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The Generals vs. The Cheneys

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“I came to the conclusion very soon that this probably wasn’t the right way to go. Probably before I left Guantanamo, I was of the opinion it needed to go away as soon as possible. I think we lost the moral high ground.” These are the words of Marine Major General Michael Lehnert, the man who, as it turns out, built the special prison at Guantánamo, delivered in an interview last week just before his retirement. Lehnert is hardly an outlier among the brass on this issue. Increasingly, senior retired military leaders are speaking out against former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter, Liz, for their fact-free fear-mongering about Gitmo. At a forum on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, a group of more than two dozen retired generals and admirals took on Cheney’s claim that Gitmo should be kept open, and some had harsh words for the former defense secretary. They also had a simple message to President Obama: Stick to your guns and shut down Gitmo as quickly as possible.

“It appears to us that a campaign to ratchet up fear has taken off,” John D. Hutson, a retired Navy rear admiral and former judge advocate general, said ahead of the forum, which was organized by Human Rights First, a New York-based advocacy group. Added Hutson: “We believe the people going to be prosecuted are not warriors. They are criminals and thugs. . . . We ought to be using the criminal justice system.” The Obama administration has been reviewing the files of the 223 detainees who remain at Guantanamo Bay, but Congress is weighing amendments to legislation that would block transferring any of them to the United States for trial. Various administration officials have hinted that they may not be able to make their own January deadline for the facility’s closure.

Hutson was particularly dismissive of the bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill toward closing the military prison. “We’re trying to encourage more responsible leadership on this issue,” he said. “But some don’t want to hear it. They seem more comfortable with the politics of fear.”

The Cheney thesis that moving Gitmo prisoners to maximum security facilities in the United States, from which no one has ever escaped, would put the country at risk, is a real test of the capacity of the American media to absorb idiocies. It also serves to highlight the spinelessness of many Democrats on Capitol Hill, who quake in the face of such absurdities when they should be laughing.

The generals are right on another point: the Obama administration should move swiftly to bring criminal charges against those who committed serious crimes, prove their cases, and secure convictions. On this point at least the Obama Team seems to be paying attention. As Karen Greenberg and Francesca Laguardia note, they are in fact securing convictions in cases that languished during the Bush years. All this supports the conclusion that for the Bushies, holding prisoners without charges in Gitmo was all about domestic politics and political crowd control. Real national security concerns played little role in their calculus, and justice none whatsoever.

Watch former Defense Intelligence Agency head General Harry Soyster and former Navy Judge Advocate General John Hutson discuss the issue with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews:

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