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Here's why it's long past time that we close Guantánamo

Detroit Free Press
by Michael Lehnert
December 12, 2013

In 2002, I led the first Joint Task Force to Guantánamo and established the detention facility. Today, I believe it is time to close Guantánamo.

In the coming week, Congress will lay the foundation for whether and to what extent Guantánamo can be closed. The annual defense bill appears to have compromise language that would give the president some additional flexibility to transfer detainees to their home or third countries, though it maintains an unwise and unnecessary ban on transferring detainees to the United States.

Still, this is a step forward toward closing our nation’s most notorious prison — a prison that should never have been opened.

Our nation created Guantánamo because we were legitimately angry and frightened by an unprovoked attack on our soil on Sept. 11, 2001. We thought that the detainees would provide a treasure trove of information and intelligence.

I was ordered to construct the first 100 cells at Guantánamo within 96 hours. The first group of 20 prisoners arrived seven days after the order was given. We were told that the prisoners were the “worst of the worst,” a common refrain for every set of detainees sent to Guantánamo. The U.S. has held 779 men at the detention facility over the past 12 years. There are currently 162 men there, most of them cleared for transfer, but stuck by politics.

Even in the earliest days of Guantánamo, I became more and more convinced that many of the detainees should never have been sent in the first place. They had little intelligence value, and there was insufficient evidence linking them to war crimes. That remains the case today for many, if not most, of the detainees.

In retrospect, the entire detention and interrogation strategy was wrong. We squandered the goodwill of the world after we were attacked by our actions in Guantánamo, both in terms of detention and torture. Our decision to keep Guantánamo open has helped our enemies because it validates every negative perception of the United States.

The majority of the remaining detainees at Guantánamo have been cleared for transfer by our defense and intelligence agencies. The

The act of releasing a prisoner is about risk management. We cannot promise conclusively that any detainee who is released will not plan an attack against us, just as we cannot promise that any U.S. criminal released back into society will never commit another crime.

There are a handful of detainees at Guantánamo who should be transferred to the U.S. for prosecution or incarceration. Such transfers remain prohibited under current law, but that law needs to be revisited.

In determining whether we should release detainees who have no charges brought against them, I would argue that our Constitution and the rule of law conclusively trump any additional risk that selective release of detainees may entail. It is time that the American people and our politicians accepted a level of risk in the defense of our constitutional values, just as our service men and women have gone into harm’s way time after time to defend our constitution. If we make a mockery of our values, it calls us to question what we are really fighting for.

When I was the Joint Task Force Commander in Guantánamo, I spent many nights visiting the facility and talking to the guards. I did this because I wanted to be sure that my guidance for humane treatment was being carried out. Many of my young Marines and soldiers were clearly troubled by my insistence on humane treatment, pointing out that “the terrorists wouldn’t treat us this well.” My answer to each of these young service members was always the same: “If we treat them as they would treat us, we become them.”

It is time to close Guantánamo. Our departure from Afghanistan is a perfect point in history to close the facility.

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