First Guantánamo prison camps commander says it’s time for them to close

Then-Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert shows California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld around Camp X-Ray on Jan. 27, 2002 at U.S. Navy Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in this Pentagon handout photo..
Then-Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert shows California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld around Camp X-Ray on Jan. 27, 2002 at U.S. Navy Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in this Pentagon handout photo.. US MARINE CORPS

Retired Marine Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, the officer who opened the prison camps at Guantánamo in January 2002 and handed it off in April 2002, has been outspoken lately about the need to close it.

Here are some comments from an interview as the detention center starts its 13th year.

On the first 20 detainees not turning out to be the ‘worst of the worst:’ “I think we did a poor job in the beginning in determining who we needed to go to Guantánamo. Our ability to sort at the other end was not very good, particularly in the early days. We relied pretty heavily on the Afghans to tell us who they were. ... A good chunk of them probably were of no value and should never have been there in the first place. Some of these people that were in there shouldn’t have been sent to Guantánamo. Others were just in the wrong place in the wrong time or had been caught lying about something else and they figured they were lying about a great deal more. Some of them were fighters, probably a low level. Some of them were never fighters at all. They were the flotsam and jetsam of the war.”

On closing the prison camps: “It's time we moved the conversation to who we claim to be and what we say that the U.S. Constitution and our body of laws on human rights stand for. If we treat those who have done us harm as they would treat us, ultimately the terrorists won because they have changed who we say we are as Americans and made us live in fear. It is time to get back to the rule of law both domestic and international, and close Guantánamo.”

On when he realized they’d gotten some of the wrong people: “By the third month, particularly once we got the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] in there, we were getting pretty good indications that some of these people shouldn’t be in that prison.”

On distinguishing between al-Qaida and Taliban at Camp X-Ray: “The Afghans definitely stuck out in a sense that there was clearly a hierarchy from the older Taliban.”

On how Guantánamo detention changes American values: “The objective of any terrorist — be they Irish, Afghan or al-Qaida, doesn’t matter — is to change their adversary, their way of doing things, to change their behavior to make them afraid. They made us afraid.”

On Marine Gen. John F. Kelly’s decision to pour more guards into the prison even as the detainee population downsizes: “I wouldn’t question that decision. Locking up a human being is a soul-numbing experience; I think that we need to be very careful that these young people, the guards themselves, don’t become changed for the worst by just having to lock up other human beings and see what’s going on.”

On the need to absorb Guantánamo detainees in the federal prison system: “I’m not a fan of having military commissions. I think our federal courts have actually had a pretty good track record of handling terrorism cases since 9/11. many lawyers would disagree with me, and I’m not a lawyer, but I think we’re going to be on shaky ground as we conclude military operations in Afghanistan and still have military commissions doing this work.”

On recidivism: “It’s going to happen. Is that reason enough for us to turn our backs on what we say we are as American people, and on that wonderful document the Constitution to say it matters for us but doesn’t matter for other members of humanity?” Besides, “We’ve got biometrics on these guys. If they go back to the fight sooner or later we’ll catch up with them.”

On whether he foresaw it lasting a dozen years: “I knew it was going to take longer than the administration did.” During the Haitian-Cuban migration crisis at Guantánamo of the ’90s, “our most difficult challenge was returning third-country nationals to their country of origin. And they were accused of nothing more than getting in a leaky boat with their boyfriends or girlfriends.”

On any regrets: “I have many regrets but calling them ‘the worst of the worst’ is not one of them. One decision that I regret deeply is you know some of the guards, many of them, asked to have their names taped over. Ultimately I acquiesced. Because we taped those names over that became a procedure in other prisons elsewhere, Abu Ghraib being the most notorious. I think it sets up a mindset in the minds of a guard that you’re now anonymous.” Also that we didn’t follow the Geneva Conventions more closely and give them battlefield hearings “to sort these people out early.”

On many of the prisoners he got at Guantánamo, years before the CIA would send the high-value detainees: “I would describe them as losers, they were people who failed in life in other things. I talked to many of them. Failed marriages, failed businesses, failed relationships with their families and they tended to blame it on America, Israel, Jews. These were people who were in there because they had not done particularly well at home. They were losers. Apart from those who were probably higher in the hierarchy many were individuals searching for themselves.”

On his legacy as first Guantánamo prison commander: “I don’t worry about it. At one point in my career I was chief of staff for the Joint Task Force Panama. So I’m the engineer who gave away the Panama Canal. I’m less interested in my own personal legacy than trying to do the right thing at the right time.”

On the first 20: “I’m not trying to make the case that after I left we didn’t move some very bad people into Guantánamo. We did. But I don’t think if we lined up my first 20 with the true ‘worst of the worst’ that most of them would have had a great deal of standing.”

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