FREE SPEECH ZONE | Alberto Mora: (Almost) An American Hero


Alberto Mora spoke with clarity and conviction. As a life-long Republican, Mora was appointed by President George W. Bush as the General Counsel of the US Navy from 2001 to 2006. While in this position, he served as a strong, vocal critic within the Administration arguing that the policy of “enhanced interrogations” ordered by the President was not only illegal but also counterproductive in the so-called War on Terror.

Speaking at the U of MN’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs today on the topic, Military Justice in an Age of Terrorism, Mora chose to draw a sharper line for criticizing the human rights abuses that led to the torture scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Mora argued on using a lesser standard than “was it torture?” – Did the policies and practices allowed and encouraged by the Bush Administration constitute “cruelty”? Citing the 8th Amendment to the US Constitution, Mora described the prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” as the appropriate threshold rather than the higher threshold of “torture”. Not all cruelty rises to the level of torture but all torture is cruel, he observed. And cruelty, the lesser standard is the Constitutional threshold in our law.

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Dressed and comported like the conservative corporate lawyer he is in present practice (he has worked for Wal-Mart and now works for the Mars candy company), Mora expressed his alarm at what he witnessed over the past several years by quoting French philosopher Albert Camus: “You don’t kill values with the same weapons you use to defend them.” The lawyer said that the cruelty practiced at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo was not merely an abstraction but concrete, verifiable, individual acts. He went on to describe briefly the myriad degradations that a detainee, sometimes referred to as the 20th hijacker, Mohammed al-Katani, underwent in US custody. The list of abuses was long and Mora stated that one of the US Army’s own attorneys testified in court that his treatment met the definition of torture. “The fact that we tortured people is now not open to debate”, Mora claimed.

There were six beliefs or assumptions that were underlying the past Administration’s policies that led to this practice of cruelty (and torture) that Mora outlined. The Bush government assumed such policies and practices were 1) necessary to protect us against further attacks; 2) no law prohibited it; 3) the President as Commander-in-Chief was not limited by other laws during wartime; 4) it would not hurt our national interest or our security strategy; 5) no one would care; and 6) no one would be held accountable. Mora stated that all these assumptions have proven false although #6 is “still in doubt”.

“These policies were distributed and abuses occurred,” Mora continued. However, these constitutional rights against cruelty are rights granted to everyone, not just citizens – and everywhere. He elaborated on the point of how these acts of cruelty have seriously damaged the “legacy of American Foreign Policy”. Citing the Nuremberg Tribunals, the Geneva Conventions, and today’s German Constitution (adopted in 1949 with the help from the US) as landmarks for recognition of US Foreign Policy that raised standards of human rights and responsibilities around the globe, Mora argued that our practice of cruelty after the attacks of 9-11 had lessened and weakened our moral authority as a nation. Stating that “the War on Terror” will not be won by military means and how European cooperation seriously diminished as word of our practice and policy of cruelty came to light, Mora showed the ineffectiveness of the “gloves-off” policy that continues to be championed by Vice President Cheney today.

“We’ve compromised ourselves in the war of ideas,” he went on, and he told the over-flowing audience that “many flag officers I’ve talked with believe the #1 and #2 causes of US Military deaths in Iraq are due to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo”, referring to the outrage which fueled the Iraqi insurgency in 2005 and 2006. “Cruelty was not legal, not necessary, and not effective,” he claimed. He went as far as stating “Every military officer I have spoken to feels [this policy and practice of cruelty] is counter-productive and contemptible.” Military people do not want to abandon the moral high ground, he observed. “What was once unspeakable [torture and cruelty] is now discussed in polite conversation.”

His remarks were greeted with enthusiastic applause and Vice President Mondale joined Alberto Mora for the question/answer period that followed. Professor Larry Jacobs, the host and moderator asked Mora to respond to the culturally popular “ticking time-bomb” scenario frequently used by proponents of the “enhanced methods”. Responding in a similar fashion to the Biblical story of Abraham dickering with God about sparing Sodom and Gomorrah if only a few righteous folk could be found, this lawyer took apart the faulty assumption behind this theory. We often start by saying hundreds of thousands of lives might be saved, he argued, but what if it were only a few thousand, or a few hundred, or even two? A commander in Iraq who just lost two of his soldiers to an IED the day before might be tempted to torture a captured Iraqi in hopes that he’ll be able to prevent the loss of two more soldiers the next day. Local cops might want to torture a suspect who is detained after a child goes missing locally to [hopefully] prevent other children from the danger. Where do you draw the line once you embark down that slippery slope? We could justify cruelty upon any suspicion, he observed. He has yet to hear of any authentic case where cruelty/torture has prevented a “ticking time-bomb” incident despite the popularity of the TV show 24.

It was refreshing to hear all of this from someone who continues to identify himself as a Republican. Larry Jacobs told the crowd at the conclusion that Mora “is an American Hero.” I almost agree. One of Jacobs’ questions, however, caused me to re-think that accolade (at least partially): Jacobs, reading from a card submitted by an audience member asked the speaker what he thought about Daniel Ellsberg’s plea for there to be more “whistle-blowers” within the government to bring these illegal activities to light as he did in leaking the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s. Mora described the moral and legal dilemma military officers were put in when their oath to uphold the Constitution conflicted with the orders coming from the Commander-in-Chief. He talked about how he wrote memos strongly disagreeing with the policy but admitted that he didn’t “leak” them to the press.

Would he have made more of a difference with a public resignation or clandestinely leaking his memos? We won’t know. I am grateful he is speaking out now in clear, unequivocal terms. He is supporting the important healing and advocacy work of the Center for Victims of Torture, singling them out as one of the groups lending a critical voice to the public conversation of trying to reclaim the ideals proclaimed in the Constitution. He and Mondale both advocated that a Truth Commission or similar investigatory group (hopefully bi-partisan) be established to try to prevent these policies of cruelty to be justified again.

Until we are willing as a people and a nation to honestly repent for the cruelty done under the pretext of “national security”, we will need the reminders of the protesters clad in orange jumpsuits and black hoods standing in front of the Federal Courthouse or by the University of St. Thomas Law School (where one of the memo writers providing legal “cover” for Bush now teaches) calling for accountability.