As It Happens·Q&A

20 years after he built it, this general wants Guantanamo closed. But he's 'not confident' it ever will be

Retired Major General Michael Lehnert has called repeatedly for the military prison to be closed. Two decades after the first detainees arrived, he still wonders how his country will get there.

Retired Major General Michael Lehnert has called repeatedly for detention centre to be closed

U.S. Marine Corp. Major Gen. Michael Lehnert (centre) spoke at the opening of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre on Jan. 9, 2002, telling reporters that the facility was ready to temporarily house 100 detainees. It would hold nearly 780 people over the next two decades. (REUTERS)

Story Transcript

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Major General Michael Lehnert says he's losing hope that the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention camp — which opened 20 years ago this month — will ever be fully shut down.

Lehnert, who supervised the initial construction of the prison 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, located on a U.S. military base in Cuba. The treatment of prisoners, and the indefinite detention of detainees without charges, has fuelled calls from around the world to close the facility. 

But despite support from U.S. Presidents, including Joe Biden, the prison remains open, with 39 people still held there today.

Lehnert spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about where the fight to get Guantanamo closed stands now. 

When we spoke with you nearly 10 years ago, you thought the Obama administration was on the road to closing Guantanamo. Do you have hope that will ever happen, though?

You know, there's a saying in the Marine Corps that hope is not a course of action. And I think what the Biden administration needs is a course of action.

One of the most useful things they could do would be to assign someone that either works within the White House or within the National Security Council that has the authority and the sole responsibility for closing Guantanamo.

If I saw that happening, I would have a great deal of hope at that point. I'm not confident. 

Can we go back 20 years to when you received the orders to create this prison camp for these detainees. What did you think at that time?

I think I felt that somebody needed to find a place to secure what we were calling at that time enemy prisoners of war. There were no facilities in Afghanistan to hold them.

But at the same time as I began seeing the detainees arrive, I became less confident that they represented an intelligence treasure trove.

And additionally, I think the administration's decision to step away from the Geneva Conventions and treat them as intelligence assets, as opposed to prisoners of war, was unfortunate. 

On Jan. 11, 2002, the first Guantanamo detainees sit in a holding area during their processing into Guantanamo's temporary detention facility, called Camp X-Ray. Camp X-Ray operated between January and April 2002 as the first facility for 'enemy combatants' at the U.S. military prison in Cuba. (Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Department of Defense/Reuters)

What did you witness that brought about this moment when you realized that there was something seriously wrong with this facility, in the way [the detainees] were being treated? 

As the groups of detainees would arrive, my staff judge, advocate and my intelligence officer would meet the the folks at the plane and ensure that we had collected and properly secured with a chain of custody any evidentiary materials that we might have, because there were beginning to be talks at that time that some of these people may be guilty of serious crimes.

Much of the evidence that I saw was pretty thin gruel. 

It almostappears that the other countries are more interested in closing Guantanamo than we are. And that's a shame.- Michael Lehnert

Several weeks later, I allowed the International Community of the Red Cross, the ICRC, to come in. That gave the ICRC the ability to interview each of the detainees. I met with the ICRC at least once a week — and they were telling me, for many of these people, there wasn't a lot of 'there' there. 

Why do you think it's so difficult for various presidents to close this facility? Is there no political will to do so? 

I think that there's a realpolitik assessment as to whether or not the juice is going to be worth the squeeze.

You know, on this 20th anniversary I've done four interviews, and only one was from a U.S. news outlet. So it almost  appears that the other countries are more interested in closing Guantanamo than we are. And that's a shame. 

There also seems to be a number of people in Congress — Republicans — who are quite determined to see it stay open. What do you say to them?

Well, first off, the argument they make is not particularly compelling.

You know, the other reason that it's so hard to close [Guantanamo] is that, 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 left. I did not allow torture or even any type of enhanced interrogation while I was there.

Lehnert speaking with reporters in Cuba in early January, 2002. (REUTERS)

But I would say that of those that are left, only 12 have been charged in the commission system [military courts established by George W. Bush to try some non-citizen terrorism suspects.] There are 39 left. There's 27 that have never been even accused of participating in terrorism.

Some of the problems with closing Guantanamo involve getting those that are not charged and moving them to their country of origin. The difficulty in transferring those prisoners and putting them from one bad situation into another is is a real challenge. So then you have to decide, do you ask a third country to take them.

If you had had the ear of President George Bush at the time, do you think you could have warned anybody off this course, that has now been so difficult to to end?

Well, I had the ear of Secretary of Defence [Donald] Rumsfeld, who has passed away now. He visited twice while I was down there; I think you'd have to assume that people were listening.

And why didn't they heed you?

I think many of them had a view of the world as they wanted it to be rather than as it was. 

Edited by Kate McGillivray. Story produced by Katie Geleff.