The building of a prisoner of war camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba was as big a screw-up by the Bush administration as is attempts by the Obama administration to close it. Neither administration understood the long-range problems inherent in the system that was created.
That’s the analysis we observe in stories today reported in three major newspapers.
Retiring Marine Major Gen. Michael Lehnert was the commander of Joint Task Force 160 which built Camp X-Ray in 2002. He was given little guidance from the Pentagon except do it fast.
“The Geneva Convention seemed to be a pretty good place to start,” he said. “I got several copies and had my staff read it.” He wanted the prisoners closely guarded but humanely treated, an approach he lost. He said he opposed the harsh interrogation methods requested by the Bush White House.
“Probably before I left Guantanamo,” after 100 days in command, “I was of the opinion it needed to go away as soon as possible.” He said at his retirement news gathering Thursday interrogations, which were handled by a different task force, ignited “creative tension” in the officer ranks of Marines, Navy, Army and the Central Intelligence Agency. Lehnert said he made his views known through “the appropriate chain of command.” He said the United States has a moral obligation to treat the prisoners humanely.
Lehnert will step down next week after heading the Marine Corps Installations West command since 2005. He has guided a massive construction campaign at the seven bases he oversees from an office at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County.
During his presser, the general addressed the subject which is driving the Obama administration crazy — where to relocate the remaining 220 prisoners of roughly 800 who cannot be released nor held for trial.
He said he opposes the White House inquiry some or all be sent to Camp Pendleton because it could threaten the base’s main job of training Marines. This Not-In-My-Backyard chant is echoed by most members of Congress which has delayed funding for Guantanamo closing until the relocation question is resolved. U.S. officials hope to prosecute some of them in federal court and others before military commissions.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post quotes its sources that the fall guy blamed for the current problem at Guantanamo is White House Counsel Gregory B. Craig who convinced President Barack Obama to set a deadline to close the base by Jan. 22, 2010, against the advise of many in both administrations and Congress. The Post:
The White House has faltered in part because of the legal, political and diplomatic complexities involved in determining what to do with more than 200 terrorism suspects at the prison. But senior advisers privately acknowledge not devising a concrete plan for where to move the detainees and mishandling Congress.
Craig no longer is in charge of the base closure, according to the Post.
Craig said Thursday that some of his early assumptions were based on miscalculations, in part because Bush administration officials and senior Republicans in Congress had spoken publicly about closing the facility. “I thought there was, in fact, and I may have been wrong, a broad consensus about the importance to our national security objectives to close Guantanamo and how keeping Guantanamo open actually did damage to our national security objectives,” he said.
The Post story implies — at least to me — the Obama White House has dropped the urgency of Guantanamo’s closing which in part explains its delays in processing the detainees. Part of the problem was this unexpected development the Obama people learned after taking office.
Senior administration officials said the central roadblock during those early months was the condition of the detainee files, which had been left in disarray by the previous administration.
“We assumed that for each detainee there was going to be a file somewhere,” one senior administration official said. “Some of the intelligence files were not even organized by detainee. You had to go into a mainframe database and search the name of the detainee to put together a file. So there were weeks, if not months, of putting together the files of detainees that then could be reviewed by the fresh eyes that we wanted.”
As the process was getting underway in the spring, the administration began losing support for shutting the facility, in part, officials now say, because the White House did not present a concrete plan for what it would do with the remaining terrorism suspects.
What began as a campaign promise fulfilled has turned into a public relations nightmare for an Obama administration that continually is plagued with the realities of governing and the ghosts of past administrations.
Jerry Remmers worked 26 years in the newspaper business. His last 23 years was with the Evening Tribune in San Diego where assignments included reporter, assistant city editor, county and politics editor.