I Helped Create Gitmo. Now I Want It Shut Down.

This is a cross-post from Politico 

By Retired Major General Michael Lehnert, USMC, the first commander of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Thirteen years ago this month, I arrived in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the commander, Joint Task Force 160, charged with constructing and operating a detention facility to hold Taliban and al Qaeda detainees. Today the detention facility at Guantanamo is a blight on our history, and it should be closed. I say this as one who helped to create it. I am not alone in my opinion. More than 50 retired generals and admirals have come forward saying Guantanamo should be closed.

Statesmen, top national security officials, and public servants from across the political spectrum such as Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, have said Guantanamo should be closed. President George W. Bush wanted to close the facility, and on his second day in office President Barack Obama signed an executive order committing his administration to closing Guantanamo.

Last year, his administration took steps—tentative but significant—toward that end. When President Obama took office, there were 242 detainees. At the beginning of 2014 there were 155. This year 28 detainees were transferred, leaving a population of 127. Of those remaining, 59 have been cleared for transfer. During 2014, the government conducted nine Periodic Review Board hearings to determine whether continued detention is necessary. That is real progress, but it hardly indicates the kind of urgency commensurate with the problem. Looking forward to the months ahead, I recommend that President Obama should transferall cleared detainees by the end of 2015.

Why do I want Guantanamo shuttered? Because it was always envisioned to be a temporary facility. There was a crisis of detainees in Afghanistan that the forces fighting there could not handle as winter approached. We needed a safe and appropriate place to hold detainees. That occurs in every war. My assignment at Guantanamo was to be 60 days in length. But during the first few days after the first detainees arrived, I became concerned that the detention facility was not going to be a short-term operation. There was convoluted and uncertain process for deciding what to do with the detainees as lawyers argued within the bureaucracy. Sadly, those debates continue even today.

History continues to judge our decisions—decisions made when we were angry and frightened. Who we are as a nation cannot be separated from what we do. It is hard to overstate how damaging the continued existence of the detention facility at Guantanamo has been. Repressive governments use it to deflect criticism of their own policies by charging hypocrisy. Violent extremists use it as a recruiting tool. It is a symbol for many around the world of torture, injustice, and illegitimacy.

Closing Guantanamo has proved to be more difficult than many anticipated, but with smart and sustained leadership from the president and Congress, it is possible. It will require a bipartisan effort; Senator McCain and Senator Feinstein spoke eloquently and courageously when they called for release of the Senate report on torture. Their example provides a good beginning as we search for a solution to Guantanamo that recognizes the dangers world we live in but does not allow the enemy to change us.

As if the moral, legal, and strategic reasons to close Guantanamo weren’t sufficient, it is by most comparisons the world’s most expensive prison. The annual cost per Guantanamo detainee now stands at $3,345,061. The average annual cost to maintain a prisoner in the most expensive supermax facility in the United States is estimated to be $78,000 per year.

Much has been written about the concerns of detainees “rejoining the fight.” I share those concerns, but as a Marine and a leader, much of my professional life was spent in the area of managing risk, not eliminating it, which I know to be an unrealistic goal. According to the Director of National Intelligence, 6.7 percent of the detainees released by President Obama are either suspected or confirmed of reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activity. We can and must manage this risk through security assurances, monitoring, rehabilitation, and other reasonable measures. The risks associated with keeping Guantanamo open are harder to mitigate, and the harm will be far more lasting.

What actions can we take this year? First, cleared detainees should be transferred immediately. Second, the Periodic Review Board process should be energized—all reviews should be completed by the end of 2015. Third, there are a number of remaining detainees who will have to be moved to the United States for trial or detention. Congress should recognize this and authorize these transfers to a U.S. prison. We should not repeat the mistakes of the past by establishing a permanent military detention facility for terrorists on U.S. soil.

Closing Guantanamo is about reestablishing who we are as a nation. Terrorists caused us to turn away from the fundamental values that make this country exceptional. It’s time to reaffirm what America stands for: that we are still the shining city on the hill, and that we stand for the rule of law and respect for human rights. The goal of terrorists is to change us, to change what we say we stand for, and to make us live in fear. As long as Guantanamo exists, terrorists can legitimately say that they have accomplished their objectives. It is time for America to stop living in fear and to defeat terrorism with our most powerful weapon: American values. It is time to close Guantanamo.


Published on January 30, 2015


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