“Close Guantánamo,” Says Prison’s First Commander, Adds That It “Should Never Have Been Opened”


In an important op-ed for the Detroit Free Press, Maj. Gen. Mike Lehnert of the Marines, the first commander of Guantánamo, has called for the closure of the prison. Maj. Gen. Lehnert built the open air cages of Camp X-Ray, the “war on terror” prison’s first incarnation, in just four days prior to the arrival of the first prisoners on January 11, 2002.

As I explained in my book The Guantánamo Files, Lehnert initially bought into the hyperbole and propaganda about the prisoners, stating, soon after the prison opened, “These represent the worst elements of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. We asked for the worst guys first.” However, he soon changed his mind. In early February 2002, he provided an important insight into how, contrary to what senior Bush administration officials were saying in public, the uncomfortable truth was they they had no idea who most of the prisoners were. “A large number claim to be Taliban, a smaller number we have been able to confirm as al-Qaeda, and a rather large number in the middle we have not been able to determine their status,” he said, adding, “Many of the detainees are not forthcoming. Many have been interviewed as many as four times, each time providing a different name and different information.”

Unfortunately, the Bush administration responded not by acknowledging that it had, with a handful of exceptions, bought and rounded up civilians and low-level Taliban conscripts, but by aggressively interrogating the men over many years and, in many cases, introducing a torture program involving prolonged sleep deprivation, isolation, humiliation, the use of loud music and noise, and the exploitation of phobias. This produced copious amounts of information, as was revealed when WikiLeaks released classified military files relating to the prisoners in April 2011, but much of it was fundamentally unreliable.

The torture program mainly took place under Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, who took over as Guantánamo’s commander in November 2002, replacing Maj. Gen. Michael E. Dunlavey (in charge of interrogations) and Brig. Gen. Rick Baccus (in charge of the guard force) who took over from Lehnert in March 2002. In a revelatory article by Greg Miller in the Los Angeles Times in December 2002, sources explained that Dunlavey had “traveled to Afghanistan in the spring to complain that too many ‘Mickey Mouse’ detainees” were being sent to Guantánamo, although he was also involved in the negotiations that led to the introduction of a torture program at Guantánamo for Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi regarded as the intended 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks.

Lehnert, on the other hand, recognized the importance of humane treatment for the prisoners from the beginning, and reiterated this in his op-ed, where he described his “insistence on humane treatment,” also writing that, when the guards tried to tell him that “the terrorists wouldn’t treat us this well,” his answer “was always the same: ‘If we treat them as they would treat us, we become them.'”

The author and academic Karen Greenberg explained more about the early days of Guantánamo under Maj. Gen. Lehnert in an article for the Washington Post in 2009 to accompany the publication of her book about Lehnert’s command, The Least Worst Place: Guantánamo’s First 100 Days:

In the absence of new policy guidance about how to treat the detainees, Lehnert told me that he felt he had no choice but to rely on the regulations already in place, ones in which the military was well schooled: the Uniform Code of Military Justice, other US laws and, above all, the Geneva Conventions. The detainees, no matter what their official status, were essentially to be considered enemy prisoners of war, a status that mandated basic standards of humane treatment. One lawyer for the Judge Advocate General Corps, Lt. Col. Tim Miller, told me that he used the enemy-POW guidelines as his “working manual.” A corrections specialist, Staff Sgt. Anthony Gallegos, called Washington’s orders “shady,” which he told me gave his colleagues no choice but to “go with the Geneva Conventions.”

Under Lehnert, the International Committee of the Red Cross was also called in, (by Col. Manuel Supervielle, the head JAG at Southern Command), much to the annoyance of senior Bush administration officials. As Greenberg described it, “It was a pivotal moment in the history of Guantánamo. Once Supervielle’s call had been made, the civilian policymakers around Rumsfeld could not undo what the uniformed military had done — although, according to Supervielle, an irritated team of lawyers, including Pentagon general counsel William J. “Jim” Haynes II, asked the Southern Command lawyer days later whether there was “a way to back out of it now.”

Greenberg added, “The ICRC arrived at Guantánamo on Jan. 17, 2002 — six days after the detainees did. Thus began what amounted to a period of subtle defiance of Washington’s lack of direction.”

In his op-ed, cross-posted below, Maj. Gen. Lehnert explained how he had become aware of the general insignificance of the prisoners. “Even in the earliest days of Guantánamo, I became more and more convinced that many of the detainees should never have been sent in the first place,” he wrote, adding, “They had little intelligence value, and there was insufficient evidence linking them to war crimes. That remains the case today for many, if not most, of the detainees.”

This is indeed true. As Maj. Gen. Lehnert also explained, although “a handful” of the prisoners “should be transferred to the US for prosecution or incarceration,” the majority “have been cleared for transfer by our defense and intelligence agencies.” As Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor of Guantánamo’s military commissions, conceded earlier this year, a maximum 13 of the remaining 162 prisoners are likely to face prosecution, and 82 of the remaining prisoners were cleared for release in January 2010 by a high-level, inter-agency task force that President Obama established shortly after taking office.

These 82 men are still held primarily because, for three years, Congress has passed legislation that has placed an onerous burden on the president and his administration — a certification process whereby they would have to promise that any released prisoner would be unable to engage in terrorist activities or take up arms against the US. However, President Obama also played a major role in the deadlock. In January 2010, he unfairly banned the release of any cleared Yemenis (who make up two-thirds of the cleared prisoners) after a failed airline bomb plot hatched in Yemen, and he only lifted that ban in May this year. In addition, although a waiver exists in the legislation that allows him to bypass Congress if he regards it as being “in the national security interests of the United States,” he has chosen not to do so.

Maj. Gen. Lehnert also explained that “the entire detention and interrogation strategy was wrong,” adding that “it validates every negative perception of the United States.” Crucially, he also mentioned the current legislation designed to ease the restrictions on the release of prisoners. These new proposals originated in the Senate Armed Services Committee, under the leadership of Sen. Carl Levin, and were passed by the Senate last month. The House of Representatives, however, had passed a restrictive version of the legislation back in June, and so a compromise had to be thrashed out in committee. As a result, the onerous restrictions on the release of prisoners have been eased, but a ban remains in  place on bringing prisoners to the US, even though the administration wants to bring prisoners to the US for trial and for ongoing detention.

Guantánamo can only be closed if this happens, but for now it is essential that the legislation is passed. As Maj. Gen. Lehnert described it, the revised legislation “appears to have compromise language that would give the president some additional flexibility to transfer detainees to their home or third countries, though it maintains an unwise and unnecessary ban on transferring detainees to the United States.” As he pointed out elsewhere, the law preventing transfers to the US “needs to be revisited.”

To my mind the most crucial message in Lehnert’s op-ed is when he tackles those people (primarily in Congress and the right-wing media) who insist that prisoners mustn’t be released because of the fears of recidivism — fears that, as I and other reputable sources have repeatedly pointed out, have been grossly exaggerated. This is what President Obama did when he refused to release cleared Yemenis after a foiled bomb plot, and — whether for cynical reasons or because of genuinely misplaced fears — it also drives lawmakers, but, as Lehnert stated, “The act of releasing a prisoner is about risk management. We cannot promise conclusively that any detainee who is released will not plan an attack against us, just as we cannot promise that any US criminal released back into society will never commit another crime.”

He added, “In determining whether we should release detainees who have no charges brought against them, I would argue that our Constitution and the rule of law conclusively trump any additional risk that selective release of detainees may entail. It is time that the American people and our politicians accepted a level of risk in the defense of our constitutional values, just as our service men and women have gone into harm’s way time after time to defend our constitution. If we make a mockery of our values, it calls us to question what we are really fighting for.”

My thanks to Maj. Gen Lehnert for his powerful words, and his reminder that professed values only mean something if they are upheld with the appropriate actions.

Maj. Gen. Lehnert’s op-ed is below:

Michael Lehnert: Here’s why It’s long past time that we close Guantánamo
Detroit Free Press, December 12, 2013

In 2002, I led the first Joint Task Force to Guantánamo and established the detention facility. Today, I believe it is time to close Guantánamo.

In the coming week, Congress will lay the foundation for whether and to what extent Guantánamo can be closed. The annual defense bill appears to have compromise language that would give the president some additional flexibility to transfer detainees to their home or third countries, though it maintains an unwise and unnecessary ban on transferring detainees to the United States.

Still, this is a step forward toward closing our nation’s most notorious prison — a prison that should never have been opened.

Our nation created Guantánamo because we were legitimately angry and frightened by an unprovoked attack on our soil on Sept. 11, 2001. We thought that the detainees would provide a treasure trove of information and intelligence.

I was ordered to construct the first 100 cells at Guantánamo within 96 hours. The first group of 20 prisoners arrived seven days after the order was given. We were told that the prisoners were the “worst of the worst,” a common refrain for every set of detainees sent to Guantánamo. The U.S. has held 779 men at the detention facility over the past 12 years. There are currently 162 men there, most of them cleared for transfer, but stuck by politics.

Even in the earliest days of Guantánamo, I became more and more convinced that many of the detainees should never have been sent in the first place. They had little intelligence value, and there was insufficient evidence linking them to war crimes. That remains the case today for many, if not most, of the detainees.

In retrospect, the entire detention and interrogation strategy was wrong. We squandered the goodwill of the world after we were attacked by our actions in Guantánamo, both in terms of detention and torture. Our decision to keep Guantánamo open has helped our enemies because it validates every negative perception of the United States.

The majority of the remaining detainees at Guantánamo have been cleared for transfer by our defense and intelligence agencies.

The act of releasing a prisoner is about risk management. We cannot promise conclusively that any detainee who is released will not plan an attack against us, just as we cannot promise that any U.S. criminal released back into society will never commit another crime.

There are a handful of detainees at Guantánamo who should be transferred to the U.S. for prosecution or incarceration. Such transfers remain prohibited under current law, but that law needs to be revisited.

In determining whether we should release detainees who have no charges brought against them, I would argue that our Constitution and the rule of law conclusively trump any additional risk that selective release of detainees may entail. It is time that the American people and our politicians accepted a level of risk in the defense of our constitutional values, just as our service men and women have gone into harm’s way time after time to defend our constitution. If we make a mockery of our values, it calls us to question what we are really fighting for.

When I was the Joint Task Force Commander in Guantánamo, I spent many nights visiting the facility and talking to the guards. I did this because I wanted to be sure that my guidance for humane treatment was being carried out. Many of my young Marines and soldiers were clearly troubled by my insistence on humane treatment, pointing out that “the terrorists wouldn’t treat us this well.” My answer to each of these young service members was always the same: “If we treat them as they would treat us, we become them.”

It is time to close Guantánamo. Our departure from Afghanistan is a perfect point in history to close the facility.

Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, USMC (Ret.), was the first commander of the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He lives in Traverse City.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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24 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, J.d. Gordon wrote:

    This is sad. If the General truly feels this way, he should have resigned back then. Or refused the assignment. I wonder what could have possibly motivated him to write such things now? Did someone offer him a senior political post in the Obama administration? Disappointing.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Christopher Caster wrote:

    Oh Man, J.d. strikes again 🙁

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    J.d., neither of your options were feasible for the general. He didn’t refuse the assignment because when he took it he believed in it, but he then discovered the truth about the lawless and chaotic place he was supposed to be running. He was then preoccupied with trying to apply the Geneva Conventions, and to get the ICRC into Guantanamo to monitor the treatment of the prisoners, so that resigning would have made no sense – and then, of course, he was moved on, to be replaced by more compliant commanders who were prepared to introduce torture.
    Since then, it’s not as though Maj. Gen. Lehnert has been silent. Karen Greenberg’s entire book from 2009 is about his time in charge, and it is clear that he is one of the few people involved with conceiving and/or running Guantanamo who emerges with any kind of credibility. You really can’t believe the offer of money or power persuaded him to write his op-ed, can you, J.d.? Or are you unable to understand the importance of what he wrote about US values?

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    J.d. Gordon wrote:

    Andy, you’ve done a good job highlighting this issue, like many other complex topics @ Gitmo. I shall likewise do my best to highlight questionable political power plays. Nothing as distasteful as seeing fellow retired military officers trash their own record, former administration, bosses and colleagues when doing so conveniently fits neatly into the current political leadership’s agenda. Funny how that works. I would have had an entirely different opinion if his Op/Ed was published prior to 2006, when the 2008 presidential candidates were exploring campaigns. Anytime afterwards smacks of shameful political opportunism. Not an opinion, just a fact.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Well, no, J.d., it’s your opinion, and not a fact. You haven’t established that Mike Lehnert has done anything other than add his voice to those calling for the malignant Guantanamo project to be brought to an end. There’s no sign that doing so has secured him any kind of political favor. To reiterate, he said himself that it’s about American values. He’s a general and not a politician, so I don’t see why I should think he’s not being honest!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    J.d. Gordon wrote:

    So Andy, what shall be our wager, should Mike Lehnert be offered and accept a political position within the Obama administration, or in Congress?

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m not a betting man, J.d., so we shall have to wait and see, but you insult Mike Lehnert’s integrity by insinuating that he is insincere.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Bennett Hall wrote:

    I would add that it is the bravest of men who are capable of admitting that they were wrong, and in so doing they can envision an improved human condition. Violence always begets violence, and history has always repeated itself in this regard. As to the facts, there are few if any that provide a value proposition for Guantanamo, and the nightmare and embarrassment to our county that it has come to symbolize.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Bennett, for your contribution. I will be in the Bay Area from Jan. 12-15, doing a few events, so perhaps we will have the opportunity to meet. Itinerary to follow soon.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    JD’s problem is that he is profoundly unaware of his own shadow and attributes motives he’s guilty of to others. I’d recommend he gets himself a Jungian analyst asap

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    J.d. Gordon wrote:

    David — are you aware of other generals who criticized the Bush administration, and by extension, their roles in advancing it, and then were rewarded with senior political positions in the Obama administration. There are many examples, and retired Major General Lehnert is falling into the same pattern. It’s not complicated.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    No, you just keep missing the point over and over again, J.d. Mike Lehnert was uncomfortable with what the Bush administration had planned for Guantanamo from very early on, as is clear from the comments I found that he made in January 2002 (when he was supportive) and February 2002 (when he was already wondering what was going on). It was not for future reward that the Geneva Conventions were invoked and the ICRC called in. It was because it was the correct thing to do, and it was a brave decision because it brought him into conflict with Donald Rumsfeld – and, I’m pretty sure, his perceived mutinous actions were also noted by Bush and Cheney.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Bennett Hall wrote:

    that would be terrific Andy Worthington – we are in Vegas the following week but here during that time frame. BTW: have you seen the Move To Amend important and notable group set to overturn Citizens United?

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Bennett. Watch this space for details!
    I hadn’t seen Move to Amend before. A powerful message:
    “We, the People of the United States of America, reject the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and other related cases, and move to amend our Constitution to firmly establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.”

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Bennett Hall wrote:

    indeed – there was a recent fundraising in the Presidio which was well attended – I foresee this really taking off – and worthy. Enough is enough so to speak and this is all so interconnected

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Bennett, it certainly is all inter-connected, and while far too many of our fellow citizens (in the US and the UK) are sleepwalking into a dystopian future, those who are awake do seem to be joining the dots more and more. Another case in point is the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), which George Monbiot wrote about for the Guardian here: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/02/transatlantic-free-trade-deal-regulation-by-lawyers-eu-us

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Waris Ali wrote:

    Two Guantanamo prisoners to be transferred back to the Sudan > http://allafrica.com/stories/201312160571.html after two were transferred to Saudi over the weekend > http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/12/16/3821422/2-saudis-sent-home-from-guantanamo.html
    Yet Shaker still remains. Maybe it’s just me but isn’t it getting harder for the British and Americans now to state why Shaker hasn’t been transferred already? Now that transfers have restarted, with people being transferred to the above two countries and Algeria.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    JD There are no shortage of people willing to trample on constitutionality and torture legality for personal advancement and you don’t have to look far in Washington to find them… indeed, trying not to find them is a bigger challenge on that one but I’m 100% with Andy on this one. In my profession laws were enacted in Germany that made it impossible for many musicians to work and there were no shortage of people willing to enjoy personal advantage to sell us on the unspeakable but some like Andy were still unable to digest such things and look the other way. I never thought that the new millennium could bring such monstrous conduct back from the shadows and I refer you to my previous comment again.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    J.d. Gordon wrote:

    I agree, David — 9/11 attacks (NYC/Washington & now Benghazi), Bali nightclub bombings, USS Cole bombing, Jakarta Marriott bombing, and scores of other major attacks by Al Qaeda are reprehensible. Monstrous conduct indeed. The perpetrators are all still all Gitmo, except for Libyan’s Sufian Bin Qumu who was on the ground in Benghazi during the attack on US Consulate.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    JD You patently don’t agree at all and if that were ever to happen I’d be checking my pulse to make sure I was still in the land of the living. Some would say the perpetrators were in the White House not at GTMO – secretly funding Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet presence there. Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary in the UK from 1997–2001 before he met his extremely untimely mountain walking accident: “Bin Laden was, though, a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies. Throughout the 80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.” The theory as you’ll be well aware is called blow back… I’d say that’s not the half of it.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Jennah Solace wrote:

    Personally, I find it fascinating that a General who was involved in the inception of an institution has the personal courage to speak out against it – considering his own actions helped in the creation of it. It takes bravery to admit our wrongdoings and misgivings about past errors made in our professional lives, especially, because our egos are so entangled in our ‘professionalism’. We often perceive ourselves or others through the lenses of societal establishment/ accomplishment. When someone reaches the level of General – we assume he will always stand by the institutions/ideals/philosophies that his government (or boss) upholds. There is certainly tremendous societal pressure to do so! If we aren’t behaving as our society expects – then we are most often ostracized and that is not a pleasant emotion for any human-person to experience. When people speak so negatively about others because they are perceived as not representing – that creates a fear in others – to tow the line, or else! That is not conducive to a ‘free society’ where people should feel at liberty to express their opinions even when they don’t pull the party line. We should not live in fear of how we are being perceived, we should only live in fear of our own wrongdoing – and how it negatively affects others. If we make an error and realize it – then if we admit to it – that is a very healthy thing to do. We can build bridges when we are remorseful and honest and forthright and willing to repair the damage. If we start from a place of wanting to make things right – then that is a wonderful intention indeed. Someone very brave takes the first step in mending wrongs and in wishing to once again, make things right. Kudos to the General!

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, David and Jennah, for your comments. Jennah, you make some very good points indeed about societal pressures, and how difficult it is for people to admit mistakes – or even to change their minds.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Bennett Hall wrote:

    Another layer is how corrupt the process of ’rounding up the usual suspects’ was conducted, with ginormous bounties paid by US to finger the ‘guilty’. Wrong place and time in many cases, with little due process and no reasonable justice to ascertain who may in fact be innocent. Some may in fact be guilty, while others may only harbor guilty thoughts, reasonable again perhaps because their families may have been killed by our bullets, bombs and drones. Who knows -but they were treated to our new and improved ‘torture’, something the Borgia and King Henry would have been proud of, all managed via our so called ‘rendition’ protocols, a phrase often used on livestock processing, but apparently a semantic more palatable to the general public. The idea of justice is to face it if guilty yet be cleared if innocent, but this certainly failed many who simply ‘fit the look and profile’ and were “good enough” to trot out and punish. Sad.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, very sad indeed, Bennett. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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