THE PRISONER OF GUANTÁNAMO
Excerpt: Chapter One
On the first day of his transition from captor to captive, Revere Falk stood barefoot on a starlit lawn at 4 a.m., still naively confident of his place among those who asked the questions and hoarded the secrets.
Falk was an old hand at concealment, trained from birth. The skill came in handy when you were an FBI interrogator. Who better to pry loose the artifacts of other lives than someone who knew all the hiding places? Better still, he spoke Arabic.
Not that he was putting his talents to much use at Guantánamo. And at the moment he was furious, having just returned from a botched session that summed up everything he hated about this place: too few detainees of real value, too many agencies tussling over the scraps, and too much heat—in every sense of the word.
Even at this hour, beads of sweat crawled across his scalp. By the time the sun was up it would be another day for the black flag, which the Army hoisted whenever the temperature rose beyond reason. An apt symbol, Falk thought, like some rectangular hole in the sky that you might fall into, never to reappear. A national banner for Camp Delta's Republic of Nobody, populated by 640 prisoners from forty countries, none of whom had the slightest idea how long they would be here. Then there were the 2,400 other new arrivals in the prison security force, mostly Reservists and Guardsmen who would rather be elsewhere. Throw in Falk's little subculture—120 or so interrogators, translators, and analysts from the military and half the branches of the federal government—and you had the makings of a massive psychological experiment on performing under stress at close quarters.
Falk was from Maine, a lobsterman's son, and what he craved most right now was dew and coolness, moss and fern, the balm of fogbound spruce. Failing that, he would have preferred to be nuzzled against the perfumed neck of Pam Cobb, an Army captain who was anything but stern once she agreed to terms of mutual surrender.
He sighed and gazed skyward, a mariner counting stars, then pressed a beer bottle to his forehead. Already warm, even though he had grabbed it from the fridge only moments earlier, as soon as he reached the house. The air conditioner was broken, so he had stripped off socks and shoes and sought refuge on the lawn. But when he wiggled his toes the grass felt toasted, crunchy. Like walking on burned coconut.
If he thought it would do any good, he would pray for rain. Almost every afternoon big thunderheads boiled up along the green line of Castro's mountains to the west, only to melt into the sunset without a drop. From up on this scorched hillside you couldn't even hear the soothing whisper of the Caribbean. Yet the sea was out there, he knew, just beyond the blackness of the southern horizon. Falk sensed it as a submerged phosphorescence pooling beneath coral bluffs, aglow like a candle in a locked closet. Or maybe his mind was playing tricks on him, a garden-variety case of Guantánamo loco.
It wasn't his first outbreak. Twelve years ago he had been posted here as a Marine, serving a three-year hitch. But he had almost forgotten how the perimeter of the base could seem to shrink by the hour, its noose of fencelines and humidity tightening by degrees. A Pentagon fact sheet for newcomers said that Gitmo—the military's favorite slang for this outpost—covered forty-five square miles. Like a lot of what the brass said, it was misleading. Much of the acreage was water or swamp. Habitable territory was mostly confined to a flinty wedge of six square miles. The plot marked out for Camp Delta and the barracks of the security forces was smaller still, pushed against the sea on fewer than a hundred acres.
Falk stood a few miles north of the camp. By daylight from his vantage point, with a good pair of binoculars, you could pick out Cuban watchtowers in almost every direction. They crouched along a no-man's-land of fences, minefields, wet tangles of mangrove, and scrubby hills of gnarled cactus. The fauna was straight out of a Charles Addams cartoon—vultures, boas, banana rats, scorpions, and giant iguanas. Magazines and newspapers for sale at the Naval Exchange were weeks old. Your cell phone was no good here, every landline was suspect, and e-mail traffic was monitored. Anyone who stayed for long learned to operate under the assumption that whatever you did could be seen or heard by their side or yours. Even on the free soil of a civilian's billet such as Falk's you never knew who might be eavesdropping, especially now that OPSEC—Operational Security—had become the mantra for Camp Delta's cult of secrecy. It was all enough to make Falk wish that Gitmo still went by its old Marine nickname—the Rock. Like Alcatraz.
He took another swallow of warm beer, still trying to calm down. Then the phone rang in the kitchen. He ran to answer in hopes of not waking his roomie, special agent Cal Whitaker, only to be greeted by the voice of Mitch Tyndall. Tyndall worked for the OGA, or Other Government Agency, which even the lowliest buck private could tell you was Gitmo-speak for the CIA.
"Hope I didn't wake you," Tyndall said.
"No way I'd be sleeping after that."
"That's what I figured. I was hoping to mend fences."
"The ones you just tore down?" Falk's anger returned in a hurry.
"Guilty as charged."
Tyndall sounded sheepish, new ground for him, although for the most part he wasn't a bad guy. A tall Midwesterner with a long fuse, he generally aimed to please as long as no sharing was required. Falk tended to get more out of him than others if only because they were part of the same five-member "tiger team," the organizational equivalent of a platoon in Gitmo's intelligence operation. There were some twenty-five tiger teams in all, little study groups of interrogators and analysts that divvied their turf by language and home country of the detainees. Falk's team was one of several that specialized in Saudis and Yemenis.
"Look, I spaced out," Tyndall continued. "Just blundered in there like a bull in a china shop. I wasn't thinking."
Occupational hazard with you Agency guys, Falk thought but didn't say. Unthinking arrogance came naturally, he supposed, when you were at the top of the food chain, rarely answerable to anyone, the Pentagon included. Teammates or not, there were plenty of places Tyndall could go that Falk couldn't. The CIA sometimes used a different set of interrogation rooms, and recently the Agency had even built its own jail, Camp Echo. It was Gitmo's prison within a prison, and its handful of high-priority inmates were identified by number instead of by name.
"Yeah, well, there seems to be a lot of mindlessness going around," Falk said.
"Agreed. So consider this a peace offering. Or an apology, at any rate. We might as well kiss and make up, considering where things are headed."
"The rumors, you mean? Spies in our midst? Arab linguists on a secret jihad?"
"It's not just rumor, not by a long shot."
Coming from Tyndall, that was significant, so Falk tried to goad him into saying more.
"Oh, I wouldn't believe everything you hear, Mitch."
Tyndall seemed on the verge of rising to the bait, then checked himself with a sigh.
"Whatever. In any case. No hard feelings?"
"None you couldn't fix with a favor or two. And maybe a few beers at the Tiki Bar. It's Adnan's feelings you should be worried about. I'll be lucky to get two words out of him after that little explosion. It's all about trust, Mitch. Trust is everything with these guys." He should have quit there, but his memory flashed on a slide they always showed at the FBI Academy in Quantico, a screen full of big letters saying, "Interrogation is overcoming resistance through compassion." So he pushed onward, a sentence too far: "Maybe if you guys would stop stripping 'em naked with the room at forty degrees you'd figure that out."
"I wouldn't believe everything you hear," Tyndall snapped.
"Whatever. Just stay away from Adnan. He's damaged goods as it is."
"No argument there. Tomorrow, then."
"Bright and early. And remember, you owe me."
Falk stared at the phone after hanging up, wondering if anyone bothered to tune in at this hour. Whitaker was no longer snoring down the hall.
"Sorry," Falk offered, just in case. "It was Tyndall. From the goddamn Agency."
No reply, which was just as well. The fewer people who knew about their little dustup, the better. People who ran afoul of Mitch Tyndall soon found themselves being shunned. It wasn't the man's winning personality that turned everyone against you, it was the perception that he was privy to the big picture, while all you had was a few fuzzy snapshots. So if you were on the outs with Tyndall, there must be an important reason, even if no one but him knew what it was. Falk had long ago concluded that Tyndall wasn't fully aware of his mysterious powers, and it probably would be unwise to clue him in.
The subject of their dispute this evening was a nineteen-year-old Yemeni, Adnan al-Hamdi, a pet project of Falk's if only because he would talk to no one else. Adnan had been captured in Afghanistan nearly two years earlier, during a skirmish just west of Jalalabad. He and sixty other misfit jihadists from Pakistan, Chechnya, and the Gulf States had been rounded up by Tadjik fighters of the Northern Alliance in the wake of the Taliban's mad-dash retreat to the south. They wound up rotting in a provincial prison for six weeks until discovered by the Americans. Adnan attracted special interest mostly on the word of a fellow traveler, an excitable old Pakistani who swore that Adnan was a ringleader. Adnan, in his usual monosyllabic way, said little to confirm or deny it, so into the net he fell, joining one of Guantánamo's earliest batches of imports. He arrived blindfolded and jumpsuited in the belly of a roaring cargo plane, back when the detention facility had been a rudimentary collection of monkey cages known as Camp X-Ray.
By the time Falk came aboard more than a year later, Adnan had been deemed a lost cause by Gitmo's resident shrinks, the Behavioral Science Consultation Team, known as Biscuit. He was a mute head case who regularly threw his own shit at the MPs, sometimes after mixing it with toothpaste or mashed potatoes.
So he was unloaded on Falk, whose linguistic specialty was the dialect of Adnan's hometown of Sana, only because Falk had visited the place during the Bureau's investigation of the bombing of the USS Cole, back in 2000.
Falk set about taming the young man with gossip and lies, tales embellished by bits of color recalled from Sana's dusty narrow streets. Before long Adnan at least was listening instead of shouting back or clamping hands over his ears. Occasionally he even spoke, if only to correct details that Falk got wrong. Progress was slow, but Falk knew from experience that hardness at such an early age didn't mean there were no remaining soft spots. Unlike most detainees, Adnan couldn't even grow a full beard, and to Falk the scruff on his chin was almost poignant, like an undernourished bloom in an abandoned garden.
Perhaps Falk also recognized a fellow loner. At age thirty-three he, too, was nominally alone in the world. He had no wife, no kids, no dog, and no fiancée waiting back in Washington. The Bureau's personnel file listed him as an orphan, a conclusion left over from a lie Falk had told a Marine Corps recruiter fifteen years ago in Bangor, half out of spite and half out of a runaway's yearning for a complete break. The recruiting sergeant could have easily flushed out the truth with a little more digging. But with a monthly enlistment quota to meet and a bonus of a week's leave hanging in the balance, he hadn't been inclined to question his good fortune once Falk walked through the door.
Besides, it had almost been true. Falk's mother left when he was ten. Shortly afterward his father began a love affair with the bottle. By now, for all Falk knew, the man really was dead, drowned by either alcohol or seawater.
His earliest memories of home weren't all that bad—a white clapboard farmhouse along a buckled road on Deer Isle, birch trees out back with leaves that flashed like silver dollars. There were five Falks in those days—an older brother, an older sister, his parents, and him. To stay warm in winter they slept head to toe in bedrolls around an ancient woodstove, arranged like dominoes on a creaking pine floor. At bath time they hauled in an aluminum washtub and poured hot water straight from the kettle, his mom scrubbing his skin pink while his sister laughed and covered her mouth.
When spring arrived his dad rode daily into Stonington, where the lobster boat was moored. He awakened at four, revving the Ford pickup until it rumbled like a B-17 on takeoff, its muffler shot from the salt air. After age twelve Falk accompanied him on summer mornings, although he remembered little of those harsh working days on the water apart from the chill of the wind in early June and the bitter cold of the sea, and the way his hands and feet never quite recovered until late September. Or maybe he didn't want to remember more, because by that time his father was drinking and his mother was gone.
Within a year they lost the house and moved to the woods, onto a stony lot of goldenrod and thistle where home was a sagging green trailer, the walls lined with flattened cereal boxes for insulation. In storms it heaved and moaned like a ship at sea. There were no more community sleeps. Everyone scattered to separate corners, and his brother and sister escaped as soon as they were old enough.
Falk sought refuge where he could find it—in the woods, on a cove, or at libraries, the tiny clapboard ones you came across in every community on the island. He took a particular liking to the one in the island's namesake town of Deer Isle, not only because it was closest but because it was the realm of steely-eyed Miss Clarkson. She demanded silence—exactly what Falk needed—and brooked neither nonsense nor intrusion, especially not from drunken males who came raging up the steps in search of wayward sons. In recalling her now, Falk realized she was the kind of woman he would always be attracted to—one who could glean the most from minimal conversation, as if she had an extra language skill. It was a little bit like being a good interrogator.
© Dan Fesperman
Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.