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June 20, 2006

Why Gitmo’s Commander Was Disappeared (Or: My Secret Guard Den)

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“Tuesday night, while packing to leave Guantanamo Bay, I called Bumgarner’s cell phone to say goodbye. A strange voice answered. I thought I dialed a wrong number, so I hung up. A few moments later, my phone rang. It was Navy Capt.-select Katie Hampf, Bumgarner’s second-in-command. She now had Bumgarner’s phone because she was acting prison commander. She wouldn’t say any more. The Pentagon would not talk about Bumgarner’s status. A spokesman said Bumgarner’s decision to allow us to listen in on staff meetings and observe other activities inside the prison ‘adds to an already complex and difficult situation’.”

This is the postscript Charlotte Observer reporter Michael Gordon added to his Sunday profile of Gitmo commander Mike Bumgarner.

As I outlined in my previous post, he and photographer Todd Sumlin were ejected from the base on Wednesday by order of the Pentagon.  It makes sense that the reporters would be given the boot.  Considering the access and information Commander Bumgarner afforded these journalists (elaborating, for example, how he’s been locked in a desperate power struggle with the prisoners, or that, at various times, he hasn’t had control of the situation), its understandable he also would be disappeared.  But that doesn’t explain why the commander provided such access.

At first, The BAG imagined Bumgarner throwing open this window out of some higher moral obligation.  If you read Gordon’s profile of Gumgarner, however, you get a different picture.

He’s a guy who admittedly craves the spotlight, and has even had run-ins with military censors over it.  He name drops like crazy, playing up his extended discussions with U.S. Senators, and an appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s show.

Knowing that his tenure at Gitmo was to end in a couple weeks, and that a recent ambush of prison guards and the first successful prisoner suicides took place on his watch, it seems Bumgarner took the opportunity to enlighten these reporters either as an FU to his superiors, a way to defend his role in the meltdown of the prison, and/or as an opportunity to grab his fifteen minutes of fame.

If the photo montage seems somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it really isn’t intend to be.  Instead, it is meant to open a small window on a self-important officer in the middle of what, at least for a day or two, has become the terror campaign’s largest fishbowl.

What photographer Sumlin documents here is a ritual Mike Bumgarner undertakes on a regular basis.  As the boss-man explained to the reporters, when he needs relief from the stress he is under, he will often strike out through camp to one of the guard towers.

Bumgarner worships Ronald Reagan, who the Secret Service knew as “Rawhide.”

Here in Camp Delta, Bumgarner goes by the same nickname.

Like the late president, he is comfortable onstage.

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When he wants out of the spotlight, he heads to “O.P. (short for observation point) Rawhide,” an old wooden guard tower not far from his office. It’s 20 rungs to the top and the colonel hates heights, but it puts him above the prison wire, gives him some quiet, a breeze and a place to think.

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I don’t envy Rawhide his task in trying to run the Gitmo prison.  Also, I understand why he would want to defend his good name as the prisoners out-maneuver him.  What I can’t brook, however, is the racism that emerges when he drops his guard, telling the hometown reporters, for example, how the Muslim prisoners are like “animals.”

What I really appreciate, though, is how the pictures articulate the thoughtless narcissism.  If a subtle thing, I keep wondering: if you have your own secret place to be alone amidst all that confinement and insanity, why let the world in on it just for a random portrait on an elitist platform?

(images: Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer.  June 13, 2006.  Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. charlotte.com)

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