CAMP PENDLETON — In late 2001, when the Pentagon decided to put detainees at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the task of setting up a camp and establishing its rules went to Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert.
Lehnert planned to rely on what he learned while running a camp at Guantanamo in the mid-1990s for nearly 19,000 Cubans and Haitians trying to flee to the United States.
And he was determined to follow the spirit, if not the letter, of the Geneva Convention, providing decent food, banning extreme interrogation and allowing religious services. He brought in a Muslim chaplain and permitted visits by the Red Cross.
When detainees went on a hunger strike, he spoke to them, even allowing one to get a phone message from his wife in Afghanistan.
But in the bureaucratic jostling that followed, Lehnert's approach was supplanted by that of a hard-nosed Army general.
Initially assigned to the project for 60 days, Lehnert stayed for 90 and then returned to the U.S. In the intervening seven-plus years, he has held several key jobs, been promoted to major general and kept a public silence about the controversy that has enveloped Guantanamo.
On Thursday, as the 58-year-old officer prepared to retire after 36 years in the Marine Corps, he expressed his deep disappointment about what happened at Guantanamo after he left.
"I think we lost the moral high ground," Lehnert said. "For those who do not think much of the moral high ground, that is not that significant.
"But for those who think our standing in the international community is important, we need to stand for American values. You have to walk the walk, talk the talk."
In her recent book, "The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days," Karen Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security at New York University's School of Law, suggests that history would have been much different if Lehnert's approach had prevailed.
"Certainly the reputation of the United States would not have been damaged as it has been by the unabashed pushing aside of law," she wrote.
As outlined by Greenberg, one of the biggest differences between Lehnert and his successors at Guantanamo was over the use of harsh interrogation techniques.
"I think you need to step back and say, 'As a country, is this something we want to do?' " Lehnert said.
When tapped for the Guantanamo job, he said, he had few direct orders on how to handle prisoners who were not members of a foreign military force but nevertheless suspected of crimes against the U.S.
"Once they were out of the fight, I felt we had a moral responsibility to care for them in a humane fashion," Lehnert said. "I think it's extremely important how we treat prisoners."
Lehnert recalled talking to young Marines who thought the detainees were being treated too well.
"They said, 'They wouldn't treat us this way,' " Lehnert said. "I said 'You're correct, and that is entirely irrelevant. If we treat them that way [as they might treat U.S. prisoners], then we become them.' "
Shortly after leaving Guantanamo, Lehnert said he concluded that the detention center should be shut down as soon as possible, a position that he holds more strongly now.
"I think we should close it down," he said. "I think the information we're getting is not worth the international beating we're taking."
During the assault on Baghdad in 2003, Lehnert led the logistics movement, making sure front-line troops had the gear needed to keep advancing.
For the last four years he's been the commanding general of Marine Corps Installations West, overseeing hundreds of millions of dollars of construction on seven West Coast bases and handling delicate issues about preservation of endangered species. His successor is set to arrive next week.
Lehnert and his wife plan to retire in their native Michigan, not that far from the prison at Standish, which is in the running to take some of the Guantanamo detainees once the detention facility is closed, as is planned to occur in the coming months.
"I think they're following me," Lehnert said with a smile.