Retired US Marine Corps Major General Michael Lehnert says he is losing hope that the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention camp – which opened 20 years ago this month – will ever be fully closed.
Lehrte, who oversaw the prison’s initial construction and served as its first commandant, has been calling for the prison to be closed for years.
Since 9/11, 779 Muslim men have been brought to Guantanamo, a US military base in Cuba. The treatment of prisoners, and the indefinite detention of detainees without charge, has fueled calls from around the world to close the facility.
But despite the support of US presidents, including Joe Biden, the prison is still open, with 39 people still lodged there today.
lehnert spoke as it happens Host Carol Off about where the fight to shut down Guantanamo is now.
When we talked to you about 10 years ago, you thought the Obama administration was on track to shut down Guantanamo. However, do you expect that to ever happen?
You know, there’s a saying in the Marine Corps that hope is not action. And I think the Biden administration needs a course of action.
One of the most useful things they could do would be to appoint someone who works either within the White House or within the National Security Council who has the authority and sole responsibility to shut down Guantanamo.
If I had seen this happen, I would have had high hopes at that time. I’m not confident.
Can we go back 20 years when you got the order to build this prison camp for these prisoners. What did you think at that time?
I think I realized that someone needed to find a place to secure what we were calling enemy prisoners of war at the time. There was no facility in Afghanistan to keep them.
But at the same time as I began to see the prisoners coming, I became less convinced that they represented a treasure trove of intelligence.
And in addition, I think the administration’s decision to secede from the Geneva Conventions and treat them as intelligence assets, unlike prisoners of war, was unfortunate.
What did you see that led up to the moment you realized there was something seriously wrong with this feature, along the way? [the detainees] was being treated?
As soon as the group of detainees arrives, my staff judges, advocates and my intelligence officers will meet with people on the plane and make sure that we have any evidence we may have, we’ve collected and with a series of detentions properly secured, because there were discussions at that time that some of these people might be guilty of serious crimes.
Most of the evidence I saw was very thin Bhils.
It almost appears that other countries are more interested in shutting down Guantanamo than ours. And that’s a shame.— Michael Lehnert
Several weeks later, I allowed the ICRC, the international community of the Red Cross, to come in. This gave the ICRC the ability to interview each detainee. I met with the ICRC at least once a week – and they were telling me, for a lot of these people, there just wasn’t much ‘there’.
Why do you think it’s so hard for different presidents to turn this feature off? Is there no political will to do so?
I think there is a real political assessment of whether the juice will be worth the squeeze.
You know, on this 20th anniversary I’ve done four interviews, and only one was from a US news outlet. So it almost appears that other countries are more interested in shutting down Guantanamo than ours. And that’s a shame.
It seems that there are many people in Congress – Republicans – who are determined to keep it open. what do you call them?
Well, first of all, the argument they make isn’t particularly compelling.
You know, the other reason why it’s so hard to turn it off [Guantanamo] It is, let’s face it, some of these individuals were tortured, and they were tortured in black sites and some of them were tortured in Guantanamo.
[This was] after I leave. I did not allow torture or any type of enhanced interrogation while I was there.
But I would say that only 12 of those that are left have been charged into the commission system. [military courts established by George W. Bush to try some non-citizen terrorism suspects.] There are 39 left. There are 27 who have never even been accused of participating in terrorism.
Some of the problems with closing down Guantanamo include those that haven’t been charged and transporting them to their country of origin. The difficulty in moving those prisoners and putting them from one bad situation to another is a real challenge. So then you have to decide, do you ask any third country to take them.
If you had listened to President George Bush at the time, do you think you could have warned anyone of the path that has now become so difficult to end?
Well, I had the Defense Secretary’s ear [Donald] Rumsfeld, who has now passed away. He came twice while I was there; I guess you have to assume that people were listening.
And why didn’t they listen to you?
I think many of them had a view of the world as they wanted it to be, not as it is.
Edited by Kate McGillivray. Story produced by Katie Guelph.