Behind the Executive Orders: An Unlikely Alliance Between Human Rights First and Retired Military Leaders

In his first interview as White House Counsel, Greg Craig told Jane Mayer about the role that the meeting President Obama had with retired military leaders during the primary election campaign– a meeting organized by Human Rights First – played in correcting key interrogation and detention policies.

Sitting at a spotless conference table in a undecorated West Wing corner office up a narrow flight of stairs from the Oval Office, Craig, who is sixty-three, seemed boyish and energized. He explained that Obama’s bold legal moves were the result of a “painstaking” process that started in Iowa, before the first presidential caucus. It was there that then-candidate Obama met with a handful of former high-ranking military officers who opposed the Bush Administration’s legalization of abusive interrogations. Sickened by the photographs of Abu Ghraib and disheartened by what they regarded as the illegal and dangerous degradation of military standards, the officers had formed an unlikely alliance with the legal advocacy group Human Rights First, and had begun lobbying the candidates of both parties to close the loopholes Bush had opened for torture.

Obama was “very excited” that day in Iowa, one participant in the off-the-record meeting recalled, “because he had just gotten polls showing that he was ahead,” but he didn’t seem particularly “comfortable” with the military delegation. The group of military men, which included retired four-star Generals Dave Maddox and Joseph Hoar, lectured Obama about the importance of being Commander-in-Chief. In particular, they warned him that every word he uttered would be taken as an order by the highest-ranking officers as well as the lowliest private. Any wiggle room for abusive interrogations, they emphasized, would be construed as permission.

Obama “asked smart questions, but didn’t seem inspired by it. He totally understood the effect that Abu Ghraib had on America’s reputation,” said the participant. But in general, “he was very businesslike. He didn’t flatter the officers,” as most of the other candidates had. In addition, Obama’s staff, the participant said, approached the meeting with the retired officers with less urgency than some of the other campaigns. “But,” in retrospect, the participant said, “it started an education process.”

Last month, several members of the same group met with both Craig, who by then was slated to become Obama’s top legal adviser, and Attorney General-designate Eric Holder. The two future Obama Administration lawyers were particularly taken with a retired four-star Marine General and conservative Republican named Charles “Chuck” Krulak. Krulak insisted that ending the Bush Administration’s coercive interrogation and detention regime was “right for America and right for the world,” a participant recalled, and promised that if the Obama Administration did what he described as “the right thing,” which he acknowledged wouldn’t be politically easy, he would personally “fly cover” for them.

Last week, as Obama signed the executive order, sixteen retired generals and flag officers from the same group did just that. Told on Monday that they were needed at the White House, they flew to the capital from as far away as California, a phalanx of square-jawed certified patriots providing cover to Obama’s announcement.

Shortly before the signing ceremony, Craig said, Obama met with the officers in the Roosevelt Room, along with Vice President Biden and several other top administration officials. “It was hugely important to the president to have the input from these military people,” Craig said, “not only because of their proven concern for protecting the American people—they’d dedicated their lives to it—but also because some had their own experience they could speak from.” Two of the officers had sons serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of them, retired Major General Paul Eaton, stressed that, as he put it later that day, “torture is the tool of the lazy, the stupid, and the pseudo-tough. It’s also perhaps the greatest recruiting tool that the terrorists have.” The feeling in the room, as retired Rear Admiral John Hutson later put it, “was joy, perhaps, that the country was getting back on track.”


Published on January 26, 2009


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