GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Inside the prison wire you rarely know who's talking to you.
Except for a handful of public affairs officers and a few soldiers and sailors, no one wears a name tag or gives you a real name. You go from one interview to another unable to check out what you're told or who is saying it.
So in June, after two days of being herded around in a fog from one mystery to another, I was shocked to meet someone I thought I knew: a suave 50-year-old Ricardo Montalban lookalike who introduced himself as "cultural adviser to the detainees." He goes by "Zaki," which he said was his father's middle name.
At first, I couldn't place his face. Where had I met him? Then it came to me: Najaf, Iraq, April 2003, during the war.
He was standing in the doorway of a squat, dusty building where the mayor's office was. He told me, in excellent English, he would arrange an interview with the mayor. In fact, he arranged several interviews for me, which made me think he was a local Iraqi working for the Najaf government.
But here he was, six years later, in a key administrative job at Guantanamo. I listened to his practiced speech for some clue to explain this amazing transformation.
He said he was born in Jordan, raised in Kuwait, educated as an engineer in England and the United States. When the prison closes, he said, he plans to return to his home in Central Florida. But he wouldn't say where.
He described himself as "the link between the detainees and the military." Some of the detainees hate him because he works for their captors, he says. Others like him because he is an Arabic-speaking Muslim like them. His job: "To educate and teach both sides."
During a pause, I tell Zaki I knew him in Najaf. He squints as if trying to recall, and I wait, not expecting much because almost everyone at Guantanamo is closed-mouth about their pasts.
"Yes, I remember you," he says.
Not only did he remember meeting, he also remembered that I wore "a gray-black abaya."
I asked him what he had been doing in Iraq, thinking he wouldn't say. But, again, I was wrong.
"Army Special Operations," he said.
Army Special Operations? The soldiers and contractors who gathered intelligence by infiltrating the locals? I didn't know that, I said, trying to mask my shock. Did the mayor and other Iraqis know?
But he wouldn't say. We were there to talk about his job at Guantanamo.
He helped prisoners get English classes, sketch pads, chalk and crayons. He got them Arabic TV and spicy curries. Halal food and soccer balls. Anything, he said, to minimize their dependency on the guards and the guards' anxiety over possible extremism.
"I do not love. I do not hate," he said. "I am neutral."
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Neutrality is not something you find often in war, much less in a war complicated by sectarian divisions. But Zaki seemed as close to neutral as anyone I had met in Iraq.
In April 2003, I reported on the murder of a pro-Western cleric, Majid Al-Khoei, at a mosque in Najaf. Zaki (I can't remember if he was using that name back then) helped me get interviews with witnesses to the killings of Al-Khoei and some of his supporters. Because Al-Khoei was billed by the United States as the "new hope" for Iraq and because witnesses named another prominent cleric as the mastermind behind the killings, the stories broke all over the world.
But now, six years later, I was second-guessing my reporting. Had Zaki helped me get accurate information or had he manipulated my reporting by guiding me to people favored by Army Special Operations? Was he an objective conduit, or a very smooth collaborator?
When I returned to Florida in June, I called the director of public affairs at Guantanamo and asked to talk to Zaki on the phone. He said I would have to set up another visit, which would take months. So, without Zaki's input, I set out to learn more about him.
I called a few Muslim leaders around Tampa, but without a photo, which Zaki wouldn't allow for his own protection, it was difficult for them to say if they knew him. I didn't know his last name, but I knew he had a second wife and a stepchild, and his family owned a convenience store.
"That doesn't exactly narrow the field," said Tampa real estate investor Noor Salhab, who is well-known to area Muslims.
Calls and e-mails to reporters and photographers who were in Najaf turned up nothing. No one remembered Zaki or the Special Operations presence.
Special Operations Lt. Col. John Clearwater at Fort Bragg, N.C., recalled Najaf at the start of the war as "the wild West." Special Operations hired American-Arabic civilians to figure out the players.
"Zaki probably did much more good for Iraqis than harm," Clearwater said. "And he probably led you to accurate information."
Chris Molnar, an Army senior chaplain who supervised Zaki at Guantanamo in 2005, said Zaki told him that he helped Najaf locals get jobs with the U.S. military, like truck driving. But, said Molnar, Zaki eventually had to leave Iraq because his life was in danger. According to Molnar, when Zaki was on the way to the airport to fly out of Iraq, a roadside bomb hit his convoy and blew up his luggage.
Arriving at Guantanamo in the fall of 2005 to begin his $250,000-a-year job with defense contractor Titan Corp., he was shaken and lacking confidence, and the tense atmosphere at the prison didn't help, said Molnar.
Hundreds of detainees were hunger-striking. Reports of torture and abuse were rampant in the press. A battle raged over the constitutionality of the Guantanamo military tribunals.
"It's never easy to work at Guantanamo, but it was especially tough when Zaki arrived," said Molnar, a Lutheran pastor in California.
To make matters worse, said the pastor, some of the service members working with Zaki resented the huge disparity between their salaries and his. Even the Guantanamo commander was suspicious of Zaki when he arrived, said Molnar, because "the general didn't know what to make of an Arab Muslim in a key position."
James Yee, an Army chaplain at Guantanamo before Zaki arrived, said he believed his own tenure at the prison affected the commander's perception of Zaki. Yee, a Muslim, often took tales of prisoner abuse to senior officers who considered him an advocate for prisoners. When Yee left, he was arrested — he believes because of his advocacy. After several months in solitary confinement, he was cleared and left the Army with an honorable discharge.
"But when they brought in Zaki," said Yee, "they feared he might turn into an advocate and add to evidence of potential war crimes."
Zaki, however, made it very clear that he wouldn't advocate for prisoners or report injustice, said the former chaplain.
"In my mind, he was dispassionate and neutral to a fault," said Yee.
As time went on, said Molnar, "Zaki got excellent results in the convoluted world of Guantanamo and won the total respect of the commander, the staff and me."
But how did prisoners see him?
Former Guantanamo detainee Omar Deghayes in London, who was cleared and released in 2006, said he remembered Zaki well. The detainees didn't know his background and didn't trust him, but his loyalties were not as important as what he accomplished, said Deghayes.
"Even if Zaki manipulated us, he got results that diffused violence and abuse," he said. "He was a conciliator who helped much more than he hurt."
Still, the secrecy surrounding Zaki is troubling. So many of the most controversial aspects of the "global war on terror" have been secret: prisons, interrogation techniques, evidence, wiretaps. The mystery surrounding Zaki set off more alarm bells.
Then I thought back to his role in Iraq.
The witnesses to the Shiite mosque massacre, with whom Zaki put me in touch, said the murderers were also Shiite, which helped stem bad feelings between Sunnis and Shiites in Najaf. In Iraq, like Guantanamo, he played a part in keeping the peace. Maybe he couldn't have accomplished that without being secretive.
"As middle men go, Zaki's better than most," said Deghayes.
At the end of the interview with Zaki, he walked me to the open door of the concrete block building at Guantanamo.
"Next time we meet," he said, "I hope it's in a better place than the last two times."
Meg Laughlin can be reached at [email protected]