20 Dec 2013

Guantanamo’s first commander urges US to close camp

Major General Michael Lehnert tells Channel 4 News he believes it is time Barack Obama makes good on his promise to end the detention of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

The retired Marine Corps officer helped set up the facility, originally called Camp X-Ray, at the Guantanamo US naval base in Cuba in 2002 and was in charge for 90 days.

He told Channel 4 News he ran Guantanamo in accordance with the Geneva Conventions and saw no evidence of abuse or torture by his staff.

But he gradually came to oppose the detention of terror suspects without trial at Guantanamo and is one of a number of military officers who are calling for US President Barack Obama to make good on his pre-election promise to close the prison camp.

This week the US Senate passed a bipartisan deal that will make it easier for prisoners to be transferred to their home countries, although the long term future of the facility remains unclear.

Mr Lehnert said the new deal could see 79 low-risk detainees returned to their home countries. He wants the remaining prisoners to be tried in American courts if there is evidence of wrongdoing against them.

He told Channel 4 News there was a risk of some detainees rejoining terrorist groups after they are released but said: “This is a risk that can be managed.

“When they go back, most of them are going to want to go back their families, but those that decide to go back to the fight, we can find them and we can stop them.”

Swept up in the chaos of war

The major general said he felt no guilt for setting up Guantanamo but came to realise that not all the prisoners deserved to be there and there was a “moral imperative” to end their detention without trial.

“Initially I felt that it was a necessary thing that had to be done. We were capturing a large number of individuals in Afghanistan during the fighting. Many of them were from other countries, many of them without very good explanations of why they were in Afghanistan.

“They had to go somewhere. As I began getting these individuals that were described to me as the worst of the worst, and we began getting more information on their background, it became apparent that while some indeed were very, very bad people, others had just been swept up in the chaos of war.”

He added that accusations of ill-treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo after he handed over control to other officers meant that the US lost the goodwill of other countries and put the country in danger of losing touch with its core values.

“The terrorist objective is to cause us to change as to who we are as a people. We are a democracy that has strong roots in your country. The rule of law is important to us. We have a constitution that…contains some pretty strong aspirational goals.

“If the terrorists are successful in changing us and making us something other than what we say we are as an American people, they indeed have won.”