A Profile of the 'Guardian of Guantanamo'

Col. Mike Bumgarner was appointed last year by the Pentagon to improve conditions for detainees held at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Tim Golden, who wrote a profile of Bumgarner for this week's New York Times Magazine, talks about his profile with Alex Chadwick.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

The New York Times Sunday Magazine this weekend carries a cover story set in Guantanamo Bay at the prison there for detainees held in the war on terror. This is a lengthy, thorough and ultimately grim piece of reporting by writer Tim Golden, who joins us from NPR's New York bureau.

Tim, this is the story of Colonel Mike Bumgarner, who took over command of Guantanamo about a year and a half ago and then left that post this summer. Give us some background on him, please.

Mr. TIM GOLDEN (Writer): Mike Bumgarner was essentially the warden of Guantanamo. He was the head of the guard force that is in charge of keeping the detainees safe, keeping them from escaping, as opposed to the interrogation side that is the other component of the joint task force in Guantanamo.

CHADWICK: He is a career military police guy. This assignment comes to him: go down to Guantanamo, run that prison. And when he gets there, the general who is sort of in charge of things at a higher level tells him, look, I think we're going to have to make some adjustments down there. We're certainly getting bad public relations, and we may have to make things a little better for the detainees. So when he gets there, this is his kind of charge.

Mr. GOLDEN: As time passed, just the basic detention of people who have no clear idea of when they're going to get out had become harder and harder. So what the military did was essentially to go back to the rulebook that it knew, which was the Geneva Conventions. And Colonel Bumgarner began to try in a piecemeal, almost instinctual fashion to figure out, well, can I give them better food, can I give them things to do, can I treat them with a little more respect? And eventually he moved toward dealing with them in a much more direct and personal way.

CHADWICK: I was surprised by what happened with the detainees. And I must say the ones you write about are very sophisticated. A lot of reporting from Guantanamo suggests that most detainees are simple, local Afghans swept up in the fight against the Taliban. But that's not these guys.

Mr. GOLDEN: Well, the detainees are a very diverse bunch. And it turns out there are some guys with graduate degrees who have lived in both Western as well as Middle Eastern societies and speak English well, understand Americans reasonably well. And they have studied the guards; they have studied the military organization very carefully.

One of the things that the piece points out is that they've figured out ways to use the small measure of power that they have in ways that kept the military off balance.

CHADWICK: Colonel Bumgarner does try to negotiate with these prisoners, but their demand to him is essentially, finally, look, try us or let us go. And he can't do that.

Mr. GOLDEN: That's right. He can make life a little better. He can improve the meals. He even gives them bottled water with their food. But as he resolves some of the complaints about their living conditions - and really only some of them - things move almost inexorably to the bigger issue, which is we don't agree with this notion that you can just hold us indefinitely without any charges.

CHADWICK: I did read reports over the last year of this hunger strike that had set in. The colonel tries to deal with that. He thinks he's winning at one point. But then, finally, negotiations with the detainees essentially break down. What happened?

Mr. GOLDEN: After months of the hunger strike, the military authorities got more and more concerned. And finally they began strapping the hunger strikers into what they call restraint chairs, making it extremely uncomfortable for them to continue. At that point the military essentially broke the hunger strike. The number of hunger strikers went down to a small handful. But what it also seems to have done was to push the detainees to more radical steps.

In May you had a series of attempted suicides involving overdoses with drugs that the prisoners had hoarded. And then in June there were three suicides.

CHADWICK: At the end of his tour, Colonel Bumgarner seems terribly discouraged. He tells you in an interview, maybe I never really understood who I was dealing with here. What do you think he meant by that?

Mr. GOLDEN: I think Colonel Bumgarner thought he could deal with these guys in a sort of man to man way, that they would play along with his rules or with the military's rules, and that if he was good to them, they would be compliant, they would go along. The military really only has the rulebook that it began to develop after World War II, the rulebook of the Geneva Conventions. It hasn't ever stopped to figure out if we're going to hold these people indefinitely, how are we going to do it? How are we going to make them go along with the program?

The old setup is really for prisoners who believe in the rules in some sense and who are going to resist or to fight back within those rules. And that's not the case anymore.

CHADWICK: Tim Golden is the author of The Battle for Guantanamo. It's the cover story on the New York Times Sunday Magazine coming out this weekend.

Tim, thank you.

Mr. GOLDEN: Thank you.

CHADWICK: The man at the center of his story, Colonel Mike Bumgarner, has since been reassigned to duty in the United States.

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