The Evidence Explaining Latif’s Death? “Now Badly Decomposed”

On October 4, I asked with disgust whether the government planned to hold Adnan Latif’s body until after the election.

Latif died on September 8–26 days ago, or 44% the period until the election. if the sole explanation for the delay is that the US is unwilling to turn over an explanation of how Latif died, it makes it far more likely that Latif died of something other than suicide.

So are they going to hold Latif on ice until the election? Is that the idea?

On October 18, when Jason Leopold explained the delay in revealing the cause of Latif’s death, I suggested any delay in repatriating Latif’s would prevent an independent assessment of why he died.

Meanwhile, no one can perform independent analysis on Latif’s body, because the government has stashed it at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The US and Yemeni governments continue the same story shared with ProPublica: the Yemenis won’t accept the body until they get a report on why he died, the US hasn’t provided that, so the body decays in US custody.

[snip]

Tick tock.

Tick tock.

Latif died 40 days ago. Just 19 days remain before the election. Between them, the US and Yemeni governments have forestalled the time when the US has to admit a man–the sole evidence against whom was a flawed intelligence report written while Pakistanis were trying to convince us to pay a bounty for Latif–died of unnatural causes in their custody.

And when, 3 days after Obama’s reelection and 62 days after Latif’s death the government finished (but did not release) the autopsy results, I repeated my suspicion that the delay was designed to obscure the real cause of death.

This is all so predictable it really raises questions about what kind of unnatural causes killed Latif.

What caused a death at Gitmo that was scandalous enough it had to be buried until after the election?

With utterly predictable timing, Leopold reports the government has told Yemen–but not the American people, officially–how Latif died.

Suicide, they say, in seeming contradiction to early reports that said there were no signs of self-harm.

But here is the even more predictable kicker. No one can check their claims, because Latif’s body has been decomposing during the entire 79 day delay since he died.

Latif’s body has been held for nearly three months at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. US officials have said Latif’s remains have been handled according to Muslim precepts, which precluded taking steps to preserve his body and organs, now badly decomposed. Therefore, his family will not be able to seek an independent autopsy.

“This will be very tough for [Latif’s] family,” the Yemeni government official said about the condition of Latif’s remains. [my emphasis]

To prevent any accounting for the death of a probably innocent man imprisoned for over 10 years, the most advanced government on earth has just let that man’s body rot.

And rot.

And rot.

For over one fifth of a year.

Until no one could prove or disprove that the US government’s own treatment (or prior head wounds the government insisted, in an effort to continue to detain him in spite of a dearth of real evidence against him, were never that serious) killed this man.

Rotten. Rotten. Rotten.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

21 replies
  1. Jeff Kaye says:

    I agree that it is totally rotten. But I don’t believe that the cause of death is still outside a scientific purview. We do not know what stage of decomposition the body is in. Was it, for instance, refrigerated? Were samples of bodily tissues and fluids taken at the time of the original autopsy and preserved? Were pictures (photos) and good forensic notes taken at the time of autopsy, as is standard practice. Much can be learned from even the latter. Autopsies can be performed even on exhumed bodies. One was done on the corpse of Frank Olsen, for instance, that helped establish the cause of death as murder.

    See the following link for some professional discussion of autopsy upon decomposed bodies.

    It certainly must be true that DoD is trying to hide something here. They may know that, for instance, certain drugs cannot be assayed after some amount of time. But I believe that it is usually a much shorter time than the 1/5 of a year the U.S. has held Latif’s body.

    As I read Leopold’s story, the real news is that Latif was reportedly threatened with death only days or weeks before he was killed (because of the guard tower incident). I’d think they are too smart to just strangle him in his cell. I’d guess, if they really did this (and I have no evidence they did), that they used facilitated suicide, i.e., provided him with the drugs and the privacy, and the depressed and hopeless individual did the rest. There is still a name for such behavior: Murder.

  2. joanneleon says:

    I can’t even believe it.

    Well, as I’ve said many times, the entire solar system revolved around Obama’s election. There was nothing, maybe with one exception, his family, but other than that, there was nothing and I mean nothing that was more important to Obama than his election. No low was too low to stoop. No person’s life was important enough. No other person’s family was important enough. Nothing was more important to the highly paranoid campaign team. Nothing.

    I can’t believe they let it rot. Was it more important to Muslim tradition to let it rot or to preserve it at least in a freezer? I’m pretty sure that is a perverse interpretation of Muslim traditions.

    It’s kind of hard to imagine what information could have been so bad that they had to hide the autopsy details given that they continued killing civilians with drone strikes all through the election season. Whatever it was, it must have been really bad.

  3. emptywheel says:

    @Jeff Kaye: The threats were just days before. Agree, there’s much else to this story. THough the way they’re treating it is the baseline evidence for how badly they want this story to go away.

  4. What Constitution? says:

    Well, it’s sure a good thing that he was a Bad Guy. That makes all this OK, right? He was a Bad Guy, right? “Bahhhd.” Or else we wouldn’t have put him in Gitmo, right? Right?

    Maybe they should write down some rules about this, too. “More of a guideline”, right?

  5. Jason Leopold says:

    Just updated my story with a comment from Cyril Wecht:

    Dr. Cyril Wecht, a world-renowned forensic pathologist who has performed more than 15,000 autopsies and consulted on 35,000 postmortem examinations, many of which were high-profile cases, said even with refrigeration, a body cannot be kept in the “original condition.”

    “By now his body is a putrified gelatinous mess, I am sorry to say, and no one will be able to tell anything from a second autopsy,” Wecht said in an interview with Truthout. “His organs are unidentifiable at this point. You cannot differentiate one organ from another. The organs and tissues have been removed and that’s what you really need for a second autopsy. Unless someone believes he was beaten to death and sustained skull fractures you will not be able to determine anything from the shell of the body.”

  6. hcgorman says:

    One of the things that has struck me with the government’s response about Latif’s death is something that is missing from the other deaths at Guantanamo. In the other deaths the government went to great lengths to explain how often it checked on the men that died- when the last check was etc…in Latif’s situation they have talked about protocal- 3 minutes- 60 seconds etc but not the specifics as to when he was last checked on…I find that odd as that has been a constant- even if the reports were not honest -they at least made up a last sighting by military personnel.
    As for the forensics- I know nothing about that science, but as a non scientist I wonder why they dig up bodies years later if nothing can be determined? I believe Arafat’s body was dug up over the weekend- of course in that case they are looking at possible nuclear material in his body- and as we know that never goes away….
    just wonderin….

  7. Jeff Kaye says:

    @Jason Leopold: Well, who should I be to disagree with Dr. Wecht? However, I would note that his statement is somewhat contradictory. He states that the organs would be unrecognizable, “a putrified gelatinous mess” at this point, which I think is Marcy’s point. But he also says, “The organs and tissues have been removed and that’s what you really need for a second autopsy.” So, were they removed or are they a gelatinous mess, and if they were removed, is there a way to preserve them?

    Now, I presume that it is his professional assumption the organs and relevant tissues have been removed, as that is what should happen. But we do not at this point know what actually did happen. In any case, he appears to believe that only a gross injury to the skeleton would be something that one could find from a postmortem examination of such a decomposed body. I presume he is correct. Yet, when I research this issue online, at reputable sites, I find typical comments such as this from Medscape on autopsy of decomposed bodies: “Perhaps the greatest misconception revolves around the utility and usefulness of performing an autopsy on a decomposed body. As a general rule, information can be obtained from every autopsy, though putrefaction, skeletonization, or predation may limit the ability of the pathologist to draw definitive conclusions.”

    I would also note that government medical examiners typically are instructed by law to perform autopsies on bodies found, even in a “badly decomposed state” (www.ocme.unc.edu/rules/guidelines.shtml). – Of course, such bodies will not be in their “original condition”. Dr. Wecht may be correct that in this instance there is not much to gain from a second autopsy, but I wonder, for instance, about such a second autopsy if one had access to, for instance, preserved blood.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    It was a lone gunman, not suicide. Honest. A committee of the great and good and their favorite establishment lawyers said so.

    Really. What would it have taken to prevent normal, eminently predictable, rotting in an already once-autopsied corpse? Patricia Cornwell and her readers please submit your suggestions one at a time.

    That such crucial physical evidence was “allowed” or “instructed” to rot is damning evidence that whatever the facts, the US did not want the public to learn them. I’m surprised Mr. Obama’s people didn’t say the National Archives lost the brain, or that too many uniformed generals obstructed the examination, or that the suicide “device” miraculously appeared in pristine condition on a hospital gurney.

    Mr. Obama seems to enjoy his Nixonian lies that are so blatant many people can’t process them as lies. How presidential of our constitutional lawyer president.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @Jeff Kaye: Obviously, Dr. Wecht’s views take precedence over those that might be held by a writer of fiction and former ME IT tech. That such experts need to assume facts, especially regarding whether organs and other tissues were removed and preserved or were simply allowed to deteriorate, rather than have access to them seems to be the government’s objective.

    The government could easily have made other choices, such as allowing the body to be promptly autopsied by another team on site or elsewhere. That it did not make such choices, and continues to restrict access to the evidence it did collect, suggests that its motives included pre-election criticism or embarrassment of Mr. Obama. Which seems to be what Obama (like his predecessor) thinks is the government’s primary duty.

  10. Jeff Kaye says:

    @dubinsky: We don’t have a “complete absence of evidence.” For one thing, there are reports from eyewitnesses that guards verbally threatened Latif’s life. We have a pattern of suspicious suicides going back six years now. Four of those “suicides” were of individuals who had their hands tied behind their back. While the latter is feasible, it’s quite rare, and to believe it has occurred in 2/3 of all the Guantanamo suicides is to beggar belief.

    We also know that DoD made statements earlier that Latif’s body showed no signs of suicide. We also know that the cells in Camp 5, where Latif had been moved, are under constant video surveillance. The cells are quite small, and visual observations via a hole in the door also take place.

    Perhaps I am off base by constructing scenarios by which suicide could be facilitated. But if my crime be one of bad taste or over-reaction, it is as nothing as to the crimes of a regime that tortured thousands of innocent people, and who have institutionalized indefinite detention, thereby ripping to shreds three hundred years of Enlightenment progress.

  11. Gitcheegumee says:

    So Latif’s body has been decomposing for 79 days but Bin Laden’s body was required to be immediately disposed at sea?

  12. pdaly says:

    It’s a good thing the government is able to claim suicide as Latif’s cause of death–else admitting murder or negligent homicide would have broken America’s squeaky clean, crime-free streak (ignoring, of course, the US government whistleblowers whom Obama has already dealt with).

    ‘Nothing to see here’ has reached a new height.

  13. Skilly says:

    FBI sources, who would not be named are saying, “Bruce Ivins was clearly responsible for this, and he acted alone.”

  14. dubinsky says:

    @Jeff Kaye: and allow me to say that I do not in any way think you a “criminal’ or, by criticizing your speculations, am comparing you to torturers.

    what COULD you be thinking to write such an odd thing?

    what I am suggesting is that you adopt the usual rules and avoid spinning out chains of speculation.

    your good — solid— work might benefit by not being mixed with the Sherlocking.

  15. shekissesfrogs says:

    holding the body for a time period until it was unrecognizable was a preemptory reaction to asymmetrical warfare suicide. You all know how sneaky these musilmen are.

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