
QUESTION: And are you concerned that statements such as these, that it's a good PR move, will be taken badly in the Arab world in particular and that you will be seen as sort of uncaring, unfeeling and not looking at the full context of Guantanamo?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, like I -- as I said, I certainly wouldn't characterize it that way. President Bush has said that he was -- that he had serious concern about what had happened, and I think that officials from the Department of Defense, and I just have as well, expressed serious concern anyone takes their own life.
So in terms of the situation surrounding this incident, that's going to be fully investigated.
QUESTION: And then finally, is the uses of quick reaction force in terms of getting the message out to the Arab world in full gear within the State Department, this media reactions -- I'm sorry, I forget what the name is.
MR. MCCORMACK: Oh, the Rapid Reaction Unit?
QUESTION: The Rapid Reaction Unit.
MR. MCCORMACK: What the Rapid Reaction is -- it serves primarily a monitoring function. And it will call out to posts to find out -- to get some greater context of the story -- various stories that appear in foreign media, but this was really the regional bureaus that were involved in contacting countries around the world either here in Washington or out at capitals....
"US Seeks to Deal with Guantanamo Suicides Fallout," by Sue Pleming - Reuters (Washington, DC), 12 June 2006.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Already struggling to improve its image abroad, the United States went into damage control mode on Monday after a senior State Department official called three suicides in Guantanamo Bay a "great PR move." [Sic - BBC News reported Graffy as having said "a good PR move."]
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack distanced the department from the remark made on Sunday by deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy Colleen Graffy....
Professor Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution, said whatever damage control State Department tried to do would not overcome negative views, particularly in the Arab world.
There was so much mistrust that some Arab media were questioning whether the deaths were suicides at all. "At this point, public diplomacy simply cannot overcome the prevailing perceptions in the region toward the U.S.," Telhami said.
Graffy's comment irked State Department image crafters who fear it could further erode America's image among allies already critical of U.S. human rights practices after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal when U.S. personnel abused inmates.
Graffy is a deputy of special envoy Karen Hughes, a close confidant of President George W. Bush, who heads a campaign to improve the U.S. image abroad, especially in Islamic countries. Her comment was seen as a setback in those efforts.
State Department's image gurus also viewed a remark by Guantanamo prison commander, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, describing the suicides as acts of "asymmetrical warfare," as a blunder.
Several State Department officials, all of whom declined to be named because the issue was so sensitive, said Graffy had chosen her words poorly and noted that Harris's comments were not repeated by other Bush administration officials....
"US Disavows Guantanamo Suicide Comment," by David Gollust - VOA (Washington, DC), 12 June 2006
The State Department has delivered an indirect rebuke to one of its own officials, with a spokesman disavowing her depiction of the Guantanamo deaths as a public relations stunt, and stressing that the United States has serious concern about suicides at the facility....
At a news briefing State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the Bush administration's view is that the deaths were not a public relations stunt, while a senior official who spoke to reporters said Graffy's choice of words was rather unfortunate....
McCormack said the United States is discussing the return of the remains of those who took their own lives with the governments of Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
In the meantime, he said the bodies are being treated with respect according to religious customs, and that the United States is conducting outreach in the Islamic world to explain its handling of the matter.
A senior official said he did not think Graffy would face disciplinary action, but said there was an expectation that all officials would treat the issue with greater sensitivity.
In that regard, he said there had been no repeat of another controversial comment, by the commander of the Guantanamo site, Navy Rear Admiral Harry Harris, that the suicides had been what he called, an act of "asymmetrical warfare" against the United States.
Added 15 June 2006:
"The 'Suiciders' Have Suicided!" by Kamran Shafi (opinion column) - the Daily Times (Pakistan), 15 June 2006
...Colleen P Graffy, a member of the Bar in London, once an important member of Republicans Abroad, and a committed “Bushy”; and now deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, characterised the suicide of three prisoners at the infamous American black-hole of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in these words: “It was a good PR (public relations) move designed to attract attention."...
A question: Does the United States government take especial care to appoint insensitive dunderheads to its high offices? Readers will recall another champion in the shape and form of Lieutenant General William G “Jerry” Boykin, deputy assistant secretary of defence for intelligence (I ask you!) who famously said, “I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol” when speaking about a Somali (Muslim) warlord. No action was taken against the man other than a reprimand and a posting to his most sensitive and important present office. I suppose keeping in mind his complete objectivity and fairness!
Neither was Graffy the only one to make an odious statement to explain away the suicides of three obviously desperate and broken men who saw only a dark tunnel ahead of them: no light, no hope of succour, nothing to look forward to other than the daily abuse of themselves, and their religion. Rear Admiral Harry B Harris Jr commander of the Joint Task Force, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba i.e., the Guantanamo Bay prison governor, said he did not believe the men had killed themselves out of despair. “They are smart. They are creative, they are committed,” he said. “I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.”...
We are also told by that same gent that the “remains” of the, to use a Bushism, “suiciders” (the poor sods who killed themselves) are being treated with the utmost respect. Really, admiral? You mean their “remains” are not being peed upon? Vicious guard dogs are not being set upon their “remains”? Your women soldiers/airwomen/sailors are not sitting in the “suicider’s” remains’ laps in undies and bras and smearing menstrual blood on them as a last goodbye? Nor being photographed, thumbs-up, posing with the “remains”, wide grins on their faces?...