Guantanamo Bay: General Who Built Island Prison Reflects

Jan 14, 2015

During the last two years of the Obama administration, the president appears determined to make good on one of his first campaign promises -- to close Guantanamo Bay.  The Virginia-trained general who built GTMO reflects on what happened there, shared little-known details about life at the island prison with an audience at the University of Richmond.  

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army's Flickr page.

Major General Michael Lehnert had completed many challenging assignments in more than 30 years of military service, but none quite like the order he got in January of 2002.

“I had to put a task force together, fly to Cuba, build the first hundred cells within 96 hours on receiving that deployment.

He and his team did the job in 87 hours, using materials already on hand.

"Since building materials couldn’t be shipped down in time, I stripped everything from the naval base I could get: metal, wire mesh, anything to build these cages.  That’s what they were."

Major General Michael Lehnert

But building was the easy part.  Next came the challenge of governing the place.  Under the Geneva Conventions, Lehnert thought detainees should have Article Five hearings

“If you pick someone up you have a hearing to determine whether there’s enough information to keep them as an enemy prisoner of waror if there’s a possibility they may, in fact, be guilty of war crimes.  In most cases those things did not happen.” 

The Bush administration claimed these prisoners were not entitled to hearings - that they were  the worst of the worst, but Lehnert was skeptical.

“Our lack of cultural awareness in Afghanistan made us easy marks for tribal leaders, because what we did was we paid for prisoners.  Now if you understand anything about the tribal culture, they go back a long way.  Y’know, ‘My great granddad killed your great granddad.’ So we went to them and we said, ‘We’ll pay you $3,000 to $25,000 depending on how bad they are, and guess what!  They found a lot of bad guys, because they could get rich doing it.”

One of those who was picked up and sent to Guantanamo was known as Wild Bill. 

“Wild Bill was an Afghan that was picked up on the battlefield, stark naked, with a white bird feather in his rifle. He had been twice diagnosed by our doctors as psychotic, however he was sent anyway, and he would scream all day.  He’d pick a single number and scream it over and over again - either in English or Arabic or Pashtun, and he would throw his feces at the rest of the prisoners and the guards, and to say that it upset both the guards and the prisoners was an understatement.  + so I asked the administration authorities for the basis on which he was sent, since his mental state made any information that he might have deeply suspect. The response, by the way, from the folks in Washington was a deafening silence.”  

Meanwhile, military doctors began caring for the detainees who Lehnert says suffered from a variety of medical problems.

“Most of them were old injuries and illnesses, diseases and frostbite. Medical support was provided by the U.S. Navy, and I will tell you that the job those Navy Corpsmen and Navy doctors did was incredible - something that probably would have made you proud of them.”

But Americans might not be so proud of the men and women charged with guarding the prisoners.  Some were marines, others members of the army reserve.

“Most were from West Virginia or Southern Ohio.  Many in the unit had some background as prison guards but absolutely no cultural training. For most the first Muslim they ever met was the detainees, and the linguists who had been sent to interpret for them.  They didn’t trust either.  For many, any soldier who spoke anything but English was suspect.” 

In our next report, we’ll tell you how General Lehnert tried to protect the prison population at Gitmo, why some politicians made the job difficult and how Islam helped him to better manage the prison population.