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.