The Man Who Opened Guantanamo Prison Says We Need to Shut It Down

The U.S. general charged with establishing the United States’ most notorious prison says the entire operation was a mistake.

A U.S. military guard tower stands on the perimeter of a detainee camp at the U.S. detention center for 'enemy combatants' on September 16, 2010 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Dec. 12, 2013, 8:22 a.m.

More than a dec­ade after the Guantanamo Bay pris­on saw its first de­tain­ees, the man who es­tab­lished it says the cen­ter “should have nev­er been opened,” and it’s time for the gov­ern­ment to shut it down.

Mi­chael Lehnert, the Mar­ine ma­jor gen­er­al charged with build­ing the first 100 pris­on cells at the Cuban pris­on, says he knew early on that Guantanamo was a mis­take. “I be­came more and more con­vinced that many of the de­tain­ees should nev­er have been sent in the first place,” Lehnert, now re­tired, wrote in a column pub­lished Thursday in the De­troit Free Press. “They had little in­tel­li­gence value, and there was in­suf­fi­cient evid­ence link­ing them to war crimes.”

While Lehnert be­lieves some de­tain­ees should be trans­ferred to the U.S. for pro­sec­u­tion, the ma­jor­ity of Guantanamo pris­on­ers shouldn’t be held there. Sup­port­ers of keep­ing the pris­on in op­er­a­tion say re­leased de­tain­ees could re­tali­ate against the U.S. Lehnert says there is no guar­an­tee that any de­tain­ee who is set free will not plan an at­tack against the na­tion, “just as we can­not prom­ise that any U.S. crim­in­al re­leased back in­to so­ci­ety will nev­er com­mit an­oth­er crime.”

The re­tired gen­er­al says main­tain­ing the de­ten­tion cen­ter threatens na­tion­al se­cur­ity be­cause it “val­id­ates every neg­at­ive per­cep­tion of the United States.”

In 2009, Lehnert pub­licly ex­pressed his dis­ap­point­ment with re­ports of poor treat­ment of de­tain­ees by U.S. mil­it­ary per­son­nel. For him, hu­mane treat­ment was top pri­or­ity the day the pris­on camp opened. “I think we lost the mor­al high ground,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “For those who do not think much of the mor­al high ground, that is not that sig­ni­fic­ant. But for those who think our stand­ing in the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity is im­port­ant, we need to stand for Amer­ic­an val­ues. You have to walk the walk, talk the talk.”

Pres­id­ent Obama prom­ised to do just that in 2008 when, as a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, he vowed to close the pris­on if elec­ted. Shortly after he was sworn in, he signed an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der man­dat­ing that Guantanamo be closed with­in a year, but a genu­ine push nev­er got off the ground, prompt­ing many to call Obama’s plan a “broken prom­ise.

This week, Con­gress is scram­bling to pass a de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill be­fore the hol­i­days, one that in­cludes lan­guage al­low­ing the pres­id­ent more flex­ib­il­ity to trans­fer de­tain­ees from Guantanamo to oth­er coun­tries. To law­makers, the re­tired gen­er­al says, “it is time to close Guantanamo.”

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