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Handling the Truth

Once the commander of Guantanamo prison, retired Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert is leading the charge to close it down.



Naked and accompanied by only a single white feather and a Kalashnikov rifle, Wild Bill struck quite a figure on the Afghan battlefield.

He was psychotic and prone to screaming a single number all day long. As a prisoner, Wild Bill was known to fling feces at his fellow detainees, and for retired Marine Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, he became emblematic of the problems witnessed first-hand at the detention camp within Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

"I said, 'Why did we send somebody like this [to Guantanamo],'" recalls Lehnert, who led the effort to open the detention camp just months after 9/11. "No court in the world is going to ever convict a psychotic. If you're talking about getting intelligence from him, he has no concept of reality."

As then-commander of Joint Task Force 160, Lehnert was deployed to ready the American naval base in Cuba for an influx of detainees from the War on Terror. He's since publicly supported closing the detention center for good, and he's coming to the University of Richmond next week to lecture about his ethical dilemmas.

"Guantanamo has been used by every administration for the flotsam and jetsam of U.S. foreign policy," Lehnert says of the prison that's become infamous for its torture. "If it doesn't fit anywhere else, it seems to go to Guantanamo."

Lehnert's first trip to the naval base was in 1995 as part of Operation Sea Signal, a humanitarian effort that responded to more than 50,000 Haitian and Cuban migrants attempting to gain asylum in the United States. Partially because of his familiarity with the island, Lehnert was tapped to construct and operate detention facilities for roughly the first 90 days of the camp's new purpose.

The task facing Lehnert and his team was herculean. In 96 hours, Lehnert was ordered to form a task force, deploy to Guantanamo and build 100 cells in a place without raw materials. Scavenging and converting existing structures, they completed their mission in 87 hours.

As the detainees arrived, Lehnert was informed that he could be advised by — but didn't have to follow — the Geneva Conventions, which outline the international laws for treatment of wartime prisoners, casualties and civilians.

"I made an internal decision, a personal decision, to follow the Geneva Conventions, and I told my staff that we would only depart from Geneva Conventions in those circumstances where it was impossible to apply," he says. As best he could, he says he also tried to ensure that no torture took place.

"I always insisted while I was there that any interrogations would have to be conducted without physical intervention, without any abuse, and with my guards present at all times to stop the interrogations if those agreements were violated," he says, comparing the interrogations in those early days to conversations. "Obviously that was not a popular decision, but it was one I insisted on."

Though he met resistance, Lehnert worked to bring in the International Committee of the Red Cross to interview each detainee to confirm they were being treated properly.

"One of their responsibilities is to ensure that individuals who are incarcerated as part of a [global] conflict are properly treated," he says, "and initially the administration pushed back on our request to bring them in."

While he's sure many of the detainees were involved with the Taliban and al-Qaida, he began to question what some —including Wild Bill — were doing there.

"Some of the detainees that we began to get in made me very concerned that we hadn't done a good sorting process in Afghanistan," he says, adding that most of the prisoners hadn't been captured by the military, but turned in by tribal leaders who were paid $500 to $3,000 per person.

Of the 779 detainees incarcerated at Guantanamo since 2002, roughly 500 were released to their countries of origin during the Bush administration. The most current figures have 149 incarcerated with 78 approved for release.

But for politicians, the idea of closing Guantanamo and granting suspected terrorists a trial in America is too charged to contemplate. Though President Barack Obama signed an order in 2009 that would have closed the prison within a year, it proved difficult to enforce, and subsequent legislation only made the closing more unlikely. While the United States navigates a seemingly growing conflict with the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria, Lehnert worries that the momentum gained to shut down Guantanamo may be lost.

"If we say we are going to get them at all costs, if we set aside the rules of the road for our military and for our nation, the terrorists then have won, because they have changed us," Lehnert says. "We're going to win this struggle, but how we win it is even more important." S

Retired Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert will speak as part of the Jepson Leadership Forum on Tuesday, Oct. 21, at 7 p.m. at the Robins Pavilion. For information visit

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