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The End of Guantanamo?; Iranian-Born Singer Is a Star in Israel; Imagine a World

Aired December 20, 2013 - 17:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to special weekend edition of our program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

First up, the prison at Guantanamo Bay. After years of broken promises, it may finally be on its way to closure. A bill right now heading to President Obama's desk will make it easier to transfer prisoners to their own countries in the last couple of weeks at least six detainees have been sent home. Now there are 158 still waiting, which is down from more than 700 at its peak.

President Obama promised to close this prison in his first term but it never happened. And the place remains a source of hatred for America. But because of a hunger strike this year by more than 100 prisoners, Obama kicked this issue into high gear again.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive. It is in efficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.


AMANPOUR: And the new bill means that even Congress is beginning to see reason now, not least because of the money involved in running the place.

Guantanamo is the most expensive prison on Earth. It costs the U.S. taxpayer more than $2.5 million per prisoner every year.

One of the most important voices on this issue is that of United States Marine Corps General Michael Lehnert, who ran Guantanamo when it first opened in 2002. This week I asked him, what are the chances of it being closed and what are his reasons for speaking out right now?


AMANPOUR: Major General, welcome to the program. Thank you for joining me.

MAJOR GENERAL MICHAEL R. LEHNERT, USMC (RET.): Thank you. It's good to be here.

AMANPOUR: It seems, if we can put it this way, that for the first time since Guantanamo was opened, it looks like Congress is moving towards making it easier to transfer these detainees.

Why is that happening now?

LEHNERT: Well, I think it's a combination of events.

First, we are beginning to see the possibility of a cessation of direct combat action for U.S. military forces in Afghanistan.

Secondly, we're into the second administration for the Obama administration, and as you'll recall, the president made the commitment to close Guantanamo.

So I think he's concerned about his legacy.

And finally, we're seeing bipartisan support.

So it looks right now that we have probably our best chance in a decade to close Guantanamo.

AMANPOUR: I want to play you a bit of an interview that I did with Carlos Warner, who's a public defender and has been defending several people, 11 of them, including a Kuwaiti who has lost more than 30 pounds in recent weeks.

And this, of course, is because of that incredible hunger strike.


CARLOS WARNER, PUBLIC DEFENDER: It leaves them in indefinite detention for life; it leaves them with the prospect of the only way we leave Guantanamo is death. And unfortunately, I think the men are ready to embrace this.


AMANPOUR: What is your reaction to what this public defender is saying?

And even if some of these detainees are now transferred, does that mean all of them are? Are they all going to leave Guantanamo?

LEHNERT: Well, the language that Senator Levin crafted would have them all leaving Guantanamo, either those that were cleared for release to go back to their country of origin.

And then there's approximately 80 others that have not been cleared for release, that would face federal prosecution or even detention in the United States. But at least we would be moving the process forward.

My specific reaction to the public defender is that I tend to agree with him. We need to move forward; we need to say that the Constitution doesn't stop at our water's edge and that we need to close Guantanamo.

AMANPOUR: Well, to that end, about the Constitution, I'd like to play you another bit of an interview that I did, this time with Col. Morris Davis, who was one of the chief prosecutors at Guantanamo.

This is what he had to say, precisely, about the Constitution.


COL. MORRIS DAVIS, FORMER CHIEF PROSECUTOR, GUANTANAMO BAY: Just to continue this charade of keeping Guantanamo open, on this pretense that it's necessary to keep the country safe, is a false narrative.

So we used to be the land of the free and the home of the brave. We've been the constrained and the cowardly, and we need to act like Americans and lead by example.


LEHNERT: Well, Christiane, my reaction is, bully for him. I think he's exactly right.

You know, the objective of terrorism is to change the nature of their adversary. And it's to make us different and it's to make us afraid.

And I would opine that they've been successful. They've changed the way we've acted; they've caused us to walk away from the Constitution and they've caused us to act as if we were afraid.

We are not saying that releasing the detainees that have been cleared for release is going to result in zero risk. But we do believe that that risk can be managed.

And we also believe that the fact that the Constitution, those aspirational goals contained in the U.S. Constitution, and in the Declaration of Independence, trump any particular risk that we might incur.

AMANPOUR: You're talking about the recidivism rate, the possibilities that some of these people might go out and harm Americans or others.

Tell me how you think that you can allay people's fears on that score.

LEHNERT: Well, Christiane, we have the best military in the world. We have very clear biometrics on these individuals.

And we have an opportunity to let them know before they are released - - and these are the individuals that have already been cleared for release, I might add -- we have the opportunity to let them know that if they decide to revert back to their old ways, then we're going to find them.

And our military is good enough to do that. And we believe that the things that we stand for, as the military, and the risks that we have taken as a military really were in defense of the Constitution of the United States and that the Constitution trumps any particular risk that we may incur.

AMANPOUR: So let me ask you about your experience, because you went there. You were there for the first 100 days, I believe, to run the place.

When Guantanamo Bay was set up as a prison, did you think that we'd be in this situation, where neither national security is being served anymore nor is America's moral leadership being served anymore?

LEHNERT: No, initially I didn't think that that would be the case. I frankly thought that Guantanamo would be a short-term event.

But as I was down there, by about the second month, I realized that we were going to be in for the long haul. I also began to recognize that many of the individuals that had been sent to me probably never should have been sent there in the first place.

AMANPOUR: What did keeping these people for such a long time -- the whole nature of Guantanamo Bay is a real black stain against everything that America stands for.

What did that do to the soul of the military who was tasked with keeping these people prisoner?

LEHNERT: Well, I think that's a great question because my personal view is that the act of holding another person prisoner -- often a very necessary act -- is also a soul-deadening event for the -- for the jailer.

It's always important to remind these young people who have been tasked with this responsibility -- and who, for the most part, did a pretty darn good job, it's important to remind them that they are locking up human beings.

And that was one of the reasons why I made a personal commitment that I would be guided by and would follow the Geneva Conventions, because I felt that it was a very good and sound document that would allow us to at least have a road map for how we would operate.

AMANPOUR: Well, General, you may have been the only one, then, because if you remember, famously, your commander, your civilian boss, Rumsfeld there, Donald Rumsfeld, pooh-poohed the Geneva Conventions and said they did not apply to Guantanamo.

Was he wrong?

LEHNERT: Well, I would say that -- and history's going to judge whether or not he was wrong. And I would say that I was given the authority at the time to -- because there really wasn't much other policy - - to apply the Geneva Conventions. And I made that personal decision to do so.

AMANPOUR: And finally, I hear what you're saying, about all the practical reasons why Guantanamo should be shut down and people should be transferred or tried elsewhere.

But the truth of the matter is, that it's not really the moral case that's being decisive right now, is it? It's the monetary case. It looks like Congress has suddenly woken up and noticed that it's costing $2.7 million a year per prisoner in Guantanamo Bay.

LEHNERT: That's absolutely correct. Regardless of whether the individual has been cleared for release or not, the American taxpayers are paying $2.7 million per prisoner per annum.

Now to juxtapose that, a supermax prison in the United States costs, at the high end, $78,000 per prisoner.

AMANPOUR: So would you say the monetary aspect is what's, let's say, concentrating the minds of Congress right now, to say, OK, you know, we've been obstructing closing it down and now we're going to have to figure out a way to close it down?

LEHNERT: Well, Congress is made up of individuals. And different congress men and women are motivated by different things.

For some, it's the money. And for some, it's the moral issue.

Personally, I don't care what motivates them as long as it motivates them to move towards closure of Guantanamo.

AMANPOUR: General Lehnert, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

LEHNERT: Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk to you today.


AMANPOUR: And while Guantanamo is not only a barbed wire barrier to its prisoners, it also holds America's reputation hostage around the world.

After a break, we'll meet an artist with one foot in Iran and the other foot in Israel, who sees no barriers at all. A voice without borders, when we come back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. And turning now to a story of cultural bridge building in the world's most tumultuous region, Rita Jahanforuz was born in Iran but has been one of Israel's most popular singers for nearly three decades.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): She's known to her fans simply as Rita, and took many of them by surprise when, last year, she released an album of songs sung entirely in her mother tongue, Persian. But far from being shunned by Israelis, it went gold in just three weeks. And in Iran, where Western music is officially banned, Rita's album is reportedly quite popular.

I spoke to her here in the London studio earlier this week about what it's like to be such a cultural icon between two countries where there is no love lost.


AMANPOUR: Rita Jahanforuz, thank you for being here. Welcome to the show.

RITA JAHANFORUZ, ISRAELI POP SINGER AND ACTRESS: Thank you for having me. Thank you very much.

AMANPOUR: An Israeli singing Persian music: that is a long and complicated story.

How did it begin?

JAHANFORUZ: OK. I was 8 years old when I left Iran with my family to Israel. My parents told us not to tell that we were Jewish there, even though there wasn't any problems, you know. The relationship with the Jews and with the Israelis was amazing --


AMANPOUR: This was back in the '70s, before the Islamic Revolution.


AMANPOUR: How was it? You arrived speaking only Persian. It was -- was it easy to (INAUDIBLE) assimilate?


JAHANFORUZ: No. Not at all. It -- first, it is completely different culture, completely different; while the Iranian mentality is cover, layers by layers, revealing some but keeping most hidden, the Israeli mentality is very open and free and cheeky and immediate.

So I was in shock when I went to the school. I thought they were all crazy because they were so free.

AMANPOUR: But you became a sensation, obviously not in Persian but in Hebrew. You started singing and you became very popular and very famous in Israel as a singer.

How did that happen?

JAHANFORUZ: Oh, well, it was my dream to be a singer. I worked really hard. I really learned and trained myself. Overnight, what happened, that all nation of the Israel embraced me. It is -- it's still, after 26 years, I'm really in shock of the love, of the acceptness (sic) --

AMANPOUR: Acceptance that you got?


AMANPOUR: You've become a sensation in Israel over many years now. Your Hebrew albums have gone to the top. And you've even caught the eye of the top, top-level politicians; you've sung for foreign dignitaries. You've sung the national anthem at special state celebrations in Israel.

But the relationship between Israel and Iran is not great.

So how does it make you feel to do that?

JAHANFORUZ: I just have to say something very important. There is no quarrel between the Iranian and the Israelis, between the people. You know, it's between the government or the leaders or something like that.

I'm very Iranian. And I'm very Israeli. And with my existence, I can show that everything can intertwine with each other, amazingly.


AMANPOUR: So how is your music viewed inside Iran? Because obviously, as you know, Western music is prohibited; you can't even have concerts or anything like that, except for formal, traditional Persian music.

JAHANFORUZ: I didn't know that my Persian album is really -- that the Iranians, they really hear that and they sell it in the Iranian black market. And it is a hit. I started to get a lot of emails, a lot of amazing, -- really the most exciting emails I got from the Iranians.

AMANPOUR: What do they say?

JAHANFORUZ: "We thank you very much for showing the true colors of our culture to the world," or the cutest one, he wrote me, "Rita, you know I want to see your concerts so much that even the punishment will be three years' jail and 70 whiplashes. I would still rather to try to come to your concert."

AMANPOUR: Do you think you'll ever get to do a concert in Persia, in Iran?

JAHANFORUZ: I believe, I believe so.

They say, "Throw your heart forward and go and fetch it."

AMANPOUR: You started singing by having a band when you were in the army as a --


AMANPOUR: -- doing your national service.

JAHANFORUZ: Yes, right.

AMANPOUR: And then you had a lot of success with your Hebrew albums. And eventually now you've decided to do one in Persian.

And why?

JAHANFORUZ: There are a lot of reasons, I believe. I believe that you get in some age that you are much more connected with yourself.

I got divorced five years ago and I died and I reborned (sic) I think much more stronger person, stronger woman. And I felt suddenly that I have to record the soundtracks of my family life and my life.

You know, one of my first memories is my mother sitting on the carpet, you know, stretching her legs forward, placing a pillow on her legs and me on the pillow in front of her.

She used to rock me, sing lullabyes and you know, cleaning the rice -- a multitask woman.


JAHANFORUZ: So this is -- you know, I had to do it. I --

AMANPOUR: Eventually you had to do it.

JAHANFORUZ: I had to do it.

AMANPOUR: Are you familiar with the "I love Iran" Israeli campaign?

JAHANFORUZ: Of course. Of course. I --

AMANPOUR: It goes back and forth. The Iranians do it; the Israelis do it.

JAHANFORUZ: And that's what I want to do. I want to continue.

AMANPOUR: So what do you think is important about what they're doing and what you're doing?

JAHANFORUZ: We're talking people to people. You know, there is a wall between us. And as much as we will make scratches and holes, little holes, we, the people, we take -- we take -- we will be in charge on our lives and our destiny. And we'll do that, I think, as much as we will understand that we don't have any quarrel.

AMANPOUR: Rita, thank you very much indeed.

JAHANFORUZ: Thank you very much.

AMANPOUR: And now I'd like to ask you to sing one of your songs from your Persian album.





AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, as the 158 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay prison vividly demonstrate, even the oldest continuous democracy, the United States, still struggles to balance freedom and security.

Now imagine one of the world's newest democracies seeking to create a model of liberty and justice for all.

People took to the streets in Tunisia this week to commemorate the third anniversary of the start of the Arab Spring, which began when a 26- year-old street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest political repression and his own personal economic hardships under the autocratic regime that had ruled Tunisia for decades.

However, this wasn't just a celebration. Calling it a day of rage, the demonstrators were also expressing frustration at continued high unemployment and political gridlock, which has sometimes taken a violent turn between the democratically elected Islamist government and the secular opposition.

Perhaps, though, the politicians are listening. This past weekend, both sides reached a deal to establish an interim independent government until new elections are held next year.

Meanwhile, Egypt and Libya continue to ride their rocky roads to stable democracy and Syrians never had a chance. They are still engulfed in the flames of a war that continues without end.

That's it for the weekend edition of our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website,, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for watching and goodbye from London.

And that's it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website,, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.