by Robert G. Gard
That memo advised that torturing al Qaeda terrorists in captivity abroad “may be justified” and that international laws against torture “may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations” conducted in the war on terrorism. The memo went so far as to claim that to qualify as torture, the pain or suffering inflicted on a victim “must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” Needless to say, this put the abuse at Abu Ghraib and allegations of similar conduct in other detention facilities, including Guantanamo Bay, in a much broader context.
Coincidentally, two days later, on 10 June 2004, I was surprised to receive an email from Peter Loge, Senior Vice President of M&R Strategic Services. In the mid to late 1990s, Peter had been associated with the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, the founder/manager of the international campaign to ban anti-personnel land mines. During part of the time, I was serving as the campaign’s senior military advisor. In his email message, Peter advised me that Human Rights First, formerly Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, planned to hold a press conference a week later.
The purpose of the press conference, Peter explained, was for Human Rights First to provide a background briefing on illegal and secret U.S.-operated detention facilities around the world and to announce a ten point campaign, called End Abuse, to urge reform of U.S. incarceration and interrogation policies. Human Rights First had asked Peter to find a second speaker, one with a military affiliation, who could provide information at the press conference “on military law, policy, and procedure for the detention and treatment of prisoners of war and others detained in the course of armed conflict.” Would I participate? Absolutely, and with great enthusiasm!
A week later, at noon on 17 June 2004, in the Zenger Room of the National Press Club, Deborah Pearlstein, the director of Human Rights First’s program on U.S. Law and Security, and I made opening statements and fielded questions. I made no effort to contain my outrage, especially regarding the Department of Justice memo, pointing out the obvious: its serious negative impact on the reputation of the United States and the implications for the security of our nation. This press conference began what was to become a close working relationship between Human Rights First and concerned members of the retired flag and general officer community.
Less than a month later, on 15 July 2004, Deborah Pearlstein and I co-signed an op-ed which dealt mainly, but not exclusively, with the secret detention facilities. Elisa Massimino, director of its Washington office, took charge of the Human Rights First campaign; and by the following September, she had coordinated a letter to President Bush, signed by eight of us “senior” retired officers, addressing a broad range of issues on incarceration and interrogation policies. Among the signatories were retired military lawyers, including Rear Admiral John D. Hutson, former Staff Judge Advocate of the U.S. Navy, who would play a key leadership role in the years ahead.
Elisa, who is deliberate and energetic, proved to be a brilliant campaign manager. She continued to recruit senior military retired officers and organized a variety of outreach initiatives too numerous to list. One of the signatories of a letter, dated 7 July 2006, that she sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee was retired Marine four-star General Joe Hoar, a highly respected former commander of the United States Central Command. Joe, then a lieutenant colonel, was one of my students when I first assumed the position of president of the National Defense University as a lieutenant general; we had become friends
Less than a year later, in the spring of 2007, Elisa established a program to invite presidential aspirants running in the primaries to meet with retired senior military officers on the subject of incarceration and interrogation policies. She prepared us in a workshop facilitated by Richard Danzig, a very thoughtful former Secretary of the Navy, to work through such difficult issues as the controversial “smoking gun” scenario. By then, she had co-opted former Marine Corps Commandant General Charles C. Krulak into the campaign. So we had as leaders two four-star Marine generals whose military expertise and experience, prestige, and patriotism were unquestionable.
We met in panels of about 20 retired officers with several of the candidates running for the nomination of the Democratic Party; no Republican candidate accepted our invitation. We had productive discussions with Senators Clinton, Biden, and Obama, among others. As we had hoped, each of them referred to detention and interrogation issues in their campaigns.
Following the election, our top military leaders met with members of the Obama transition team, including Greg Craig, now White House Counsel, and Eric Holder, now Attorney General. Assured that our now quite large group of retired flag and general officers would stand behind them, they prepared the executive orders on detention and interrogation for the President to sign shortly after assuming office.
Two days before the scheduled signing of the executive orders, Human Rights First sent out an invitation to members of the retired military team to gather for a group trip to the White House. Sixteen of us attended, including Council for a Livable World board member Brig. Gen. John Johns. After passing through security, we assembled around a conference table in the Roosevelt Room, adjacent to the Oval Office. Greg Craig entered first, warmly greeting us individually. I had spent an evening at his home years ago, and he recalled that I had succeeded his father as president of the Monterey Institute of International Studies in 1987. So he jokingly referred to me as “Mr. President” during the informal prelude to the main event.
We learned that we were in place in the Roosevelt Room an hour before the scheduled time for the President to arrive. But rather than keeping us waiting, the President and Vice President joined us about 45 minutes prior to the time scheduled for our meeting. They both circulated around the room, exchanging remarks with each of us. I said to the President that with all the pressing and serious problems he had inherited, issuing executive orders on detention and interrogation on his second day in office would send an important message world-wide that the United States is on track to regain the moral high ground.
We then sat down at the conference table, and the President thanked us for our support. During the subsequent discussion, he noted that if a terrorist attack occurred subsequently on U.S. soil, there would be accusations that the administration had not been sufficiently aggressive in employing harsh interrogation techniques to obtain the information to preclude it. We assured him that we would be pro-active in standing behind his executive orders in the knowledge that torture does not produce reliable intelligence.
We then went into the Oval Office to observe the announcements to the press and the signing of the executive orders. The closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year received the most publicity; but at least equally important were directions to all agencies of our government to comply with the Geneva Conventions and the Army field manual in conducting interrogations; to abstain from establishing secret detention and interrogation facilities; to permit the International Committee of the Red Cross access to any detainees held by the United States; and to consolidate information on, and dispose of, cases of the detainees held at Guantanamo.
Following the signing, we posed for another photo behind the President sitting at his desk, which was later sent to us by the White House along with selected photos of us with the President in the Roosevelt Room. The President and Vice President chatted informally with us as we made our way slowly out of the Oval Office. While it undoubtedly was an exaggeration, the Vice President told a few of us that he and the President had agreed that their discussions with our group were the most meaningful they had experienced during the campaign.
We had spent almost an hour with the President and Vice President. It was a great experience and a “great leap forward” for the country and for those of us retired military who had been advocating for years for legal and proper detention and interrogation policies.