Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, former commanding general of the joint task force in charge of al-Qaida and Taliban detainees in Guantanamo Bay, detailed to campus Tuesday why the American government should shut down the military camp he helped create.

Lehnert landed at Guantanamo Bay in January 2002 as the commander of Joint Task Force 160, charged with constructing and operating a detention facility for the first wave of prisoners taken from the nascent war in Afghanistan. America had recently declared war on the country in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and was eager to start collecting information about the event’s perpetrators. 

Lehnert said proper detention facilities had been unavailable in Afghanistan at the time and that Congress had recoiled at the notion of bringing suspected terrorists on domestic soil, so the responsibility befell him to prepare the resources to do so at Guantanamo Bay. He took approximately 2,000 troops with him, and began working on a 96-hour deadline until the first prisoners arrived.

“Originally, I was told to build facilities capable of holding 20,000 prisoners," Lehnert said. "We built the first hundred cells in 87 hours. No duration was given at that time for how long we were expected to have these cells running, even though I was told I was expected to be living down there for 60 days. The administration clearly felt that we’d be out of here in several months." 

He said he was immediately made uncomfortable by some of the rules he was in charge of enforcing, the most disturbing of which was “the decision by the administration that the detainees would be afforded none of the protections of the Geneva Convention.” Rather, Lehnert said he was instructed that he would “be guided by, but not bound by” the treaty. He still chose on his own accord to have his staff briefed in the document, especially Article 3 describing “humiliating and degrading treatment.” 

His discomfort continued to grow after he became aware of policies such as paying rewards for the capture of suspicious individuals, which led to “80 percent of the people that were sent to me actually [being] turned in by Afghanis.” Coupled with the torture that was implemented as an interrogation technique, Lehnert said he had realized it would not be long before his conscience would no longer permit him to carry out his responsibilities at Guantanamo.

Lehnert said he knew he was fighting an uphill battle with the beliefs he was sharing that evening, and informed the audience that American popular opinion still supported the maintenance of the Guantanamo Bay detention camps. Despite his best efforts, and despite the verbal promises of our nation’s current president, GTMO remains open for business. 

Of the 779 people who have been brought to the camp, 588 have been released by either the Bush or Obama administrations, and have returned to their home countries without being charged, Lehnert said. But 149 prisoners still remain in Guantanamo, “38 [of whom] have been designated for indefinite detention without charge or trial,” while another 36 await the trial or military commission they were promised. 

There have been eight prisoners convicted by Guantanamo Bay military commissions, but four of the cases wound up appearing before the Supreme Court. He said: “Each time, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the military commissions and sided with the detainees.” 

He said that of the 149 remaining prisoners, 78 have been approved for release without charges, but there have been repatriation difficulties, usually because their home counties do not want them back. Nine have died in the camps, most by their own hand.

Lehnert made a point not to absolve himself of responsibility, as he had sat in a very powerful position throughout the beginning stages of the ongoing Guantanamo Bay saga. He said one of his regrets was not jumping at a chance to foster a line of civil communication from the American government to the Middle East public. 

“The news media was ubiquitous. Our daily press briefings were referred to by my staff as the ‘Bet Your Stars’ hour because any misstep could be disastrous. The only news outlet we turned away was Al Jazeera, and in retrospect, that was one of my mistakes. It was probably [a relationship] we should have cultivated, as [it was] the news outlet that had the most impact upon the Arab community,” he said. 

He also talked about denying permission to the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit the military camps to observe the conditions that the detainees were living in.

Lehnert traced Guantanamo Bay’s corrupt roots all the way back to 1903, when the United States leased roughly 45 square miles from Cuba as part of a three-page agreement. Though it was originally created to be a coal refueling site, Lehnert was quick to point out that the Navy had not used coal as a source of fuel in 50 years. 

He also said his time as commanding general of JTF 160 at Guantanamo Bay was not his first stay at the base. Lehnert was placed in charge of Guantanamo Bay’s migrant camps in 1995, which were the American government’s solution to the growing number of Cuban and Haitian refugees who had been trying to float their way into America since the 1960s. 

After rescuing them from the ocean, the U.S. needed a nearby place to house the migrants until their statuses could be determined. “I had responsibility for 13 camps, including around 20,000 Cubans and a couple hundred Haitians,” he said. 

He said he had been as confused as anybody that the government had seen his previous position as a stepping stone to facilitating a military prison. “Though I knew the Marine Corps’ experience managing migrants didn’t equate to running a prison camp of suspected terrorists," he said, "it was a distinction that was not readily obvious to Washington.”

Lehnert was on campus to give his lecture, “Guantanamo: When Command and the Constitution Collide,” part of the Jepson Leadership Forum 2014-15. The speech was also the second to be given on campus this semester by a veteran of Guantanamo Bay service, as the university was joined by Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, on Oct. 2. Lehnert’s speech brought out a far larger crowd, which filled the Jepson Alumni Center. Senior Leadership major and ROTC officer Matthew Groff introduced Lehnert as he came to the stage.

Contact reporter Jacob Steinfield at jacob.steinfield@richmond.edu

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