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Camp Pendleton general reflects on Guantanamo detainee controversy

September 25, 2009 |  7:30 am


For the last four years, Marine Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert has overseen a massive upgrade of seven West Coast bases: hundreds of millions of dollars in new buildings, improvements in water, sewage and electrical facilities, and renewed efforts to protect endangered species on the sprawling bases.

"I'm so proud of our tertiary [sewage] treatment plant," Lehnert said during an interview Thursday at Camp Pendleton.

But in late 2001 he had a different assignment: devise a detention camp at the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for detainees from Afghanistan and elsewhere. He was given little guidance from the Pentagon except to hurry.

"The Geneva Convention seemed to be a pretty good place to start," he said. "I got several copies and had my staff read it."

What Lehnert wanted was a facility where the detainees would be closely guarded but yet treated humanely. "I didn't love these prisoners," he said. "...But I think it's extraordinarily important how we treat prisoners."

There were disagreements with various Army officers about how detainees should be treated, particularly on the issue of harsh interrogation. In the end, Lehnert's approach did not prevail.

"Before I left Guantanamo (in 2002), I was of the opinion we should close it down as quickly as possible," he said.

Lehnert, 58, is retiring soon after 36 years in the Marine Corps and, after a monthlong trip to Europe, he and his wife plan to live in their native Michigan. With good humor, he talked of his long career, his regret over Guantanamo and his stll-evolving plans for the future.

He joked that he had not planned to make a career of the Marine Corps after he graduated from Central Michigan University.

"I had planned to do three years, get out and buy a shrimp boat," he said. "I obviously failed at that venture."

-- Tony Perry at Camp Pendleton

Photo: Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert. Credit: Al Schaben/Los Angeles Times