Twelve years ago, U.S. troops shuffled 20 men in chains and orange jumpsuits off a cargo plane at Guantánamo — dubbed “the worst of the worst” of America’s captives in the nascent war on terror — to launch an experiment in interrogation and detention unbounded by geography or the U.S. courts.
No one knew what would become of them. Not the U.S. military. Not President George W. Bush. Not them. Nine of them are gone now. The rest includes three men who are cleared to go, committed hunger strikers, three Taliban and a war criminal serving a life sentence on a questionable conspiracy conviction for peddling al-Qaida propaganda.
And with the wisdom of hindsight and a dozen years, one thing is clear: Not only were those men photographed kneeling in a cage not fanatical terrorists, “the worst of the worst” were yet to come.
“Some of these people that were in there shouldn’t have been sent to Guantánamo,” said retired Marine Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, who as a young brigadier opened the prison camps on Jan. 11, 2002 and ran the operation for the next three months. “Others were just in the wrong place in the wrong time or had been caught lying about something else and they figured they were lying about a great deal more.
“Some of them were fighters, probably on a low level,” said Lehnert, now 62. “Some of them were never fighters at all. They were the flotsam and jetsam of the war.”