“I think it might not have happened without us.”

Over the weekend, both the New York Times and the Salt Lake City Tribune looked more closely at the gentlemen who surrounded President Obama during last week’s executive orders signing ceremony.

The New York Times:
Other than Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the faces in the Oval Office on Thursday morning were not well known. But none of them were likely to be hit with attacks that they were soft on terrorists. Mr. Obama was surrounded by retired admirals and generals who came forward only after they had shaken off the reticence of most military people toward active politics.

“Our message,” said General James Cullen, “is that we are your flank protection.”

In fact, the generals and admirals flanking President Obama are members of a larger group of retired flag officers who have been working with Human Rights First since 2004, speaking out on these issues. During the 2008 presidential primaries, the group sought meetings with every candidate, and met with many of them, including Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Their purpose was to show that following humane procedures would not weaken the country’s defense, but strengthen it – and President Obama took their message to heart.

The Salt Lake City Tribune also featured a piece about the group and its origins:

“It’s important to note that we didn’t get into this project because we thought it was unfair that the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay were not being given a choice between strawberry or pistachio ice cream,” said David Irvine, a Republican attorney and retired Army brigadier general from Utah who spent two decades teaching soldiers how to interrogate war prisoners.

“It really came down,” he said, “to what was the smartest way to protect the nation and strengthen our national security.”

As the group slowly came together, it was clear that they all agreed on one thing: “This policy of coercive interrogation and abuse of prisoners was completely wrongheaded,” Irvine said. “It did more damage than anyone could possibly imagine.”

In a meeting just prior to the signing ceremony, 16 members of the group sat with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. During the long presidential campaign, Obama and Biden had met with a never-ending parade of people concerned about scores of important issues. But Biden told the group both he and the president recalled their meetings with the retired officers as pivotal.

“I can’t say enough about how gratifying it was to hear that,” said retired Brig. Gen. James Cullen, former chief judge on the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals.

Irvine, who couldn’t get to Washington on such short notice, said there was little the new president could have done to make him more proud.

“This was really speedy action that should send a powerful worldwide message that we’re serious about going down the path of recovering American values and leadership,” he said.

Charlie Otstott, [a former Army lieutenant general] said Obama deserves credit for recognizing that the problems needed to be addressed without delay.

“He’s a constitutional lawyer and I think he had the right instincts,” Otstott said. “But even with the right instincts, I think it might not have happened without us.”

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Published on January 29, 2009

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