The Battle for Guantánamo
New York Times Magazine
By Tim Golden
September 17, 2006
I. A Warning From Shaker Aamer
Col. Mike Bumgarner took over as the warden of Guantánamo Bay in April 2005. He had been hoping to be sent to Iraq; among senior officers of the Army's military police corps, the job of commanding guards at the American detention camp in Cuba was considered not particularly challenging and somewhat risky to a career. He figured it would mean spending at least a year away from his family, managing the petty insurgencies of hundreds of angry, accused terrorists.
"Is this what I went to bed at night thinking about?" he would ask nearly a year later, as he whacked at mosquitoes on a muggy Cuban night. "No."
Bumgarner, then 45, received his marching orders from the overall commander of the military's joint task force at Guantánamo, Maj. Gen. Jay W. Hood. A few weeks earlier, General Hood dispatched the previous head of his guard operation and two other senior officers for fraternizing with female subordinates. He was known as a flinty, detail-oriented boss with low tolerance for bad judgment, and his instructions to the colonel were brief: He should keep the detainees and his guards safe, Bumgarner says Hood told him. He should prevent any escapes. He should also study the Third Geneva Convention, on the treatment of prisoners of war, and begin thinking about how to move Guantánamo more into line with its rules.
It had been three years since President Bush declared that the United States would not be bound by any part of the Geneva treaties in dealing with prisoners in the fight against terrorism. He ordered that American forces treat captives in ways "consistent" with the conventions but hadn't explained what that meant. Now, Bumgarner thought, the mandate seemed to be shifting a little. He was being asked to get more specific.
In the cramped bungalow headquarters of his Joint Detention Operations Group at Guantánamo, Bumgarner had his operations officer look up the conventions on the Internet and print out a copy. After nearly 24 years as a military police officer, Bumgarner knew the document well. He thought it obvious that many of the rights would never apply to Guantánamo detainees. No one was going to allow the distribution of "musical instruments" to suspected terrorists, as the 1940's-era conventions stipulated for the captured soldiers of another army. No one was going to pay the detainees a stipend to spend at a base canteen.
But the assignment was more complicated than just cutting and pasting where he could. On some level, Bumgarner thought, he was being asked to weigh how far the military should go to improve the lives of prisoners whom the president and his aides had labeled some of the most dangerous terrorists alive. Or, as the colonel put it to me during our first conversation at Guantánamo in March: "How do you deal with an individual whom the president of the United States and the secretary of defense have called the worst of the worst?"
At that point, in the spring of 2005, he had little time to consider an answer. Tensions in the camp were surging, as the detainees tested a fresh rotation of Army and Navy guards. Of the 530 prisoners then being held at Guantánamo, most were classified as "noncompliant." The two segregation blocks, which held prisoners who had assaulted guards, were full. So were two other blocks where detainees were sent for lesser infractions. "People were in a waiting pattern to get in and serve their time there," Bumgarner said.
In older parts of the camp, the detainees would sometimes bang for hours on the steel mesh of their cells, smashing out a beat that rattled up over the razor wire into the thick, tropical air. Occasionally they would swipe at the guards with metal foot pads ripped from their squat-style toilets, declassified military reports say. The detainees rarely tried to fashion the sort of shanks or knives made by violent prisoners in the United States. But they did manage to unnerve and incite the young guards, often by splattering them with mixtures of bodily excretions known on the blocks as "cocktails."
By the time Bumgarner took command at Guantánamo, information had emerged to suggest that many of the detainees were not, in fact, the hardened terrorists whom Pentagon officials had claimed to be holding there. Bumgarner did not doubt that his new prisoners were dangerous, but neither was he wary of getting to know them better. As he walked the blocks in Camp Delta, the fenced-in core of the prison, he soon began trying to engage some of the more influential detainees.
Military and C.I.A. analysts had been studying the Guantánamo population since the camp opened in January 2002. They observed that there were detainee spokesmen, who tended to speak English, and religious leaders, or "sheiks," who issued opinions on questions of Islamic law. There was also a more hidden cadre, whose leadership the analysts defined as "political" or, when they could direct the protests of others, "military." Nonetheless, there was much debate over who the most important leaders were, intelligence officials later told me. Like most guard officers before him, Bumgarner gravitated toward those who spoke English.
His ambitions were modest. "I was looking for a way, with what General Hood was wanting, just to have a peaceful camp," he recalled recently. He said his initial message to the detainees was "Look, I'm willing to give you things, to make life better for ya, if y'all will reciprocate." What he asked in return was "Just do not attack my guards."
Bumgarner considered himself a take-charge, solve-the-problem kind of commander. A big, balding, garrulous man who speaks with a faint Carolina drawl and carries his 250 pounds easily on a 6-foot-2-inch frame, he grew up the son of a career Army sergeant in a family where military service was proudly taken for granted. In high school in Kings Mountain, N.C., a small town in the Blue Ridge foothills, he played quarterback for the football team and applied to West Point at his father's urging. He quit the academy after only a few months but joined the R.O.T.C. to help pay his way through Western Carolina University. At Guantánamo, he was one of those officers who seemed to relish calling out, "Honor bound!" (shorthand for the camp motto, "Honor bound to defend freedom"), when a soldier saluted. Saying goodbye, he favored "Hoo-rah" over "See you later."
But that image could be deceiving. Before deploying to Cuba, Bumgarner oversaw the development of detention doctrine at the Army's Military Police School at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. Like many military police officers, he had been deeply embarrassed when the Abu Ghraib scandal erupted in May 2004 and was determined to see its legacy undone. "We were not going to let that happen to us," he said.
At Guantánamo, Bumgarner moved quickly to try to reduce tensions in the camp. If the detainees wanted clocks on the cellblock walls, he saw no reason they shouldn't have them. In response to endless complaints from the detainees about their tap water, he persuaded Hood to approve the distribution of bottled water at mealtimes. The only stocks available were the soldiers' own, bottled with a stars-and-stripes label under the vanity brands Patriot's Choice and Freedom Springs. To avoid any problems, guards were ordered to peel off the labels before they passed out the bottles.
The detainees did not respond as the military authorities hoped. In late June 2005, two months after Bumgarner took command, some prisoners went on a hunger strike, calling for better living conditions, more respectful treatment of the Koran by guards and — most important — fair trials or freedom. Although it was hardly the first such protest, the camp's medical staff worried about the unusually large number of prisoners involved.
Soon after the strike began, Bumgarner was alerted to a disturbance in Camp Echo, an area of more isolated cells on the eastern edge of the detention center. The problem was with a 38-year-old Saudi named Shaker Aamer. The colonel had not previously encountered Aamer, but he was already familiar with the legend of detainee No. 239 — the one his guards called the Professor. They marveled at his English, which was eloquent, and his presence, which was formidable. Some intelligence officials said they believed he had been an important Qaeda operative in London, where he lived and married before moving to Afghanistan in the summer of 2001. (Aamer has denied having anything to do with Al Qaeda or terrorism.)
The colonel's immediate concern was that Aamer was giving his guards fits, pressing one of the sporadic civil disobedience campaigns for which he was famous. "I finally said: 'That's it! I'm gonna go down to talk to him myself."' As Bumgarner remembers it, he burst into the small, hospital-white room as Aamer sat on his bunk, fuming behind the painted mesh that caged him into one corner. "You're either gonna start complying with the rules," Bumgarner recalls warning him, "or life's gonna get really rough." The colonel said he did not mean to threaten physical force, only to emphasize strongly that Aamer's few privileges — like, say, his use of a toothbrush — hung in the balance.
Aamer, who wore a thick black beard and had his hair pulled back in a ponytail, was unimpressed. The prisoner, who was not wearing his glasses, squinted for a moment, trying to read the officer's insignia. "Colonel," he finally said, "don't come in here giving me that."
As Bumgarner settled into a white plastic chair, Aamer crossed his legs on the bunk and began to talk about his life. He spoke about his family, his travel to Afghanistan, his feelings about the United States. He told of working as an interpreter for American troops in Saudi Arabia during the first gulf war, and of later working at a coffee shop outside Atlanta.
"I got the impression that he was hanging around in clubs, drinking," Bumgarner told me. "He loved women. But he said he had realized the error of his ways." Aamer had a revelation, he told the colonel, "that this life of running around with women and boozing it up was the wrong path."
"It was part of his charisma, that drawing me in," Bumgarner said later. "He became a person."
Much of the conversation centered on Aamer's thoughts on the detention operation and what could be done to improve it. The Saudi's ideas, it seemed, were perhaps not so far from Hood's. "His implication was that if you applied the Geneva Conventions fully, everything would be just fine in the camps," Bumgarner recalled.
After almost five hours, Aamer asked the colonel if he had made someone very angry. "Otherwise, you wouldn't be in Guantánamo.
"Nobody survives Guantánamo," he added. "You won't survive, either."
II. A Permanent Place
As part of the military's standard tour of Guantánamo, visitors are driven to the end of a two-lane road that winds up to the northeast corner of the naval base on which the prison sits. They pause there on a small hill overlooking a locked gate that leads into Fidel Castro's part of the island. The tour guide, usually a young Marine corporal with a black Beretta pistol strapped to his thigh, then recounts a brief history of Communist efforts to drive the American forces away.
At one point, the corporal says, the Cubans tried to cut off the Americans' water supply. They trained floodlights on an American guardhouse to keep the soldiers inside from getting any sleep. But such annoyances were merely that. The United States never surrendered an inch of the 45 square miles it has occupied under a disputed lease since 1903, following the Spanish-American War. "We're not as big a presence as we once were," one tour guide, Cpl. Denis R. Espinoza, who is 22, said earlier this year. "But we're still here, and we're going to stay."
In the Land of Unsubtle Metaphors that is Guantánamo Bay, the message of the tour is transparent: the United States fought a dangerous, implacable enemy here once before, in another war that seemed without end. Had we not held our ground then, the argument goes, the world might now be a darker place.
Despite the intense criticism it has drawn, the detention camp at Guantánamo has proved one of the more resilient institutions of the Bush administration's fight against terror. It has weathered a 2004 Supreme Court decision that allows prisoners to challenge their detention in the federal courts. Scandals over the abuse of the detainees have come and gone, but Guantánamo has endured.
When President Bush announced broad changes in policies for the detention and prosecution of terror suspects on Sept. 6, he said the government "will move toward the day when we can eventually close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay." But by sending 14 important C.I.A. captives there and pushing to try prisoners before reconstituted military tribunals, he appeared to be extending the life of the detention center for the foreseeable future. Even if many more detainees are sent home and dozens are tried, administration officials acknowledged, the United States could easily end up with 150 or 200 others whom it would want to hold indefinitely and without charge. As to how the military should treat such men, Washington offered only the most general guidance.
What impact the C.I.A.'s prisoners might have on the camp's operations is unclear. Already, though, Guantánamo has been the scene of an extraordinary struggle between the detainees and their guards. Only a few episodes of this conflict have come to light, like the suicides of three prisoners in June. But what has hardly been glimpsed is the dynamic that developed as military officers tried to deal more closely with the detainees, easing the harsh conditions in which they have been held and asking for compliance in return.
This article presents a view inside the prison based on interviews with more than 100 military and intelligence officials, guards, former detainees and others. It shows that as pressure built among the prisoners and some threatened even to kill themselves in protest, Bumgarner and other guard officers — acting as much on instinct as policy — took surprising steps to contain the upheaval.
That experiment illuminates the challenge the United States faces in continuing to detain indefinitely some 460 men at Guantánamo, only 10 of whom have been formally charged with crimes. Perhaps not surprisingly, the military has sought to keep what has taken place there under wraps. Asked recently about his dealings with the detainees and those of his staff officers, General Hood would respond only through an Army spokesman, saying, "Operational security precludes any public discussions that could potentially jeopardize the lives of detainees or the security force at Guantánamo."
Rather than making Guantánamo go away, the administration has tried to make it smaller and less objectionable. The ruins of Camp X-Ray, the provisional facility where the first prisoners were held in cages, are slowly being swallowed by the jungle. Tour guides display them as proof of Guantánamo's progress. Inside the existing camp, a barricaded precinct of the quaint, 50's-era naval base where off-duty soldiers play softball and stop to eat at McDonald's, the guides point out Camp 6, a new $30 million facility modeled after a county jail in southern Michigan.
But the detainees have long memories, and the portraits drawn by those who have been released — sometimes horrific, often impossible to verify — have shaped global perceptions in ways that the Bush administration has been unable to overcome. Their stories have been set down in books, films, plays and raps, most of which depict an Orwellian world that is by turns brutal, calculated and inept.
"Every country has its own way of torturing people," Rustam Akhmiarov, a 26-year-old Russian who was arrested in Pakistan and ended up in Guantánamo, told me after his release. "In Russia, they beat you up; they break you straightaway. But the Americans had their own way, which is to make you go mad over a period of time. Every day they thought of new ways to make you feel worse."
Over the last two years, human rights groups and the International Red Cross have noted some improvements. Hood said that the use of more extreme interrogation methods was curtailed within months of his taking command, around the time that the Abu Ghraib scandal became public. Yet the larger questions that indefinite detention at Guantánamo raises — how to forestall the radicalization of the detainees; how to control men who have only the slimmest hope of freedom — have never been resolved by senior policy makers. They have been left to military officers on the ground.
III. Out of the Dark Ages
As Colonel Bumgarner landed at Guantánamo in April 2005, he sensed that the military was in the midst of what he called "sort of an effort to normalize things." The Pentagon wanted to streamline the guard operation as part of a push toward a more modern, less labor-intensive detention facility. It also wanted to present a more humane face to the world. Both goals required lowering the level of conflict within the camp.
After his first briefing from Hood, Bumgarner put the printout of the Geneva Conventions on his desk and left it there. "I had my staff look at it," he said. "For me, it was the only black-and-white piece of something that I could reach out and grab for guidance."
At that point, White House officials were still opposed to adopting even the most basic Geneva standard for the treatment of prisoners, a provision that bans "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment." Bumgarner considered such issues above his pay grade. He tried to deal with the detainees man to man. "Human beings are human beings," he said in one of a series of conversations. "I always think that I can deal with anybody. I feel like dialogue can't hurt."
Weeks before he would meet the Saudi prisoner Shaker Aamer, Bumgarner came across a tall, wild-eyed detainee who was screaming at the guards in British-accented English. It wasn't clear what his problem was, but when the colonel asked, the man quickly calmed down. "You are creating these problems by the way you are treating us," the prisoner said.
A day or two later, Bumgarner had guards deliver the man to Juliet block, a small, fenced-in courtyard beside his command center where Red Cross representatives meet with detainees at aluminum picnic tables. He asked a guard to uncuff the prisoner's hands. "It puts them in a much better mood to talk to you," the colonel explained.
Prisoner No. 590, Ahmed Errachidi, was a handsome 39-year-old Moroccan who spent 17 years in London. He worked as a chef at a string of restaurants, including the Hard Rock Cafe, before traveling to Afghanistan after the United States began bombing the country in October 2001. The military authorities accused him of belonging to a radical Moroccan Islamist group and training at a Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, charges that his lawyers have disputed. Intelligence officials told me they did not consider him a high-value detainee and noted that he had been hospitalized for manic depression. But the guards, impressed by his influence and sense of self-importance, had nicknamed him the General.
Errachidi seemed rather surprised to be sitting down with the commander of the detention group, Bumgarner told me. But in that meeting on June 6 and a second, longer one two days later, Errachidi seized the chance to inventory the prisoners' grievances: The water was foul, he said, and the food terrible. The detainees were angry about the guards' habit of walking loudly through the cellblocks at prayer times and even angrier that "The Star-Spangled Banner" sometimes played over distant naval-base loudspeakers during or right after the evening call to prayer.
The General "kept talking about 'the dark ages,"' Bumgarner would later recall. The prisoner complained, for example, that the guards often referred to the detainees in demeaning ways, calling out when they were moving a prisoner that they had "a package" ready.
"We are not 'packages,"' Errachidi told the colonel. "We are human beings."
After the first meeting, Bumgarner received a piece of paper from a guard. It was a drawing by Errachidi, a sort of map. In one corner, it showed a shaded area labeled "the Dark Ages." From there, a path wound through a thicket of obstacles. They had labels like "No 'packages,"' "Better food" and "Turn the lights down." At the end of the path, Errachidi had drawn what looked like an oasis, with water and palm trees.
Back at Bumgarner's command center, some of his staff officers wondered about the wisdom of trying to solve such complaints. They were used to their commanders walking the blocks and occasionally speaking to prisoners; they were not accustomed to sit-downs. Nor did they see why they should be the ones to pick through the Geneva provisions and suggest whether the detainees might be entitled to elect their own representatives or attend educational programs.
"We're the guys on the ground," the detention group's former operations officer, Maj. Joseph M. Angelo, told me not long ago. "So why was I making recommendations on what portions of the Geneva Conventions we should implement? That just struck me as kind of weird."
Still, the unease of Bumgarner's staff did not compare with the reaction he got from the intelligence side of the Guantánamo task force. There had long been tension between the two military units, but this time members of the Joint Intelligence Group "were furious," one staff officer recalled. There were few privileges to give out at Guantánamo, this officer and others said, and interrogators felt they should be the ones to dispense them — in return for cooperation from the detainees.
Before he deployed to Cuba, Bumgarner's military police superiors had been emphatic that he should stick to his responsibilities and leave his counterparts in military intelligence to their interrogations and analysis. Bumgarner wasn't worried about stepping out of his lane. "I run the camps," he said.
Bumgarner set about trying to solve the problems he saw. He instructed members of the guard force to stop referring to the detainees as "packages." On compliant blocks, he had guards start turning down the lights between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. and stop moving prisoners during those hours to allow the detainees to sleep. To avoid disturbing their prayers, he ordered guards to place yellow traffic cones spray-painted with a "P" in the cellblock halls at prayer times. He asked his aides to see that "The Star-Spangled Banner" recording would be played at least three minutes before the call to prayer.
Another of Bumgarner's senior staff officers, Maj. Timothy O'Reilly, a reservist who is a lawyer in civilian life, began to recognize some of what he was seeing from jails and prisons in the United States. "The ultimate nirvana for anybody in law enforcement or corrections is compliance," he said earlier this year. "In order to run an effective prison, you need to have people comply with your orders, and that's no different from the smallest jail to the biggest high-security prison."
But Guantánamo was clearly unlike other prisons in one important respect: The detainees found much less incentive to obey the rules. To some, exile to the discipline or segregation blocks was a source of status and pride, military intelligence officials said. And the punishments were limited. Striking or spraying urine on a guard brought 30 days' segregation, the maximum length of any punishment under Geneva rules. There was no such thing as getting a few more years tacked on to your sentence.
In an American prison, O'Reilly and others noted, an inmate could be a sworn enemy of the prison authorities, respected among other prisoners, and still try to "run a good program" — avoiding trouble in an effort to reduce his time behind bars. At Guantánamo, compliance with the rules brought only prayer beads, packets of hot sauce, a slightly thicker mattress. It would not bring early parole.
Former detainees I met insisted that their defiance was provoked not only by their despair over their uncertain futures but also by unnecessarily harsh and arbitrary treatment from the guards. "If people's basic human rights were respected, I don't think they would have had any of these problems," said Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban cabinet minister and ambassador to Pakistan who was the pre-eminent leader of Afghan prisoners at Guantánamo before his release in the late summer of 2005. "There were no rules and no law. Any guard could do whatever they wanted to do."
Like other small, insular groups that live at the mercy of a more powerful force, the detainees have woven intricate, conspiratorial theories about their fate. In a closed world where prayer gives structure to daily life and the Koran is the one possession guards are never supposed to take away, prisoners were acutely sensitive to any perceived disrespect for their faith. But there were many other grievances. Some former detainees told me that early on, they were injected at Guantánamo with psychotropic drugs, a claim that military officials denied. Later, detainees continued to suspect hidden agents of social control in everything from the cloudy tap water to the configuration of their cells.
"Those blocks are designed so that you will not rest," says Mohammed al-Daihani, a government accountant from Kuwait who was sent home last November. "There is metal everywhere. If anyone drops anything, you hear it. If anyone shouts or talks loudly, it disturbs everyone. If there is a problem at the other end of the block, you cannot possibly rest. After two or three weeks, you think you will lose your mind."
Although the detainees came from diverse backgrounds and more than three dozen countries, there was only one real prison gang at Guantánamo. The authorities were convinced it was controlled by Al Qaeda members. An August 2002 study by the C.I.A. asserted that Qaeda detainees at Guantánamo had quickly begun "establishing cellblock leaders and dividing responsibility among deputies for greeting new arrivals, assessing interrogations, monitoring the guard force and providing moral support to fellow detainees, among other tasks." (The study was posted in July on the Web site The Smoking Gun; two officials confirmed its authenticity to me.)
Such conclusions may have been drawn from the actions of detainees like Shaker Aamer, the man with whom Bumgarner spoke for hours at the end of June. Abdullah al-Noaimi, a Bahraini student who was released from Guantánamo last November, described in interviews at his home in Bahrain in June how Aamer initially organized their cellblock through sheer force of personality. "He's always laughing and talking, very extroverted," al-Noaimi said. "He was born to be a leader."
Soon after his own arrival in Cuba, al-Noaimi recalled, Aamer rallied the detainees on the block to refuse to be weighed by the medical staff — a largely meaningless protest, he said, but one that infuriated the guards and thrilled the detainees. Eventually, he added, Aamer organized the 48-cell block into four groups of 12, with representatives for each unit and a spokesman for the block. "It's the same thing John McCain did in Vietnam," said Lieut. Col. Kevin Burk, who commanded the army's first military police battalion at Guantánamo. "You continue your resistance."
Some parts of the camp were easier to manage than others. The guards looked on the roughly 110 Afghans then at Guantánamo as relatively cooperative. They filled much of Camp 4, the newer wing where Level 1, or "highly compliant," prisoners were allowed to live in communal barracks, serving their own food and moving freely in and out of small recreation yards. Most of the rest of the Afghans were in Camp 1, for Level 2, or "compliant," detainees. Only a handful were held in Camp 5, the maximum-security area. Yet as more prisoners were released, the remainder were becoming a more cohesive group, military officials and former detainees said. They were also overwhelmingly Arab, and more likely to have endured more extreme interrogation techniques like sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and threats.
Several former detainees insisted that it was not Al Qaeda that bound them at Guantánamo but a common adversary. In standard prison fashion, they developed ingenious ways to organize and communicate. They attached messages to long threads from their clothing with wads of hardened toothpaste and then cast them into neighboring cells. They shouted into the plumbing to talk between floors in the maximum-security unit. And as their frustration grew, their ability to organize was brought to bear in new ways.
IV. Aamer the Hero
The hunger strike that confronted Colonel Bumgarner in mid-June 2005 escalated quickly. Of the many strikes since early 2002, few had gone far enough to prompt doctors to force-feed the detainees through stomach tubes. This time, however, there were not a handful of hunger-strikers but dozens.
As they often had before, military spokesmen dismissed the protest as a publicity bid typical of Al Qaeda-trained terrorists. Officers at Guantánamo had tabulated hundreds of incidents of what they termed "manipulative, self-injurious behavior." Privately, though, they began to discuss how to respond to a potential suicide. At the Pentagon, officials dusted off contingency plans for dealing with a body that would need prompt burial under Islamic law.
Senior members of the Guantánamo staff began to meet regularly with General Hood to monitor the strike. The chief medical officer, Navy Capt. John S. Edmondson, M.D., worried about the prospect of having to force-feed large numbers of detainees. The medical risk was relatively low, but there were other considerations. "Anytime you're doing a procedure that the patient doesn't want, it's not a place you want to be," he would tell me later. "What takes precedence? The patient's rights, or their life? It's not an easy question."
Bumgarner soon turned to Aamer, who had been on strike since around the time of their first meeting in Camp Echo. During that first encounter, he said, the prisoner had been "trying to convince me, in a very subtle way, that he could help control things in the camp." He decided to consider the proposal.
Over a couple of more conversations with Aamer, Bumgarner made his case: He wanted the detention camp to run more smoothly, to make things easier for detainees who obeyed the rules. He was prepared to move closer to the standards of the Geneva Conventions in some parts of the operation, including discipline. What did Aamer think it would take, the colonel wanted to know, for the hunger strike to end?
Aamer summarized his discussions with Bumgarner in a statement he dated Aug. 11, 2005, and later gave to his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith. In it, he said the hunger-strikers demanded ending "the secret abuse project of Camp 5" (which he did not explain) and either bringing the detainees to trial or sending them home. Meanwhile, they wanted better medical and living conditions. Aamer wrote that the colonel promised him "that justice would come to Guantánamo at last." The prisoner, his lawyer said later, had "decided that this was a man who he could trust."
Bumgarner said he tried always to bring the talks back to what he could deliver: modest improvements in the detainees' living conditions. He said Aamer told him: "'If you can get me to go around the camps, I can turn this off."'
There were no precedents for chaperoned consultations among detainees. But by July 26, 2005, the number of detainees refusing to eat was at 56, and doctors were becoming concerned about the health of several of them. Bumgarner decided to act. "I saw the chance to end it, and I just did it," he said.
The colonel went to see Aamer at a small hospital inside the detention camp. He was sitting on a bed, one ankle chained to the frame, surrounded by some of the other more determined hunger-strikers. According to Bumgarner, Aamer told him that several of the detainees had had a "vision," in which three of them had to die for the rest to be freed. Still, he agreed to try to persuade them to drop the protest.
Aamer agreed to suspend his own strike on July 26, his lawyer said, but was unsuccessful in persuading others. That evening or the next, Bumgarner said, he had guards retrieve Aamer from the hospital and meet him at Camp 5, the imposing maximum-security unit. Once inside the heavy doors, they went through the cellblocks one by one, as Aamer spoke with a handful of the most influential detainees.
Aamer went first to see Saber Lahmar, an Algerian-born Islamic scholar who was arrested in Bosnia in a supposed conspiracy to bomb the American Embassy in Sarajevo. (Lahmar denied any involvement in such a plot.) Trailed by the colonel and a military interpreter, Aamer continued through the tiers, crouching down to speak to a handful of others through the slots by which they received their food. His last stop was the cell of Ghassan al-Sharbi, a 30-year-old Saudi who studied electrical engineering in Prescott, Ariz. Al-Sharbi, who was later charged in the military tribunals with joining in an Al Qaeda conspiracy to manufacture bombs for attacks in Afghanistan, was reluctant to give up the strike. When he finally agreed, the others went along, two military officials said.
As they prepared to leave Camp 5, Bumgarner says, he asked Aamer if he needed to speak with some of the other hunger-strikers there as well. "No," Aamer answered matter-of-factly. "The others will put the word out."
The colonel and his prisoner drove to Camps 2 and 3. As they entered some of the blocks — Bumgarner in his camouflage fatigues, Aamer handcuffed to a chain around his waist — the cells erupted with applause.
"He was treated like a rock star, some of the places we would go in," Bumgarner recalls. "I have never seen grown men — with beards, hardened men — crying at the sight of another man." He paused, searching for an analogy. "It was like I was with Bon Jovi or something," he said.
Former detainees who witnessed the visits recounted to me that Aamer, speaking in Arabic, proposed to end the hunger strike and explained that other detainees in Camp 5 were in agreement. In return, he said, the military authorities promised to try to resolve problems the prisoners faced and to observe parts of the Geneva Conventions.
The colonel's subordinates had grown accustomed to his hands-on style of leadership. But they worried more openly about his meetings with Aamer. The Saudi, one officer pointedly said, "has an almost hypnotic power over some people." Two others referred to Aamer as "Svengali."
Bumgarner himself struggled with Aamer's frequent demands. One morning, as Aamer was being sent off with other officers to brief detainees, he had a new one for the colonel: Now he wanted to move around without the leg shackles that were standard for detainees being transported outside their cellblocks.
"Look, Shaker, don't make a big deal out of this," Bumgarner recalled telling him. "Let's get on to the bigger thing here. I can't take you out of those shackles."
"I'm not going unless you just handcuff me," the prisoner responded.
"Shaker, don't do this to me," the colonel said. "It's just going to make it harder."
"No," he quoted Aamer as saying. "I'm not doing any of this."
Bumgarner ordered the shackles removed. The handcuffs stayed on. Aamer finally went ahead with his briefings to the other prisoners. "It was clearly a risk — not in terms of putting anybody in danger, but in terms of perception," Bumgarner told me later. "But I thought that in the end, in order to keep things going, I was going to have to do it."
Mullah Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador, had just finished his prayers in Camp 4 when a sergeant came to his dormitory. "There is someone who wants to see you," the sergeant said. Zaeef had never had an unannounced visitor at Guantánamo before.
He found Aamer waiting. The two men had known each other in Camp 1, where they were briefly neighbors. Zaeef, who spoke Arabic, noted that many of the Arabs respected the Saudi's leadership. Aamer told Zaeef about his conversations with the colonel.
"We thought maybe they were becoming softer in their policies," Zaeef recalls. "Or we thought maybe they were trying to trick us. But we thought that we should see which one it was."
When I met him in Afghanistan almost a year later, Zaeef still seemed a bit uncertain about what had taken place. He is an elegant, professorial man who wears wire-rimmed glasses and the black silk turban favored by the Taliban. He described the episode during two long interviews in the well-guarded government guest house on the dusty outskirts of Kabul, where he has lived since returning home last September.
According to Zaeef, Aamer described a scheme of representation for the detainees that he had worked out with Bumgarner — one that vaguely echoed the Third Geneva Convention's rules for a prisoner-of-war camp. Detainees in Camp 4 were to choose two inmates to represent them, one for the Afghans and another for the rest. With guards by his side, Zaeef said he then went from one block to the next, explaining the situation. After some discussion, he was chosen by acclamation to represent all of the Camp 4 detainees. Still, Zaeef recalled, "people were very skeptical."
Nonetheless, most of the hunger-strikers suspended their protests by July 28. Disciplinary problems on the blocks eased. The mood in the camps swelled palpably, some military officials told me. Later Bumgarner would refer to this interlude as "the Period of Peace."
The colonel then turned to some of the issues the detainees had raised during their strike. He and Aamer were sitting at one of the picnic tables near his office, debating the camp food, when Aamer insisted that the detainees' meals were being poisoned.
"That's asinine!" Bumgarner said.
"I don't see you eating the stuff," he said Aamer shot back.
Over a dinner of fish sticks and fries, they began working out a solution. Not long after, Aamer sat down with the head of the mess hall, the base nutritionist and a logistics officer on the military staff. According to one officer briefed on the meeting, Aamer unfolded a piece of paper on which he had drawn up an elaborate two-week meal plan with daily suggestions for four different diets: a standard menu, a vegetarian menu, a vegetarian-with-fish option and a bland diet for older prisoners and those with intestinal problems. Two officials said Aamer's proposal eventually became the basis for a new meal plan that raised the amount of food offered to detainees each day from 2,800 calories to 4,200 calories.
After weeks of discussion with his aides, Bumgarner also instituted a new program to simplify the discipline in the camp. Under the previous four-level system, misdeeds were punished with the loss of various "comfort items" like prayer beads and books, or stints in the discipline or segregation blocks. The system was so complicated, military officials said, that its application often seemed arbitrary.
The new plan called for all or nothing. Every detainee was restored to compliant status and issued all of the comfort items generally available, including prayer beads and bigger bars of soap. Those who broke the rules would be busted down to "basic issue," or B.I., with nothing in between. To symbolize the new order, all detainees in punishment-orange uniforms would be reoutfitted in tan.
The change might have made a dent in the prisoners' abiding sense of humiliation. The problem, some officers said, was that the plan was set in motion before enough tan clothing could be requisitioned to outfit all the detainees. Some of those left in orange complained loudly.
"We did not think that through like we were playing chess," Major Angelo said. "We thought like we were playing checkers. And that didn't work."
V. The End of Peace
A couple of days after Aamer visited Zaeef to explain the new plan for prisoner representation, a guard approached Zaeef with a cryptic message. "At 6 o'clock you are going to go somewhere," he said. At the appointed hour, Zaeef was led out of the camp and put on the rumble seat of one of the small John Deere utility vehicles used to transport detainees around the detention center and driven to Camp 1.
The guards led him to the small, fenced-in exercise yard for Alpha block, where two picnic tables had been placed. Ala Muhammad Salim, an influential Egyptian religious leader in the camp who was known as Sheik Ala, was already there. The two prisoners sat down and began quizzing each other about what was going on. Four others trickled in. They included Aamer and two of the men he met with in Camp 5: Saber Lahmar, the Algerian scholar, and Ghassan al-Sharbi, the Saudi engineer. The sixth was Adel Fattoh Algazzar, a former Egyptian Army officer with a master's degree in economics. Bumgarner did not attend the meeting, but when all of the detainees were seated, his deputy arrived with two other officers. Al-Sharbi acted as the Arabic interpreter.
According to other officers I spoke with, the deputy delivered a simple message: The six were being asked to provide their input on how to improve conditions in the camp. Each of the detainees responded in turn.
"Do not mistreat us anymore," Zaeef recalled saying. "Be respectful of our religion and our Koran. Respect us as human beings, because we are human beings. If we are criminals, take us to court. But if we are innocent, let us go."
News of the meeting buzzed through the camp. Right away, several former detainees said, the prisoners began to debate what was taking place. "We had never talked to the colonels before," Abdulaziz al-Shammari, a Kuwaiti teacher, said. "But this Bumgarner came around all the time, wanting to negotiate with us."
The younger detainees pressed Aamer to push past the matter of living conditions and focus on their demands for trial or release. "The shabab said to him, 'We must not go only for the small things; we should go to the core issues,"' al-Shammari said, using the Arabic word for "young people" or "youth."
Mohammed al-Daihani, the Kuwaiti accountant, now released, said that soon after the colonel and Aamer visited his cellblock, Ahmed Errachidi, the Moroccan known as the General, challenged others there to analyze the possible motives of their captors. "He said: 'Why is a colonel from the most powerful country in the world coming to negotiate with the detainees? They must be under some kind of pressure."'
The skeptics on Bumgarner's side were also growing more vocal. "I was one of the few who thought we should let the leaders come talk to us," the colonel acknowledged. Hood was clearly uneasy with the negotiations, other officers said. He told aides not to refer to the six as "the council," as the detainees did. Still, several officers emphasized, the talks would never have gone forward if Hood had not approved them.
On the evening of Saturday, Aug. 6, shortly after the council's first meeting, the colonel convened the six again, officers said. This time, he sat with the group himself. Aamer had insisted that they should not be handcuffed or shackled. "These are leaders," he told the colonel.
Bumgarner agreed, and the handcuffs were removed. Guards armed with pepper spray stood by, while an immediate-reaction team waited just out of sight. The colonel later summarized his introduction thusly: "You're here. I'm here. You've got my attention. Tell me what the grievances are, and we'll work through them." He added, "This place ain't going away, so we might as well make the best of it."
As Zaeef recalled the encounter, Bumgarner made several promises: He would allow the circulation of religious books among the detainees and try to resolve problems that arose with the guards. He would assure that the prisoners' food was "adequate." Zaeef said the most important thing the colonel pledged was to send another official who would be able to speak with the detainees about their "future." Bumgarner said he promised only that guards would act "in the spirit of the Geneva Conventions" and that he would see that Guantánamo's discipline was consistent with its terms.
On the following Monday, the officers said, the six detainees were allowed to meet alone in the fenced-in yard. A pair of military interpreters were positioned nearby to monitor their conversation, officers said. According to both Zaeef and military officials, the detainees began using pens and paper they had been given to write notes. An officer observing the meeting interrupted them: they were not to pass notes, he said. When they insisted on confidentiality, he stepped forward again. But as the officer moved to confiscate the notes, some of the detainees popped them into their mouths and began chewing.
Hood pronounced the experiment over. "'This group is not meeting anymore,"' the colonel recounts him saying. "'And you are not going to be meeting with them anymore."'
The "period of peace" came to an abrupt end. According to various sources — military officials, former detainees and Aamer's lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith — the detainees were also angered by a few incidents that had taken place over the weekend before the second council meeting. In one case, a prisoner had been forcibly extracted from his cell, only to sit waiting for hours to be interrogated. In another, the questioning of a slight Tunisian detainee by a much larger criminal investigator ended in a violent scuffle involving a cut nose, the possible hurling of a mini-refrigerator and the investigator's being ordered off the island.
A couple of days after the negotiations were shut down, officials said, a riot broke out in Camps 2 and 3. Dozens of detainees tore up their cells, wrenching foot pegs from their toilets and using them to try to pry loose the mesh that separated them. Guards were pulled from the tiers and deployed to surround the perimeter of the blocks. Water and electricity were shut off, and Bumgarner finally got on a bullhorn with an Arabic interpreter to persuade the detainees to be escorted from their ruined cells. The repairs took weeks.
The guard officers were unsure what the detainee leaders had been up to. According to military and intelligence officials, there were indications that Aamer and al-Sharbi had been at odds. Al-Sharbi, the accused Al Qaeda bomb maker, once told a military review panel it was his "honor" to be classified as an enemy combatant, declaring, "May God help me to fight the infidels!" Paradoxically, he was believed to be the more pragmatic negotiator, urging that the detainees try to improve conditions in the camp. But Aamer, who had denied any involvement in militant activities, took a different position. According to the officials, he argued more directly that the detainees should use the talks to pressure the military into either trying them fairly or setting them free.
Aamer told his lawyer the military had "sadly betrayed its word on every occasion a promise has been made." He blamed the colonel personally. At the time, Bumgarner said, he felt similarly betrayed. But when he recounted the story months later, he sounded merely disappointed. "We almost liked each other," he said of the two Saudis, Aamer and al-Sharbi. "I shouldn't say we liked each other, but when we spoke together, there was no animosity."
By mid-August, the hunger strike that military commanders thought they had resolved was picking up strength. Complaints about living conditions were de-emphasized, military officials and lawyers for the detainees told me. Instead, the prisoners focused on their future legal status. The renewed protest hit a peak just after Sept. 11 of last year, with 131 prisoners refusing meals for at least three straight days, officials said.
Many of the officers doubted that the protesters were willing to take their own lives. Islamic law strongly forbids suicide. Abdulaziz al-Shammari, the Kuwaiti teacher who was one of the most frequent hunger-strikers, said he never considered taking his own life. "We saw that they would not let us die," he said of the military doctors. "This was merely the most extreme side of the protests."
Al-Shammari, who has a university degree in Islamic law, was one of a half-dozen more learned detainees to whom others turned for religious rulings on countless problems of their captivity. He said he knew of no relevant exceptions to the prohibition against suicide.
Two officials familiar with intelligence reporting from Guantánamo said that sometime in the late summer of 2005, Saber Lahmar, the Algerian religious leader who served on the six-man council, told other detainees of a fatwa that said it was lawful to take your own life in order to protect state secrets or to defend the common good. Other detainees spoke about the prophetic dream that Shaker Aamer mentioned to Bumgarner, in which three prisoners had to die for the rest to be free, the officials said.
As doctors began to tube-feed the more recalcitrant hunger-strikers, the strike consumed the medical staff. Specialists were flown in from naval hospitals in Florida. Most of the detainees maintained their weight at above or near 80 percent of their so-called ideal body weight. But as the strike dragged on, several slipped below 75 or even 70 percent of that measure, doctors said.
For detainees who obeyed the rules, the military offered new perks. Exercise time was extended once more. On Hood's instructions, Gatorade and energy bars were given out during recreation periods. Wednesday became pizza night. Guard officers suggested soccer and volleyball tournaments to the compliant detainees in Camp 4. The detainees came back asking that a prize — two-liter bottles of Pepsi — be awarded to the winners. (The detainees disdained Coca-Cola, guards said.) Before the games could begin, however, the detainees changed their minds, the officers said. They had concluded that the contest was a scheme by the military to divide them.
While increasing the incentives for compliance, the colonel also tried to clamp down on disruptive behavior. The segregation and discipline blocks were overhauled. The rules became stricter, the guards tougher. When detainees in segregation tried to shout to one another through the walls, the guards were to turn on large, noisy fans to drown them out.
Worried about Shaker Aamer's influence, Bumgarner also took an unusual step. In September, he had Aamer moved to Camp Echo, where he would be even more isolated than he would be on the segregation blocks. But Bumgarner did not cut off contacts with the detainee leaders entirely. He approached Zaeef to assure him that he wanted to continue to improve things for compliant detainees. He also developed a rapport with Ghassan al-Sharbi.
Al-Sharbi was described by people who know him as an intelligent, almost ethereal man from a wealthy Saudi family. (In an appearance before a military tribunal, he sat placidly with his hands folded at the defense table and told the presiding officer in plain English: "I'm going to make it easy for you guys. I fought against the United States.") The colonel said he found al-Sharbi a useful interlocutor and met with him repeatedly. After August, he never spoke with Aamer again.
The guard officers saw some indications that the tougher approach was working. The number of detainees in the discipline and segregation blocks fell substantially. Only later did the officers begin to suspect that the more combative detainees were so focused on the hunger strike that they had little energy for other protests.
VI. The Suicides
To some of Colonel Bumgarner's officers, it seemed that the latest group of hunger-strikers were being allowed to get too comfortable. They had hospital beds, air-conditioning, attentive nurses and a choice of throat lozenges to ease the pain of their feeding tubes. The arrangement also allowed some of the hospitalized detainees to communicate relatively easily.
By late November, while many of the strikers were maintaining their weight, four or five of them were becoming dangerously malnourished, Dr. Edmondson said. By sucking on their feeding tubes, they had figured out how to siphon out the contents of their stomachs. Others simply vomited after they had been fed.
On Dec. 5, the guard force ordered five "restraint chairs" from a small manufacturer in Iowa. If obdurate detainees could be strapped down during and after their feedings, the guard officers hoped, it might ensure that they digested what they were fed.
Days later, a Navy forensic psychiatrist arrived at Guantánamo, followed by three experts from a Bureau of Prisons medical center in Missouri. Bumgarner said the visitors agreed with him that the strike was a "discipline issue": "If you don't eat, it's the same as an attempted suicide. It's a violation of camp rules." In addition to feeding prisoners in the chair, some of the more influential hunger-strikers were sent off to Camp Echo with the hope of weakening the others' resolve. The number of strikers, which was at 84 in early January, soon fell to a handful.
Lawyers for the detainees were appalled. The lawyers quoted their clients as saying detainees had been strapped into the chairs for several hours at a time, even as they defecated or urinated on themselves. The doctors told me later that they had run out of options. "I would have preferred to have waited," said Dr. Edmondson, the chief base physician, who other officials said opposed the restraint chairs. But he added, "I seriously believed that we were going to lose one of those guys if we didn't do something different."
In the spring of 2006, General Hood and Colonel Bumgarner were suggesting that the mood at Guantánamo had turned. A handful of hunger-strikers were still at it — a few young Saudis and Yemenites, and Ghassan al-Sharbi. But the officers saw them as zealots whose threat to the smooth operation of the camp could be controlled. Otherwise, disciplinary infractions and attacks on the guards were down, they said, and many of the detainees were responding positively to new incentives for good behavior.
In an interview in late March, Hood said he believed that many young Arab detainees — sheltered, passionate young men who had gone to Afghanistan to fight what they thought would be a noble jihad — were beginning to see the light. They hadn't been radicalized at Guantánamo, he insisted. Rather, as conditions at the camp had improved, their preconceptions about Americans had worn away. "They discover, 'You guys aren't so bad."'
"I think the hard-core people have lost ground over the last four years," Hood said. "They are clearly losing ground."
As he prepared to turn over his command in April to Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., Hood was upbeat about the future. "We are going to establish the most world-class detention facilities, and we are going to show the world that we're doing this right," he said. "Every provision of the Geneva Conventions related to the safe custody of the detainees is being adhered to. Today at Guantánamo — and, in fact, for a long time — the American people would be proud of the discipline that is demonstrated here."
Six weeks later, as guards in Camp 1 patrolled one of the blocks, they came upon a detainee comatose in his cell and frothing at the mouth — symptoms of an apparent overdose. "Snowball" — the guards' radio code for a suicide attempt — was called out over and over. In all, five detainees were found to have ingested medication that they and others had hoarded, and guard officers concluded that at least three were making serious suicide attempts. (Military spokesmen said that only two had really tried to kill themselves.)
Later that afternoon, May 18, a riot broke out among the "highly compliant" detainees in Camp 4 as guards moved to search their dormitories — and their Korans — for pills and other contraband, officials said. Detainees in one block of the camp set on guards who stormed their barracks after another guard saw a staged hanging and mistakenly called out "blizzard," the code for multiple suicide attempts. The guards' quick-reaction force fired rounds of rubber bullets and voluminous blasts of pepper spray to contain the disturbance.
Doctors later determined that the detainees had ingested sleeping pills, antianxiety medication and antipsychotics — whatever they could get their hands on. Since none of the men had been prescribed the medicines they took, it was evident that other detainees had colluded in the plan. (A cache of about 20 more pills was later found in one prisoner's prosthetic leg.) Still, the military authorities seemed uncertain how to respond.
Some officials recalled the detainees' premonition about three of them having to die. The medical staff tried to more closely monitor detainees with mental-health problems. But that screening apparently did not factor in the possibility that the men might have been determined to kill themselves for other reasons — like loyalty to a cause.
Sometime before midnight on June 9, three young Arab men, who were being held near one another in a single block of Camp 1, moved quietly to the backs of their small cells and began to string up nooses that had been elaborately made from torn linens and clothing. The bright lights had been turned down for the night. Still, the prisoners had to work quickly: guards were supposed to walk the block every three minutes.
After anchoring the nooses in the steel mesh walls of their cells, the three — Mani al-Utaybi, and Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, both Saudis, and Ali Abdullah Ahmed, of Yemen — piled clothing under their bedsheets to make it appear that they were asleep. They stuffed wads of fabric into their mouths, either to muffle their cries or perhaps to help themselves suffocate. At least one of the men also bound his legs, military officials said, apparently so he would not be able to kick as he died.
With the nooses pulled over their heads, the prisoners slipped behind blankets they had hung over the back corners of their cells and stepped onto their small, stainless-steel sinks. The drop was short — only about 18 inches — but adequate. By the time they were discovered, doctors surmised, the men had been asphyxiated for at least 20 minutes and probably longer. Military and intelligence officials said it appeared that the other 20-odd prisoners on the block knew that the suicides were being prepared. Some may have prayed with the men, the officials said, and a few may have assisted in carrying out the plan. What is certain is that in contrast to most previous suicide attempts at the camp, none of the detainees made any effort to alert the guards.
When doctors reviewed their files on the three men, they found that none of them had shown signs of depression or other psychological problems. All three had been on hunger strikes — one of them since the previous August — and at least two of them had been evaluated when they abandoned their protests. One doctor recalled one of the men telling him brightly: "I'm sleeping well. I feel well. No problems."
What the men hoped to communicate by their deaths may have been contained in brief notes they left behind in Arabic. The notes have not been made public, and a Navy investigation into the suicides continues. But military leaders at Guantánamo were not waiting on its outcome. They concluded immediately that the suicides were a blitzkrieg in the detainees' long campaign of protest. At a news conference hours after the suicides, the new Guantánamo commander, Admiral Harry Harris, described them as an act of "asymmetric warfare."
VII. Tightening Up
I sat down with Colonel Bumgarner one blazing afternoon in late June, as he was preparing to give up command. He looked tired and stressed, and slumped into a chair in his small, cluttered office. As Shaker Aamer did the previous summer, Bumgarner used words like "trust" and "betrayal." Bumgarner, at the time we spoke, was briefly suspended from duty while the military investigated whether he improperly disclosed classified information to a North Carolina newspaper reporter who, around the time the suicides occurred, had been in Bumgarner's headquarters reporting a feature article on the colonel from Kings Mountain. (He was absolved of any wrongdoing.) But he seemed more worried by something else: Had he completely misunderstood the prisoners he was trying to reach?
"We tried to improve their lives to the extent that we can — to the point that we may have gone overboard, not recognizing the real nature of who we're dealing with," he said. "I thought they had proven themselves. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I did not think that they would kill themselves."
Bumgarner said he could not discuss the suicides because of the Navy's continuing investigation. But several officials said that the three detainees had taken advantage of some of the colonel's quality-of-life reforms, including the nighttime dimming of lights and the availability of extra clothing. There were also indications that Ghassan al-Sharbi, the colonel's onetime interlocutor, had helped plan the suicides, two of the officials said.
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