20 years ago, the first detainees in America's war on terror arrived at Guantanamo Bay.
“They came in 20 person groups. They had headphones on, they had goggles on, we put them onto busses," retired general Michael Lehnert says. "The busses had the windows blacked out so they couldn't see where they were.”
Many detainees were innocent, and tortured. Presidents since then have promised to close Guantanamo, and failed.
“Guantanamo is the first no-exit strategy military enterprise since the Vietnam War, meaning they picked up human beings and moved them halfway around the globe without an idea of how to undo this," New York Times journalist Carol Rosenberg says. "They’re stuck with this mission."
So, what's next?
Today, On Point: We explore the moral, military and financial cost of Guantanamo Bay, 20 years later.
SEE MORE: Witness To Guantanamo: "The world's most comprehensive collection of Guantanamo stories." — "Witnesses from both sides of the wire and across the political spectrum offer rare perspectives on Guantanamo. Their stories reveal a legal black hole that delivered underwhelming security and overwhelming injustice."
Michael Lehnert, retired major general in the Marine Corps. He supervised the construction of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in January 2002, and ran the facility for three months.
Moazzam Begg, he spent two years as a Guantanamo Bay detainee, from 2003 to 2005. Outreach director at the non-profit CAGE, which advocates for the rule of law. Co-author of "Enemy Combatant." (@Moazzam_Begg)
Carol Rosenberg, she covers Guantanamo Bay for the New York Times. Author of "Guantanamo Bay: The Pentagon’s Alcatraz of the Caribbean." (@carolrosenberg)
Transcript: A Former Guantanamo Detainee Shares His Story, And What It Reveals About America
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Retired Major General Michael Lehnert supervised the construction of the detention camp at Gitmo in January 2002. He ran the facility for three months. And General Michael Lehnert, we're going to hear a little bit more from you in a moment, but I just want to now turn to someone who was imprisoned at Guantanamo. Moazzam Begg joins us from Birmingham, England. He spent two years as a detainee there from 2003 to 2005. Today, he's outreach director at the nonprofit group CAGE, which advocates for the rule of law.
MOAZZAM BEGG: Hello, Meghna, and thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: I actually want to start with the question that I ended the previous segment with, with General Lehnert. What is the one word you would use when you think about the fact that Guantanamo is still there today?
CHAKRABARTI: And your disbelief is informed by your personal experience there, so can you tell us about how you were first taken and why you were first taken to Guantanamo in 2003.
BEGG: Yeah. I had been held in the Bagram detention facility. Prior to that, I'd been captured or taken from my home in Pakistan in 2002. ... In front of my wife and children, I was abducted at gunpoint and taken hooded and shackled without any access to any legal recourse, without any uniformed or identified police officers taking me. And I was handed over shortly after that by Pakistani authorities to the U.S. military. And then taken to Kandahar, where I was processed like all the other prisoners. We were stripped naked, beaten and spat upon. Our photographs taken in this way, and then taken shivering naked into tents where I was interrogated by members of the FBI, by military intelligence, by CIA. And then held, as I said, in Kandahar for about six weeks, and then in Bagram for about 11 months before being sent to Guantanamo.
In Bagram, I saw two prisoners beaten to death by U.S. soldiers, including one who had his hands tied to the top of a cage and was repeatedly beaten and punched. I was subjected the sounds of a woman screaming in one of the cells that I was led to believe was my wife being tortured, while they waved pictures of my children in front of me. So by the end of being held in Bagram, in a situation atmosphere like that, I was actually looking forward to going to Guantanamo.
And I don't say that with any great relish. Because I understood that Guantanamo was a place where the law did not apply, and that had been chosen precisely because the law didn't apply there. But whatever movement was going to happen for me from Bagram, even if it meant Guantanamo, was going to be better. And so I woke up in Guantanamo in an 8-by-6-foot cell, after being drugged. Because the journey was so painful with my eyes, my ears, my face covered and shackled to a chair for almost 30 odd hours, I begged for a sedative. And so when I arrived in Guantanamo, I was in a daze. And what I remember is just literally being washed down with a hose and a sponge with a stick at the end of it. And then being taken off into this cell, which became my home for the next two years.
CHAKRABARTI: I suppose some listeners might be wondering why you were even taken into custody in Pakistan. If I understand correctly, Moazzam, you had been in Afghanistan with your wife in 2000, building a school. So you actually had been in Afghanistan, but in 2002 when you were arrested, you were back in Pakistan.
BEGG: Correct. Yes. So I'd gone in 2001 with my wife and my kids. We were continuing a project that I'd begun from the UK, to build a school in Kabul for girls. And it must be said this was at the time of the Taliban. So it's something that I wanted to be part of. And I remained there until the U.S. invasion and evacuated under those bombs and made it to Pakistan, took up residence there. And it was from there that I was kidnaped. The answer as to why me? There are two reasons. One is that the United States offered bounty money. They dropped like, as Donald Rumsfeld said, like snowflakes in December in Chicago, offering bounties of up to 5,000 dollars for each foreign person, which is what happened in a large number of cases. And the other part was false and flawed intelligence offered by British intelligence to the Americans to say that I was connected to Al Qaida, which I was not. But of course, that all became clear in Guantanamo after I was released.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, to be clear, there have been and are even to this day, some detainees at Guantanamo who do have and did have known ties to terrorist groups. But they were obviously not all of the detainees. But I don't want to put forth the notion that 100% of the people who were sent to Guantanamo had no ties to terrorism. Moazzam, you are one of those people who were innocent. So though, can you tell us more about how you were treated during your two years of imprisonment there?
BEGG: Well, the majority of my time was spent in Camp Echo, which was maximum-security solitary confinement, and it varied from place to place and time to time over years. So in the beginning, I was allowed out just for half an hour, three times a week. Completely otherwise, the rest of the time, 23.5 hours or 24 hours was spent entirely inside the cell. I was dealt with as somebody that's regarded as high value. So when I was taken out of my cell on the rare occasion and into what's known as the recreation yard, which is about 15-by-15-foot covered with chain link fence, there had to be an entire process of guards with guns, infantry patrols, the military working dog as they called it, all being called just because I was being taken out into this kind of recreation area.
Shortly after this, people started to realize, I think even those in charge, that this is a ridiculous process. Much of this was happening under the watch of General Jeffrey Miller. And for those who don't know, General Miller, he helped to implement the enhanced interrogation programs here, but then went on to what's known as to Guantanamo-ize the detention process in Abu Ghraib. And of course, those types of abuses now become world renowned. But for me, having spent the majority of my time in solitary confinement, I didn't get to mix with many of the other prisoners up until the last few months when I was put on in Papa Block. With people like, for example, Osama bin Laden's driver, Osama bin Laden's cook, Osama bin Laden's media man and a couple of others who all ended up except for one, going home despite their connection to bin Laden.
And so to answer the question about who was innocent and who was guilty really in any free society, it would be a law, a court of law that is transparent, that determines that. And after all, the United States has one of those systems built upon the system that was taken from the United Kingdom. If you look at Magna Carta and habeas corpus and all these things that have been mentioned. So it wasn't for lack of having a system, it was that the system was corrupt right from the beginning and remains that way with the military commissions process. After 20 years, not a single person has been convicted for the reason why Guantanamo was set up, and that was to catch those involved in perpetrating 9/11.
CHAKRABARTI: Moazzam, hang on here for just a second. Because I'd like to turn back to General Lehnert. General, you heard Moazzam talk about the enhanced interrogation techniques, as they were referred to in the Bush administration. I mean, subsequently, many people in the United States and internationally would just call it torture. You had mentioned earlier that you decided to stay within the rules of the Geneva Conventions. Does that mean that you were receiving pressure even in those first early months of Guantanamo being open? Were you receiving pressure from the Bush administration to engage in those enhanced interrogation techniques?
GEN. MICHAEL LEHNERT: I was receiving some pressure at that time. No, they had not yet developed the concept, I think fully or at least presented it to those who would be expected to execute it. I think the administration decided since I was going home just to wait me out, and that's what happened.
CHAKRABARTI: What are you thinking? What's going through your mind, general? As you heard Moazzam tell you, this is just like the surface of his story of his experience in Guantanamo.
LEHNERT: Yeah, I think about the lost opportunity that America had. After 9/11, we had both the sympathy and the cooperation of most of the international community, and we squandered it. You know, Moazzam mentioned the bounties that were being paid for so-called bad guys. I can't think of a worse way to figure out who actually is against us. And what we did was we actually gave, in my view, aid and comfort to the enemy by our own actions. You know, if the objective of terrorism is to change who we are as a nation, by any objective standard, they succeeded.
CHAKRABARTI: I actually don't know if the two of you, have you spoken together before?
LEHNERT: I believe there was one point where ... correct me if I am wrong, but I was giving a lecture at the university in the Puerto Rico. And I believe you came on at that time. Is that accurate or was it some other gentleman?
BEGG: I think that's right. And if I may, Meghna. I just want to say that last night I was sitting with somebody that Mike knows very well. And that person's name is Shaker Aamer, detainee 239. And he told me a story that really I found extremely moving, and one that I didn't know before. And that is that during the time that he was there with the early prisoners, Major General Mike Lehnert was, of course, in charge. He came and spoke to the prisoners and treated them with a great deal of decency. So the first thing Shaker said ... and some other prisoners I spoke to when I told them I'll be speaking with you today, was to say that please send him our warmest regards. Because we will never forget the way in which he treated us with great dignity and humanity. And Shaker related to me the story that Major General Mike came and announced to him or explained to him after he'd distributed sweets to all the other prisoners, Shaker asked prior to this, I'd like to know what has happened to my wife and children. Are they alive? Are they dead? Are they in prison? What's happening to them? And so he actually made a call to his family and brought back the news to Shaker that you have had a son born whilst you're in custody.
And on the occasion of this birth, he distributed sweets to all the prisoners before going to Shaker, sitting on the floor in the dust, taking off his hat and handing these sweets over and giving this news to him. This act Shaker has never forgotten. Many of the prisoners have never forgotten, and this act is one of the reasons, there are many others, that all the prisoners that do not hate the United States of America. And so I just wanted to convey that. And it's something that when I heard, I was moved almost to tears.
CHAKRABARTI: You know, Moazzam and General Lehnert, I have to say for me, as an American citizen, having both of you on together on this show, it feels surreal. Remarkable. You know, the man who under orders built this facility and a man who was imprisoned in it? And at the same time, I also am just imbued with the sense that we as a nation here in the United States, are definitely wanting to forget what has been going on there for 20 continuous years now. And so I just want to hear from both of you. And Moazzam, I'll start with you. What does it cost? What does it continue to cost the United States as the nation turns its back on Guantanamo, but keeps it open?
BEGG: You know, one of the first things I did when I came back from Guantanamo is I made an appeal to some hostage takers in Iraq who had dressed captives, Americans and Britons in orange jumpsuits and threatened to execute them. They did it using that kind of imagery of Guantanamo and the orange jumpsuits. The greatest irony I've seen at the moment is, again, I tried to make appeals to those ISIS hostage takers who captures British and American, again, journalists and aid workers and dressed them in orange jumpsuits, waterboarded them. Crucially, that's an important thing, and then executed them. Ironically, they're now being facing charges for war crimes and crimes in the United States, where they've been extradited to including waterboarding their captives. There are prisoners in Guantanamo still like Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who were waterboarded a multitude of times.
We've made films in Hollywood about them. There's award-winning films made by leading actors and actresses that portray what took place in the report to the torture report. And yet still, unbelievably, for these crimes, nobody's been held to account. The United States has admitted that these crimes took place. Guantanamo remains open. ... One of the things I would say is that it is a bipartisan project. Guantanamo has been overseen by Democrat and by Republican. It's been overseen by a Black president and white presidents. It's been overseen by East Coasters and West Coasters. And it is wholly American, as far as the rest of the world thinks. We, as the prisoners there, none of us, including me, the majority had never been to America. And the only thing we've ever seen of America was that display, whether it is in Bagram, Guantanamo or elsewhere. Of these American soldiers acting out what they've been told against us, that we are the worst of the worst. But what we saw was among the worst of the worst, and for that to be changed is going to require a generation.
CHAKRABARTI: General Lehnert, what is it costing the U.S.?
LEHNERT: I'll keep it short. It's cost us our moral authority as world leaders. Not just Guantanamo, but torture anywhere. Torture is wrong. You can't dress it up with words like enhanced interrogation techniques. And the information that we received from those interviews, as they like to say, was questionable at best. There's a possibility we received some information, but frankly, it was, How do you pick out the actionable intelligence that you receive from everything else that somebody will tell you just because they want the pain to stop?
From The Reading List
The Independent: "After 9/11, I was sent to Guantanamo Bay. The truth about the war on terror is unrelentingly grim" — "The most notable thing about the 20th anniversary of 11 September is that, following two decades of the longest law enforcement and intelligence operation in US history, not a single person has been successfully tried and convicted for taking part in the attacks."
New York Times: "20 Years Later, the Story Behind the Guantánamo Photo That Won’t Go Away" — "Four months to the day after the Sept. 11 attacks, a photographer hoisted a camera above shiny new razor wire and took a picture of 20 prisoners on their knees in orange uniforms, manacled, masked and heads bowed."
This program aired on February 2, 2022.