Standing just behind President Obama in the Oval Office, I watched last week as the new President signed his name to three Executive Orders that will put our country in a stronger position to fight Al Qaeda.
I was one of 16 retired Generals and Admirals the White House invited to a signing ceremony of orders that ban torture, close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and end the CIA’s use of secret prisons.
Just before the signing ceremony, sitting in the Roosevelt Room, our group spoke to President Obama and Vice President Biden about the impact his action would have on national security. The President spoke – without notes – for several minutes about why he thought that signing these orders was the right thing to do.
As Rear Admiral John Hutson told the New York Times afterwards, “President Obama gets it.” He had an impressive understanding of the nuance and arguments (on both sides) relating to interrogation policy.
He noted that he would be criticized if the United States faced another terrorist attack. Yet, he said he was convinced that a clear anti-torture policy would make us safer. General Paul Kern – a four-star General who co-led an investigation into abuses at Abu Ghraib – told the President that our group of Generals and Admirals was there to support him precisely because humane interrogation tactics will put us in a stronger position to achieve our national security objectives.
When I first learned of the abuses at Abu Ghraib I never thought it would take a new administration and several executive orders to put a stop to practices that were so obviously wrong and not in the United States’ interest.
In 2004, I started to talk to other military officers about abuses – not just at Abu Ghraib but in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and other parts of Iraq too. The officers I spoke to were universally opposed to the use of Gestapo tactics to get detainees to talk.
History has shown repeatedly that torture does not work. It produces poor information; it weakens the morale of the forces that employ it; and it turns local populations against you.
Though we were united in our opposition, we did not have a forum to express our concerns.
In December of 2004, Human Rights First, a New York City-based human rights group, organized an extraordinary, closed-door meeting of retired Generals and Admirals to discuss the use of torture. The meeting brought together dozens of retired officers including a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, four star generals and other prominent military leaders.
In my 27-year career, I had only met once with another four-star General. Now I was sitting in a room with several of them and all of us were opposed to the use of torture.
In the years that followed we worked with Human Rights First, lobbying the administration and Congress. We expanded our group as we encountered more and more Generals and Admirals who were willing to be outspoken about the need to ban torture.
During the 2008 Presidential primaries we offered to meet with every candidate for an off-the-record discussion of the issue. When we met with Senator Biden, he joked, “as someone who lived through the 60’s I never thought I would see the day when a group of Generals was working closely with a human rights group!”
On the day of the signing of the Executive Orders, Vice President Biden told us that both he and the President had discussed the meetings they had with our group and concluded that they were among the most “memorable” and “important” meetings of the primary campaign.
Just before we left the Roosevelt Room – where the long oval shaped table is shiny but pock-marked from the nervous scratching of generations of White House staffers – President Obama spoke to us about the awesome responsibility he felt as Commander-in-Chief in making decisions that could affect the lives of millions of Americans. General Kern told him that as military officers we understood what it was like to have to make decisions when lives hung in the balance.
We walked a few feet from the windowless Roosevelt Room to the Oval Office where the President sat down behind his desk as the press was ushered into the room. As the press snapped pictures and cameras rolled, the President explained to the press who we were.
“The individuals who are standing behind me represent flag officers who came to both Joe and myself, and all the candidates, and made a passionate plea that we restore the standards of due process and the core constitutional values that have made this country great, even in the midst of war, even in dealing with terrorism,” the President said. “They’ve made an extraordinary impression on me. They are outstanding Americans, who have fought and defended this country, and for them to fight on behalf of our constitutional ideals and values, I think, is exceptional, so I wanted to make sure that they were here to witness the signing of this executive order.”
He took out his pen, signed the document before him and said, “there you go.” Like that the President undid some of the worst excesses of the Bush administration.
There will be grumblings in some quarters but I, like so many of my fellow military officers, am confident that the move will help restore the United States stature in the world. And I am certain this day will be remembered as a turning point in the struggle with Al Qaeda.
I am proud to have been there.
James P. Cullen is a retired Brigadier General in the United States Army Reserve Judge Advocate General’s Corps and last served as the Chief Judge (IMA) of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals. He currently practices law in New York City.