By Claudia Parsons
NEW YORK, March 11 (Reuters) - For many, the U.S. military prison at the Guantanamo Bay naval base is a by-word for injustice, but a new book about its inception contends that it was not always that way.
"The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days," to be published on Thursday, tells how a handful of U.S. Marines led by commanding officer Brigadier-General Michael Lehnert tried in 2002 to uphold the Geneva Conventions, despite Pentagon efforts to ensure a state of legal limbo for inmates.
"They were heroes by virtue of just being regular guys who followed the law," said author Karen Greenberg.
The book examines how Guantanamo was hastily chosen as a site to hold detainees from the war in Afghanistan who were portrayed to the guards as "the worst of the worst," dangerous al Qaeda militants responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Lacking guidance on their status or even their identities, Lehnert resisted pressure to treat the detainees as animals, going against his superiors to invite the International Committee of the Red Cross to the facility and bringing in a Muslim military chaplain.
The book says Lehnert came into conflict with a cadre of Army officers handpicked by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. They favored a policy of dehumanizing the detainees as a means to gather intelligence from them.
After just 100 days, Lehnert was sidelined and, the book argues, the ground was laid for what Greenberg calls a "train wreck" -- abuse and torture that has been denounced by human rights groups and many governments.
Seeking to discern the source of problems, Greenberg -- head of the Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law -- interviewed a range of people who had been at Guantanamo, from guards to officers and even former detainees.
"They were willing to talk because they knew that I was telling a story that would make it so their children would understand what happened," she said of the U.S. military personnel. "Guantanamo has such a distasteful feel to it."
After months interviewing Americans, Greenberg went to find former detainees in Britain, suspecting that they would contradict the story that was taking shape.
She was particularly interested in how Lehnert handled a hunger strike by dozens of inmates.
"When I talked to the detainees about it, they not only corroborated the story, but they went further," she said.
"They talked about (Lehnert) sitting down on the ground and crying. It made a huge impact on these guys, how distraught he was, because it so violated his sense of what he was trying to achieve," she said.
Another surprise, she said, was that the guards and the detainees both said they recognized themselves in each other.
"(They were) troubled kids who were kind of lost in their late teens and early 20s, who weren't quite sure how they were going to make it in the world and who joined a cause in order to have a life they could be proud of," she said.
Greenberg said she deliberately focused not on the abuse at Guantanamo, but what led to it, as a warning for the future.
"The Pentagon summarily said professionals don't belong here," she said. "By professionals, they meant the lawyers and those who followed military protocols."
"As long as you had somebody in there who insisted on nothing more than professionalism, you were safe, and the Pentagon figured that out," Greenberg said. "That's the moral of the story -- good leaders make for livable situations and bad leaders can make for horrific circumstances."
U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to shut Guantanamo within a year. Greenberg is frustrated by that delay, but said she understands the needs to figure of what to do with the remaining 241 detainees before closing the prison.
Her biggest fear is that the U.S. military prison at Bagram in Afghanistan will become a "dumping ground for detainees from the war on terror, including people from Guantanamo that we don't know what to do with."
(Editing by Patricia Zengerle)