From a distance, Lieutenant Commander Charles Swift could make out the plywood guard towers draped in American flags and, as they drew closer, the heavy chain-link fencing topped with concertina wire that ringed the camp. A four-by-eight-foot sign hung from the main entrance to Delta: HONOR BOUND TO DEFEND FREEDOM, the motto for the Joint Task Force–Guantánamo.

Swift had worn a khaki uniform rather than his dress whites because he wanted to seem as accessible as possible. At the entrance gate, he declined to place a strip of black tape over his name tag, the custom among most soldiers and officers, who prefer to keep their identities hidden from the suspected terrorists inside.

For the past several weeks, ever since the president had designated him for trial by military commission, Hamdan had been in solitary confinement—or, as the Defense Department called it, precommission confinement—in a separate area inside Delta known as Camp Echo. The administration didn’t want the other detainees to know that he had been assigned a lawyer or, worse, give him the chance to report to the rest of the prison population on the substance of their conversations.

Swift and his translator, Chuck Schmitz, were led down a long dirt path toward a cluster of eight cinder block huts with corrugated tin roofs that faced inward on a square. The sky was a hard blue. It hadn’t rained on Guantánamo in weeks, and they kicked up small clouds of dust as they walked. The guards unlocked the door to Echo 3, and Swift got his first look at Hamdan, a small, frail-looking man—five feet six inches, 130 pounds, he estimated—in a baggy orange jumpsuit. He had a shaved head and a long beard. And he was smiling. As Swift would later learn, Hamdan always smiled when he was nervous.

The hut was divided in two by a heavy metal grate. On one side was a metal bed and stainless steel toilet. On the other were two abutting folding tables and three white plastic chairs. Salim Hamdan sat at the opposite end of the tables, beneath a bank of bright fluorescent lights. His hands and feet were bound to a chain around his waist, his ankles fastened to an eyebolt in the floor. An old air-conditioning unit labored noisily against the stifling heat.

“I want him released from those chains,” Swift said.

“We can’t do that,” one of the guards answered. After some debate, they agreed at least to unchain his hands. They asked Swift if he wanted one of them to remain in the cell, and Swift said no. They showed him the red panic button marked DURESS on the wall and left him alone with his client.

“I’m a military attorney, and I’ve been appointed to represent you,” Swift began. “I can understand if you don’t trust me right now. I work for the same people who are holding you here.” He proceeded to detail his educational background and military rank, which an Arab culture expert had told Swift would impress Hamdan. They didn’t seem to. Hamdan was polite but curt, insisting on a civilian lawyer. He wasn’t any happier with Schmitz; he wanted an Arab translator. Swift asked for a chance to earn his trust.

Whether Hamdan really believed that Swift was his lawyer or, more likely, just another interrogator, he was eager to rant about his mistreatment at the hands of the Americans. He told Swift that during his first several weeks in Bagram, he had been stashed away in a dark cell in the basement of the prison when representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross came through. He also claimed to have seen a fellow detainee beaten to death by a prison guard in Afghanistan. Swift scribbled furiously onto a yellow legal pad as Hamdan spoke.

About an hour into their two-and-a-half-hour meeting, Swift told Hamdan about the government’s offer: twenty years for a guilty plea and full cooperation. “What do they say I’ve done?” Hamdan asked.

“They haven’t charged you yet,” Swift answered. “They sent me here to negotiate a guilty plea.”

“How can I plead guilty if I don’t know what I’ve done?” Hamdan asked.

After a long pause, Hamdan asked Swift if he thought he should take the deal. Swift gave him his advice: “These military commissions are presidential policy, and sooner or later the president is going to change. A different president may want to pursue a different foreign policy. If you plead guilty to something, no president is going to argue for your release. On the other hand, if you plead not guilty, there’s a very real possibility that someone in the future may release you.”

Swift then outlined for Hamdan the alternative to a guilty plea. He listed some of the rights under the Geneva Conventions and Uniform Code of Military Justice that he believed Hamdan was entitled to buthad thus far been denied. It was unclear how much, if anything, Hamdan was grasping, yet Swift pressed on. “The only way to get you these rights is to sue the Bush administration,” he said. “That’s what I’d like to do. Sue President Bush.”

Another long pause followed. “This lawsuit, will it make you rich?” Hamdan finally asked.

“No,” Swift answered. “But it might make me famous.”

Then he added, “It might make you famous too.”

“I don’t want to be famous,” Hamdan replied. “I just want to get out of here.”

That night Swift and Schmitz watched the Super Bowl on Armed Forces Television, poking fun at the military network’s commercials, which promoted safe sex and the importance of maintaining strong, healthy bodies.

The following day, they returned to Camp Echo. At the end of the meeting, Swift told Hamdan they’d be back soon and encouraged him to think about the government’s offer in the interim.

“Do you believe we’re here to help you?” Swift asked, standing up to leave.

“A drowning man will grab onto any hand that’s extended to him,” Hamdan replied.


©2008 Jonathan Mahler. All rights reserved. Website design by Chris Costello.