September 17, 2006
The Battle for Guantánamo

1. 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.”