On January 22, President Obama’s second day in office, Council for a Livable World board member Brig. Gen. John Johns, along with Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, the chairman of our sister organization the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, stood behind the President in the Oval Office when he signed executive orders related to the incarceration, interrogation, and treatment of detainees. Both Gen. Johns and Gen. Gard wrote about what it was like to be in the Oval Office, and how they came to be activists against the Bush administration’s torture policies.
From Brig. Gen. Johns John (USA, ret.):
On January 22, 2009, I – along with Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, the Center’s chairman – was among 16 generals and admirals of the U.S. Armed Forces who were invited to attend a signing ceremony in the Oval Office, where President Obama signed three directives and a memo addressing policies on torture and the detention center at Guantanamo. Gen. Gard and I have been members of a group of retired flag officers who met at various times with presidential candidates to lobby for changing Bush policies, especially those related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including torture. We had hoped that President Obama would take action early in his administration on this specific issue, but were elated and surprised that he did so on his second day in office. To take this action immediately reflects the importance the President places on this subject.
The group met in the Roosevelt Room for about 20-25 minutes with the President before the ceremony in the Oval Office. Vice President Biden and members of the legal staff joined the discussion. Both Obama and Biden expressed appreciation for the fruitful meetings they had had with the group during the campaign. President Obama had met for one hour in Des Moines, Iowa and Vice President Biden in New Hampshire. I was struck by the warm and gracious attitude of both the President and Vice President. Both showed a detailed knowledge of the policies on torture and interrogation techniques and fully understood the symbolic value of the changes that were being made.
From Lt. Gen. Robert Gard (USA, ret.)::
On January 22, President Obama’s second day in office, I, along with 15 other retired general and flag officers, stood behind the President in the Oval Office when he signed executive orders related to the incarceration, interrogation, and treatment of detainees. I have been asked to explain how that occurred and to report on the visit to the White House.
My outrage began and built up as the Bush administration directed flawed military operations in Afghanistan in 2001-2002, and in Iraq beginning in 2003, coupled with the President’s reversal of past policy with his announcement that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to terrorists we detained. There was a “surge” in my outrage when I, along with virtually every other American, was shocked by the pictures and reports of abuse of detainees in the Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq. My outrage hit a new plateau on reading a report on the front page of the 8 June 2004 Washington Post exposing a Department of Justice memo, issued in August 2002 to the White House Counsel.
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.