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This month marks 20 years since I, as a newly minted marine brigadier general, watched from the bridge of an Air Force C-17 as we began our approach toward the Guantánamo Naval Station Airfield. Our mission was to set up a detention facility for prisoners captured in Afghanistan; we were tasked with preparing to secure at least 100 prisoners within 96 hours.
The mission’s duration was to be 60 days, at which time we would be relieved by an Army-led Joint Task Force. No one expected the detention facility to be around more than a year. Twenty years and four administrations later, it is time to finally shut down the facility.
Though Guantánamo has long been used by U.S. administrations to house Caribbean migrants until their situations could be sorted out, the decision to use it as a detention facility for Islamic terrorists was hurried and ignored longstanding U.S and international norms for handling prisoners.
The American people were angry and afraid, and the Bush administration was responding to political pressure to “do something” when the temporary holding facility in Afghanistan was reaching capacity with captured fighters. Some of those held were Afghan, but many were from other countries, and some had been turned over by their fellow Afghans to collect the bounty we offered on “bad guys.”
These people, soon dubbed “detainees,” needed to go somewhere, but the administration’s guidance regarding our handling of detainees was limited.
We were to be “guided by, but not necessarily required to follow, the Geneva Conventions,” and it soon became clear that the primary purpose for sending prisoners to Gitmo was not simply to remove combatants from the fight. Many in the administration were convinced that these detainees were an intelligence goldmine, notwithstanding that most of them were being held in a way that offered ample opportunities to develop plausible cover stories.
Of the roughly 780 prisoners sent to Gitmo, most were found to have no intelligence value. After languishing in cells for years, they were sent home or to countries willing to take them.
Military commissions established to punish those accused of war crimes proved an abject failure. Of the eight convictions finally obtained, three were completely overturned by the Supreme Court and one was partially overturned. At the same time, our legal system, with its constitutionally mandated rights for defendants, worked. Federal courts obtained more than 500 convictions. Over 440 convicted terrorists are in U.S. prisons. None have escaped.
Still, 35 prisoners remain at Gitmo. They have been largely forgotten by the American people, though not by the rest of the world, which sees their incarceration as a renunciation of the values for which we profess to stand.
Twenty of these prisoners have been recommended for release. But remain locked away at a cost of $540 million a year. The cost we incur to our reputation and credibility is harder to quantify — but much more damaging. Future elected leaders, diplomats and service members will all have to deal with the legacy of Guantánamo.
The other 15 prisoners at Gitmo have not been cleared for release. There is no doubt that their crimes are significant, nor any doubt that the evidence against them was tainted by torture and coercion in violation of our own laws. Ironically, these are the prisoners who hold hostage America’s reputation as a nation of laws.
We can restore that reputation, but doing so demands making some hard choices. We must recognize the inadequacy of the military-commission process, shut it down and trust our federal courts to deliver justice. We must take the death penalty off the table as a possible outcome of any criminal proceedings.
The world has changed since 9/11. Concerns over Islamic terrorists still exist but have been supplanted in priority by domestic terrorism, Russian aggression and Chinese influence. Guantánamo no longer serves a purpose, and the resources expended and the damage to our international reputation are not worth keeping Gitmo open.
Every military officer takes an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution and we renew that oath each time we are promoted. The promises contained in that oath are applicable wherever we are in the world. They don’t end at the water’s edge and are not amended in a place like Guantánamo.
As one who helped open the detention facility at Guantánamo, I believe it is time to close it. Doing so will go a long way toward restoring our honor and reestablishing ourselves as a nation of laws.
Major General Michael Lehnert, USMC (retired) served as the first Joint Task Force Commander in GITMO after 9/11.
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