Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Alberto Mora's Stand Against Torture

Alberto Mora provides a splendid op-ed for The Washington Post today entitled ”An Affront To American Values.” The Post explains that Mora, “who retired as Navy general counsel last year, wrote a memo to Pentagon officials two years before the Abu Ghraib scandal that warned against circumventing international agreements on torture and detainee treatment. This article is excerpted from remarks he made upon receiving a 2006 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.”

Mora’s full remarks can be read here. The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s write-up of him can be read here. Christy Hardin Smith of Firedoglake posted on the Profiles in Courage Awards here, quoting Ted Kennedy’s speech about Mora and the other recipient this year, Democratic Congressman John Murtha.

Mora first became known to the wider public thanks to Jane Mayer’s excellent 2/20/06 article “The Memo” for The New Yorker. Mayer’s article online now allows readers to download Mora’s 22-page memo about torture and the treatment of prisoners. Mora is one of many career professionals in the government who stood up against what he saw as the abuse of the law and a violation of core American values. Mayer quotes more than one colleague that remarks on Mora’s “intellectual courage” and “personal integrity.” A conservative Republican, Mora is not of the partisan “My President right-or-wrong” school, but of the rule of law, civil rights, protect-the-Constitution school. We need more like him. As Mayer describes him:

Mora was a well-liked and successful figure at the Pentagon. Born in Boston in 1952, he is the son of a Hungarian mother, Klara, and a Cuban father, Lidio, both of whom left behind Communist regimes for America. Klara’s father, who had been a lawyer in Hungary, joined her in exile just before the Soviet Union took control. From the time Alberto was a small boy, Klara Mora told me, he heard from his grandfather the message that “the law is sacred.” For the Moras, injustice and abuse were not merely theoretical concepts. One of Mora’s great-uncles had been interned in a Nazi concentration camp, and another was hanged after having been tortured. Mora’s first memory, as a young child, is of playing on the floor in his mother’s bedroom, and watching her crying as she listened to a report on the radio declaring that the 1956 anti-Communist uprising in Hungary had been crushed. “People who went through things like this tend to have very strong views about the rule of law, totalitarianism, and America,” Mora said.

Mayer’s article is essential reading if you missed it before (or all of the subsequent articles on Mora from other publications). Important battle lines were drawn, not always with Mora’s knowledge, between competing forces in the government. Needless to say, his conscience and scholarship were not welcomed by all parties. Mora discussed at length these issues of torture with William Haynes, the Pentagon’s general counsel, but:

In confronting Haynes, Mora was engaging not just the Pentagon but also the Vice-President’s office. Haynes is a protégé of Cheney’s influential chief of staff, David Addington.

A must-read profile of Addington recently appeared in U.S. News and World Report (I’ll be doing a separate post on Addington soon, I hope.) The conflicts of Cheney, Rumsfeld and their allies against Powell and the State Department are well-documented by now. Mora was not alone in his battles, but he was now going up against a powerful machine:

Lawrence Wilkerson, whom Powell assigned to monitor this unorthodox policymaking process, told NPR last fall of “an audit trail that ran from the Vice-President’s office and the Secretary of Defense down through the commanders in the field.” When I spoke to him recently, he said, “I saw what was discussed. I saw it in spades. From Addington to the other lawyers at the White House. They said the President of the United States can do what he damn well pleases. People were arguing for a new interpretation of the Constitution. It negates Article One, Section Eight, that lays out all of the powers of Congress, including the right to declare war, raise militias, make laws, and oversee the common defense of the nation.” Cheney’s view, Wilkerson suggested, was fuelled by his desire to achieve a state of “perfect security.” He said, “I can’t fault the man for wanting to keep America safe, but he’ll corrupt the whole country to save it.” (Wilkerson left the State Department with Powell, in January, 2005.)

It’s particularly troubling that Haynes told Mora that:

Rumsfeld was suspending his authorization of the disputed interrogation techniques. The Defense Secretary also was authorizing a special “working group” of a few dozen lawyers, from all branches of the armed services, including Mora, to develop new interrogation guidelines.

Mora, elated, went home to his wife and son, with whom he had felt bound not to discuss his battle. He and the other lawyers in the working group began to meet and debated the constitutionality and effectiveness of various interrogation techniques. He felt, he later told me, that “no one would ever learn about the best thing I’d ever done in my life.”

It was a cruel move by Haynes, because as the article goes on to show, he outright lied to Mora. While Mora and other government lawyers worked hard to craft effective and ethical detention guidelines, Haynes, working with figures such as Addington and John Yoo, labored to codify a policy of torture. Rather than addressing Mora's crucial concerns, Haynes and his faction increasingly him cut out of the loop. The Rumsfeld-Cheney “cabal,” as Wilkerson calls them (more here and here), effectively did an end-run around Mora, the military code of conduct, and the Constitution.

It’s impossible to avoid the fact that the Bush administration is not ignorant of the mistakes they have made. But they do not view them as mistakes, or at the very least did not at the time. Whether it comes to the 4th Amendment, judicial review, and the illegal NSA eavesdropping program — or using discredited reports of Nigerian uranium sales to sell the case for war — or disregarding plans for the reconstruction of Iraq — or pushing for a policy of torture — they have been warned of the dangers and proceeded anyway. The Bush administration has not been given solely bad counsel. It has ignored, suppressed, and aggressively attacked good counsel. Given the ongoing disastrous consequences, “hubris” is just too tame a word.

Edmund Burke famously stated that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Alberto Mora deserves praise as a good man who followed his conscience out of respect for the law and essential American principles. But right now, we need many more good men and women in Washington.

(On the related subject of torture, Jane Mayer also wrote “The Experiment,” which appeared online for The New Yorker on 7/4/05.)

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