Inside the Courts

Gitmo and Charlotte: A decade removed, a debate still raging

Col Michael Bumgarner runs the Camp Delta detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Sunday, June 11, 2006. Three detainees at the camp were found dead Saturday after they committed suicide by hanging themselves.
Col Michael Bumgarner runs the Camp Delta detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Sunday, June 11, 2006. Three detainees at the camp were found dead Saturday after they committed suicide by hanging themselves.

A lot can change during a decade. Sometimes, little does.

Ten years ago Thursday night, three detainees at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, died in their cells. Military officials said at the time that the men hung themselves using strips torn from their bed sheets.

The next morning, on June 10, 2006, photographer Todd Sumlin and I touched down at the military base, sidestepping enormous iguanas and hundreds of scuttling black crabs before realizing we had stumbled into an international crisis – with remarkable Charlotte ties.

The commander of the prison, Col. Mike Bumgarner, whom we were there to interview, grew up in Kings Mountain, just west of Charlotte.

One of the dead men, a Saudi named Mani Shaman Turki al-Harbardi Al-Utaybi, was represented by two Charlotte attorneys.

And for the next 48 hours, the only two journalists in the world covering the story from the island itself had traveled down from South Tryon Street.

What we witnessed over the next four days was Exhibit I in the crippling debate over America’s war against terrorism. At the time, the detention center – officers at the site repeatedly challenged my use of the word “prison” – held about 500 men whom the Bush administration considered enemy soldiers or suspected terrorists.

On the other hand, a growing number of Americans and U.S. Allies said the prison held a number of innocent men who had been swept up in the aftermath of 9-11 and were now cut off from the protection of the U.S. courts.

The rhetorical gap was profound. The senior Guantanamo commander at the time described the suicides as acts of “asymmetrical warfare.” Critics, including Charlotte attorney Jeff Davis and George Daly, who represented al-Habardi, said the dead men had been driven to take their lives by their isolation and the brutal treatment of their American captors. Both Harper’s and Newsweek have in recent years raised the possibility that al-Habardi and the other two detainees died during brutal interrogations by the CIA.

Today, Guantanamo Bay holds only 80 inhabitants. Yet, America remains torn over whether the prison has made the country more or less safe.

Shortly after his election in 2008, President Barack Obama pledged to close the facility. This week – a day before the 10th anniversary of the suicides – the Washington Post wrote that the Obama administration now believes about a dozen released Guantanamo detainees took part in attacks that killed at least six Americans. The question remains whether the killers were enemy combatants who were allowed to go free or innocent men radicalized by their U.S. imprisonment.

This month, I called Bumgarner and Davis to talk about 2006 and the continued controversy swirling around the prison. What I found were two men who share military backgrounds and an uncommon love of their country scarred by Guantanamo in different ways.

Bumgarner, the most open and enthusiastic senior military officer I’ve ever met, allowed Todd and me to experience the suicide crisis from inside his locked-down prison. For his candor and willingness to show me the mission he totally believed in, Bumgarner was suspended and investigated for the possible mishandling of military secrets. He was cleared of all charges, but he told me years ago that our time together in 2006 helped end his military career.

When we talked last week, the retired colonel politely declined to talk about his former command, explaining that the episode remained painful for him and his family. A check of my notes from 2006 and beyond reminded me that Bumgarner had felt a crushing guilt in the wake of the suicides that plagued him for years.

A Muslim death chant had broken out on the cell block that night. Bumgarner was not on hand to hear it. Instead, he had dinner and cigars at his commanding officer’s home, celebrating the close of a successful visit from Fox network TV host Bill O’Reilly, whom the base considered a friend.

“I feel like I failed,” Bumgarner told me the day before his suspension, as we sat together in an abandoned guard tower overlooking his prison. “It was my job to keep them alive.”

Davis, a former Marine, carries his own wounds. He says the legal fight to free his Guantanamo client undercut a lifelong belief that his country would always do the right thing.

“We lost our moral compass,” he said Thursday, “and we lost our right to claim to be at the head of the evolution of ... human dignity.”

Davis also told me something I’d never known. After spending four years at Guantanamo, al-Habardi was no longer considered a threat to American security.

On the night he died, the 25-year-old Saudi was only weeks away from being sent home.