Guantanamo Bay: Conclusions from the Gulag of Our Time

Jan 16, 2015

Of nearly 780 detainees brought to a military prison at Guantanamo Bay, most have been sent back to their countries without charges being filed.  Nine died in detention.  After 5 Yemeni prisoners were released to Estonia and Oman yesterday, 122 now remain, and more than half could be released if the Obama administration finds a country that will take them.  Sandy Hausman spoke with Michael Lehnert, a retired Marine General who served for many years in Virginia before building the prison at GTMO. In a speech at the University of Richmond, he drew surprising conclusions from what has been called the Gulag of Our Times.

The National Guard Flickr


When he first ran for president, Barack Obama said he would close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.  Today, 38 inmates remain there -- designated for indefinite detention without charges, and 36 are awaiting trial.  Eight cases were tried by military commissions. Four of those appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and each time the justices sided with the detainees. 

So what lessons can we learn from the GTMO experience?  Major General Michael Lehnert, who oversaw construction and operation of the prison in its early days, says it was a mistake.

“Our country made the decisions we did when we were angry and frightened.  We wanted revenge for what we rightfully viewed as a sneak, unprovoked attack on sovereign soil.  However, we cannot allow our fear or our anger to serve as excuses for walking away from our national values.  Guantanamo was a bad decision.”

So what should become of those men who remain at GTMO?  Lehnert points out that over the last decade about 500 people accused of terrorism have been tried in federal courts and 355 are now in U.S. prisons.   He says those still at Guantanamo should be brought here.

“It costs a bit over two million dollars per detainee per year to lock one of them up on Guantanamo, because everything has to be barged it.  It’s expensive.  The most expensive supermax prison in America costs $78,000 per prisoner per year, so I would argue that yes we need to bring them to this country.  We need to lock them up, and we need to subject them to the laws of our country and not leave them to indefinite detention.”

Some of those who were sent back to their countries - about 4 percent - have taken up arms against America, but Lehnert stands by the decision to free them.

“The question for us is did we err by releasing a real terrorist, or did unjust incarceration create a terrorist out of a previously innocent man?  We will never know.”

But we do have biometrics on every man imprisoned at Guantanamo, and if we find them on a battlefield, Lehnert says, we will kill them.  In the meantime, he urges Americans to stand by the values that have made this country great - to be brave and realistic about the possibility of a terrorist attack.

“Your chances of dying as a consequence of a terrorist attack are one in 20 million.  Your chances of dying as a consequence of being shot by an American with a weapon are one in 340, sometime during your life.  Your chances of dying in a car accident are one in 101.  Your chances of dying as a consequence of being hit by lightning all depend on whether you’re male or female.  They’re higher if you’re male, because we men aren’t smart enough to get out of the rain.”

Now facing ISIS in the Middle East, Lehnert says it must be stopped, but the way we do that is as important as doing it.

“If we lose our values, the terrorists have won.  I refuse to let that happen, and I refuse to live in fear.  Tonight there are thousands of brave men and women deployed in harms’ way to ensure that you and I are secure.  Respect their sacrifice and live in accordance with the ideals of our founding fathers, who labored so hard to make the Constitution a beacon of freedom. Protect those values.  Live free and don’t be afraid!”

Major General Michael Lehnert, who spent many years living and training in Virginia, speaking at the University of Richmond.