Guantanamo Bay: Candid Conversation on Conflict & Command

Jan 15, 2015

Major General Michael Lehnert
Credit University of Richmond

Major General Michael Lehnert spent  years commanding U.S. Marines in Virginia – but he also spent a hundred days at Guantanamo Bay – building and running a prison for alleged terrorists captured in Afghanistan.  

Legal experts told the Bush administration that GTMO  was not American soil, so our legal protections would not apply there.

Lehnert told an audience at the University of Richmond that he often disagreed with the White House.

Beginning in January of 2002, a total of 779 men were transported to Guantanamo Bay for imprisonment and interrogation, but Major General Michael Lehnert, who oversaw GTMO in the early days says inmates weren’t the only ones coming to that corner of Cuba.    Officials from an alphabet soup of agencies also showed up.  The CIA, FBI, NSA, British, Israeli and French intelligence all wanted in on interrogations.

“Most stayed less than 24 hours.  It began to seem like coming to Gitmo was as much a resume-building exercise as it was any serious attempt to find out what was happening. Politicians from both sides of the aisle took direct flights that had been set up from Washington, DC to Guantanamo.  It’s easy to reach without the discomfort of a trip to Afghanistan.  You can fly to Gitmo and back to Washington, DC in the same day!”

Lehnert resented what some politicians had to say.

“When a senior Senator tells a young soldier, “If it was me guarding those bastards, I’d just line them up against a wall and shoot ‘em,” it doesn’t help to instill a culture of fair and equitable treatment.”

Lehnert also welcomed the International Committee of the Red Cross to inspect, despite objections from Washington, and he began meeting with a Muslim chaplain, hoping to better understand the detainees.

“It was instructive that although we have thousands of Muslims in our military, there were only three Muslim chaplains on duty at the time.  After several weeks, Navy Chaplin Saif Al Islam arrived, and he was invaluable.  He was a native Bengladeshi U.S. citizen.  He spoke English, Pashtu and Arabic.  I told him I wanted him in uniform any time we spoke to the detainees.  I wanted the detainees to see that we had Muslim chaplains as well.”

The General insisted daily prayers be allowed and ordered Halal meals be served to the prisoners. He issued a Koran to each man and paid visits at all hours of the day and night, making sure his directions were followed.  In talking with inmates, he drew one common conclusion.

“Most of them did not fit in to the societies that they came from. I learned about failed marriages, failed businesses, family relationships – in other words, they were the losers of their society.  At least three appeared to be juveniles of about 14.  Four were British students who thought it would be a hoot to fight for the Taliban, and nearly all of the detainees who were brought in as ‘the worst of the worst’ have since been released without action.”

But during their time at GTMO, they were angered by interrogations and distraught because no one could say if or when they might be freed.

“There was a spontaneous outcry.  They threw their sleeping mats outside their cells. The guards wanted to go in and kick some butts.  I said, ‘No, that’s exactly what they want.  The floor will get hard soon enough.  It did, and they asked for their sleeping mats back.”

When the first hunger strike began, Lehnert asked the chaplain what Islam had to say about people starving themselves to death.

“He said the Koran forbad suicide.  Even got a fatwah or religious opinion from an Imam in the U.S. to support the injunction against suicide. I spoke to all of the detainees over the loudspeaker and eventually we got them to stop the hunger strike and follow the rules.”

In our next report, Lehnert offers his surprising opinion of what should be done with those prisoners who remain at Guantanamo and shares what he sees as lessons for the future.