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First Guantanamo commander calls for prison to be closed

December 17th, 2013
03:37 PM ET

By Mick Krever, CNN

The man who opened up the Guantanamo Bay Prison now says he wants to see the facility closed.

U.S. Major General Michael Lehnert (retired), first commander of the Guantanamo Bay Prison, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that terrorists were “successful” in changing America.

“The objective of terrorism is to change the nature of their adversary,” he said. “And I would opine that they've been successful. They've changed the way we've acted, they've caused us to walk away from the Constitution, and they've caused us to act as if we were afraid.”

Closing Guantanamo Bay was President Barack Obama’s signature promise during the 2008 campaign; he even signed an executive order to that effect.

But it never happened.

About 160 prisoners remain trapped without charge in Guantanamo's legal limbo, even though 82 have been cleared for transfer to their home country.

Following a hunger strike this year by more than 100 prisoners, President Obama again kicked this issue into high gear.

And even Congress is for the first time voting to loosen some restrictions on transferring prisoners.

“It looks right now that we have probably our best chance in a decade to close Guantanamo,” Lehnert said.

He attributed that change to three things: The twilight of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, President Obama’s concern for his legacy, and bipartisan support in Congress.

“We need to move forward; we need to say that the Constitution doesn't stop at our water's edge and that we need to close Guantanamo.”

Opponents of the plan to transfer those detainees that have been cleared say that the former prisoners would commit, or recommit, themselves to terrorism.

No plan to release detainees is “zero risk,” Lehnert conceded. “But we do believe that that risk can be managed.”

“We have the best military in the world; we have very clear biometrics on these individuals.”

And with the prisoners still in custody, the U.S. has “the opportunity to let them know that if they decide to revert back to their old ways, then we're going to find them – and our military is good enough to do that.”

Lehnert was there in the very first days of the Guantanamo Bay Prison; originally, he said, he thought it would be open for only a short time.

“But as I was down there, by about the second month, I realized that we were going to be in for the long haul,” he said. “I also began to recognize that many of the individuals that had been sent to me probably never should have been sent there in the first place.”

The act of holding someone prisoner while often “a very necessary act” is also “soul-deadening” for the jailer, he said.

It is for that reason, he told Amanpour, that he committed himself to following the Geneva Conventions – that despite the fact that his civilian boss at the time, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, claimed that the document did not apply to prisoners at Guantanamo because they were not prisoners of war, but rather “unlawful combatants.”

“History's going to judge whether or not he was wrong,” Lehnert said of Rumsfeld.

“There really wasn't much other policy” at the time, he said, and the Geneva Conventions were “a very good and sound document that would allow us to at least have a road map for how we would operate.”

If the Guantanamo Bay prison is indeed shuttered, it may be a monetary argument, not a moral one, that is the final straw.

Indeed, Guantanamo Bay is the most expensive prison on earth.

“The American taxpayers are paying $2.7 million per prisoner, per annum” at Guantanamo Bay, he said. “Now to juxtapose that, a Supermax prison in the United States costs, at the high end, $78,000 per prisoner.”

But the individual motivation of congressmen does not much concern Major General Lehnert.

“For some, it's the money; and for some, it's the moral issue. Personally, I don't care what motivates them as long as it motivates them to move towards closure of Guantanamo.”

Filed under:  Christiane Amanpour • Guantanamo • Latest Episode
soundoff (56 Responses)
  1. couchloc

    If we can make ourselves an exception to the Geneva Conventions, then so can any other country in waging war. We need to close Guantanamo and live up to the right moral principles.

    December 17, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Reply
    • PoliticiansRcrooks

      Amazingly most every country we end up at war with do consider themselves exempt. Wow what a concept.

      December 18, 2013 at 8:48 am | Reply
  2. chapmancentral

    Excellent reporting. Reveals the complexities of Gitmo and the cynicism of the US Congress. I believe Obama is sincere in wanting Gitmo shut down on ethical grounds; telling that he has to sell it on cost.

    December 17, 2013 at 7:13 pm | Reply
  3. Guest

    I am surprised that there is no mention of CMU's within US now – that is practically doing the same things to the prisoners of conscience there.

    December 17, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Reply
  4. Clark Hohenheim

    Advocating human rights in other parts of the world. Maintaining the worst prison in the world that abuses human rights (no trials) herself.

    December 17, 2013 at 9:25 pm | Reply
    • Jim

      Your assessment is lunacy. Gitmo is FAR, FAR, FAR from the worst prison in the world. The biggest abuse there is the prisoners abusing the guards. I saw it in our equivalent prison in Afghanistan and I really felt sorry for our young troops who had to deal with all the crap there - spit on, sworn at, urine and feces thrown on them, etc.

      December 18, 2013 at 2:43 am | Reply
      • scrut

        Jim, you are not seriously saying that a prisoner spitting at a guard is a worse abuse than people being detained for years without a trial (which means they have to be considered innocent), without access to legal counsel, without a chance of their situation ever changing, and sometimes even being tortured?

        December 18, 2013 at 9:57 am |
  5. Total2199

    Hypocrisy of the democracy....

    December 17, 2013 at 10:12 pm | Reply
  6. pyusmc66

    As much as I respect this fine officer, I for one never want Gitmo shut down as long as this filth continues their war on America. Let them rot in hell, and kill themselves if they want to.

    December 17, 2013 at 10:30 pm | Reply
    • motorfirebox

      When the actual warriors who are fighting your battles for you say you're going to far, maybe you ought to listen to them.

      December 18, 2013 at 12:44 am | Reply
      • Mark

        I would agree with Motor – whatever limited purpose Gitmo served is now obsolete and the negatives far outweigh the positive. And at 2.7M? – each? If the General says shut it down, then shut it down.

        December 18, 2013 at 7:38 am |
  7. Michael NYC

    160 trapped?? FU. These are terrorists. Have them come blow up your city like they did to ours. They can destroy the CNN tower and the Coca cola factory in Atlanta and lets see how you feel. Then CNN can write an article on 5 things and have the stocktwits guys and twitter write the article for them

    December 17, 2013 at 10:30 pm | Reply
    • DR

      How do you know they're "terrorists", do you believe everything our corrupt government tells you? This guy was actually there and says many of these people should never have been sent there but your expert and knowledgeable opinion is ""These are terrorists"'re an idiot!

      December 17, 2013 at 10:44 pm | Reply
      • Dweller

        I second that!....the war on terrorist is just a witch hunt. You don't agree with me?...your a terrorist, you won't except my terms?'re a terrorist etc etc etc...The biggest terrorist group is the CIA.

        December 18, 2013 at 12:00 am |
    • DickPerry

      Are you trying to say that USA has released over 600 terrorists onto the world?

      December 17, 2013 at 11:52 pm | Reply
    • Johan S

      Do you know how and why each prisoner got there? Some of them may have been falsely accused by their neighbor over some other unrelated dispute. Others, maybe were setup by the terrorists themselves. You have no idea if these people are guilty or not, yet you want them killed. You are an evil evil person.

      December 18, 2013 at 2:49 am | Reply
      • Fred Evil

        Exactly. many guys at Gitmo were reportedly set up for reward money the US offered. Kids were fingered, rivals etc.
        There are definitely guilty ones there, but an extra-legal prison is not the answer!

        December 18, 2013 at 9:29 am |
  8. Eric J. Beck

    U.S. Major General Michael Lehnert must be a darn Lib to suggest such a thing.

    December 17, 2013 at 10:51 pm | Reply
    • oliver

      Totally. The ideas of due process, moral high ground, and adhering to the treaties we set with the rest of the world just don't jibe with my gun crazy kill them all conservative agenda. Strange how New Yorkers,who live the place actually attacked in 9/11, are always voting liberal, right? You'd think they'd be as crazy upset as we red-necks in Nebraska. Well, they can keep their educations and money and power and influence and standing as the greatest city on the planet...we know better.

      December 18, 2013 at 2:41 am | Reply
  9. Smeagel4T

    Congress should be "detained" at Gitmo until they decide to close it. After all, you don't really need any excuse to stuff somebody there. So why not congress members?

    December 17, 2013 at 10:56 pm | Reply
  10. Smeagel4T

    ONLY $2.7 million per day per prisoner? Ha! I'm sure if we "privatized" it we could get that number up to $3.5 million! After all, there is that extra privatization overhead of ALEC membership dues, legislative bribes, bloated CEO salaries, golden parachutes, etc, etc, etc.

    December 17, 2013 at 10:59 pm | Reply
    • zeke

      The 2.7 million is per annum, or year, NOT per day.

      December 18, 2013 at 7:02 am | Reply
  11. Keith

    He is right, the terrorists won long ago.

    December 17, 2013 at 11:21 pm | Reply
  12. Spakole

    ok, we're going to let you go bad terrorist, but we can find you if you try it again, so don't you do it!!

    Yea, that's intelligent.

    And yes, terrorism changes you – you have to adapt to counter it.

    December 17, 2013 at 11:26 pm | Reply
  13. Nodack

    This topic never dies. Republicans say Obama is an idjut for wanting to close Guantanamo. Then they say he is an idjut because he hasn't closed Guantanamo. No mater what he does or doesn't do they are against him out of purple spite.

    December 17, 2013 at 11:31 pm | Reply
  14. mike

    Really general? How are we going to find them. They are cutting end strength and this administration is eroding the benefits of those in the military at an alarming rate. Pretty soon no one will even want to be in the military because of the lack of respect current and former military members are getting from this administration and now the idiots in Congress as well.

    December 18, 2013 at 12:03 am | Reply
  15. Fariba

    Guantanamo Bay Prison has been the pink elephant in the room, making us all avert our eyes in collective shame. It is time to come out of denial and do what our founding fathers would have us do – close the facility and apologize to the world for this prolonged hypocrisy.

    December 18, 2013 at 12:13 am | Reply
  16. McRCN

    Can you say "drone strike!" Problem solved.

    December 18, 2013 at 12:15 am | Reply
  17. kenhbradshaw

    This is a false issue meant to raise war hoops on each side of the issue
    – Gitmo is not the worst prison in the world – far, far from it
    – Gitmo is not the only place terrorists can and will be held
    – Gitmo is not an abominable experience in torture. I would like to see a continuum of tortures with play loud music on one end and roast over a fire on the other. Where on that continuum would water-boarding be?

    Go ahead and close it. The work has already been moved elsewhere. And the released prisoners will have a hard time disappearing and not being tracked

    December 18, 2013 at 12:16 am | Reply
  18. Ron

    BIG BIG mistake, Gitmo is one of the best threats we have against combatants we capture, also All of the world knows we have terrorist there, Keep them locked up til they die, Those people don't deserve a break, They take our generosity as a sign of weakness, as soon as you release them they will be making bombs to use against us. WHEN will the people in America get smart???

    December 18, 2013 at 1:31 am | Reply
  19. dwayne

    These people are suspected of terrorism. They are all guilty. They should be executed and given to the sharks.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:34 am | Reply
    • bob

      dwayne your key word of the day is "suspected".it doesn't mean guilty. not all suspects are guilty

      December 18, 2013 at 1:51 am | Reply
  20. leadreviewer

    What a moron I hope that CNN wont go back to asking his opinion on anything. Yes the terrorists succeeded in changing America.. In that we crushed them when we were previously minding our own business.. As far as Guantanamo, that’s for the President to handle and I couldn’t care less what this individual thinks about it.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:46 am | Reply
  21. Jim

    It's worth noting that many/most of those 82 prisoners there who "have been cleared for transfer to their home country" are quite likely sitting there because their home countries will NOT take them back. That's what I saw in Afghanistan - our process cleared them to be sent home, but their home countries wouldn't take them. In some cases, representatives from their home countries then lied to them, saying, "We're trying to convince the Americans to let you go." As you can imagine, that bred some confused and angry prisoners.

    December 18, 2013 at 2:40 am | Reply
  22. Mark

    As a former marine I will say I could not agree more with this officer. It's long past time the US remembers how valuable our freedoms are, having been paid for in blood and lives. It is also long past time that the people of the US remember who and what we are, and stop acting like we are scared of our on dang shadows.

    December 18, 2013 at 4:04 am | Reply
  23. John Kantor

    First, no one cares what his opinion is. Second, he's a moron if he thinks that's why Terrorists murder people. And Third, if it costs that much per prisoner, then we should add a lot more to bring the costs down.

    December 18, 2013 at 4:46 am | Reply
  24. Jim McClaim

    I think all these comments saying closing Gitmo would be a mistake are hilarious. You have a general, the highest active military rank there is, one who oversaw the entire operation no less, telling us what's going on. And we have people here on the CNN comments saying he's wrong.

    Here's to you, Lead us forth into the future with your wise ideas.

    December 18, 2013 at 6:16 am | Reply
  25. humtake

    Well, this guy is in for a big treat. Once Obama is in office, he is going to shut down Gitmo!! Oh, wait...

    December 18, 2013 at 7:17 am | Reply
  26. Dan

    If only Obama would live up to his campaign promise and do what he said he would do

    December 18, 2013 at 7:24 am | Reply
    • Fred Evil

      He signed an Executive Order, and then the Republicans 'de-funded' the closure.

      December 18, 2013 at 9:38 am | Reply
  27. Hex

    Let me remind everybody that this is something that was promised to be the POTUS

    December 18, 2013 at 8:37 am | Reply
    • PoliticiansRcrooks

      Yea like POTUS has never not kept a promise or told a lie has he? Hahahahahahah

      December 18, 2013 at 8:50 am | Reply
    • Fred Evil

      He signed an Executive Order, and then the Republicans 'de-funded' the closure.

      December 18, 2013 at 9:39 am | Reply
  28. PoliticiansRcrooks

    GITMO cost ten times less to American tax payers and island paradise climate cannot have that.

    December 18, 2013 at 8:45 am | Reply
  29. Cartman

    I agree with closing it because it no longer serves a purpose.
    But what do we do with the prisoners that are citizens of a country that won't accept them back?
    There are people there that no country wants, which, by the way, gives you an idea of the type of people detained there.

    December 18, 2013 at 8:45 am | Reply
  30. JezMyOpinion

    Shut it down already. We need to pull out of terroristic countries. We aren't going to change their beliefs and we're losing too many of our military in trying to do so. Bring our men & women back home and let them protects us here.

    December 18, 2013 at 8:51 am | Reply
  31. Ellis Sonatchi

    Advice for the President of the United States on Guatanamo Bay

    Mr. President:

    You have many assets under your control. You should use some of your military assets (US Navy & Marines) to take action to start the closing of Guatanamo. Start a new chapter in American history.

    Call a meeting of the Secretary of Defense and some Admirals and Generals.

    Give orders that reflect all inmates/prisoners/enemy combatants/captives are to be moved to US Navy ships. The ships will become known as prison ships/trial ships/justice ships/freedom ships/death ships and collectively known as “Guatanamo Vessels.” On the open seas the trials will begin. After the verdicts, individuals may be transferred to a different country on the open seas.

    Then blow up the facilities at Guatanamo Bay.

    December 18, 2013 at 11:57 am | Reply
  32. SeeThruIt2

    When the U.S. opened Gitmo for the terrorists captured in Afghanistan, the CIA saw a nice place to park the people they had started picking up since 1998 with their Rendition program. Those people picked up in other countries by the CIA are probably the main problem in that there is no internationally recognized reason for that extra-judicial kidnapping.

    I'm not suggesting that these are nice or innocent people. But, any fair court in the world would release them because of the way they were captured outside of a recognized warzone or law enforcement channels.

    December 18, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Reply
  33. Shimanyi

    Let Guantanamo closed,couse it's the source of Govetnment expendirure embezzeliment.

    December 27, 2013 at 5:04 am | Reply
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