Below is a shortened transcript of the November 4, 2014 media telebriefing featuring retired General Joseph Hoar and Human Rights First’s President and CEO Elisa Massimino.
Thank you so much, and thanks to everybody for joining us this morning. I know there’s a lot to talk about today and there’s a lot of talk about politics in here. Actually, this is an issue on which we think politics really shouldn’t play much of a role, so maybe a little bit of refreshing to have a conversation about that this morning.
We’re very honored to have with us today one of the leaders of the retired military group that has been and continues to be so outspoken on these issues over more than a decade. General Joseph Hoar retired in 1994 after a 37-year career in the Marine Corps. His last assignment was as Commander-in-Chief U.S. Central Command. After the first Gulf War, General Hoar led the effort to enforce the naval embargo in the Red Sea, in the Persian Gulf, and to enforce a no-fly zone in the south of Iraq. He oversaw the humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in Kenya and Somalia, and he also supported operations in Rwanda, the evacuation of U.S. civilians from Yemen during the 1994 Civil War. He was a deputy for operations for the Marine Corps during the Gulf War and he served as General Norman Schwarzkopf’s Chief of Staff in Central Command.
He’s currently running a consulting business in California and in his copious spare time, he is helping to lead this effort to ensure that the United States unequivocally rejects the use of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. We’re very grateful for his leadership and I’m going to turn it over to him to say a few words first and then I will [bad cleanup] and then we’ll have questions. General Hoar, over to you.
Gen. Joseph Hoar:
Thanks, Elisa. First of all, I’d like to point out that next week, in Geneva, the U.S. Government has a chance to reassert U.S. global leadership on human rights by making unambiguously clear that the U.S. Government doesn’t condone torture anywhere. After the dark side, after 9-11 tarnished U.S. reputation, General Krulak and I both spoke out with a group of retired general officers about the issue of torture. General Krulak – in fact, this is a [personal hot bomber] – on the second day in the office to reaffirm the ban on torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Last week, General Krulak and I sent President Obama a letter on behalf of our group of general and flag officers urging him in the next weeks to take some steps against torture.
We feel that there is the obligation not to torture or not committing acts of official cruelty should be universal and not controversial. We’ve had support from Senator McCain and many other members of the government. I think that this is our effort once again to make it clear that we stand against torture in any form anywhere.
I’d be happy to take some questions on this.
Great. Thank you so much, General Hoar. I just wanted to add a few words of my own.
I think it’s very important to be clear at the outset what this debate is about and what it’s not about. Torture and cruel treatment are prohibited in international law, under our own domestic laws – that’s absolutely clear, so it’s not really about whether torture is legal or illegal. We all know that it’s illegal but particularly because of our country’s foray into condoning torture and abuse, the fact is that our country is in a bit of a hole here. Our actions over the last decade really called into question the U.S. commitment to this bedrock human rights principle. That has been a problem for us internationally. It has been a problem in cooperating with our allies who have doubted our commitment to reject torture, and it has certainly been a hindrance on the moral leadership side and our ability to persuade our adversaries.
I think there’s a real risk here of the Administration missing the forest for the trees. That can sometimes be an occupational hazard when lawyers are in the lead but it would be a mistake to see this as a technical legal issue. What’s needed here is not more lawyering. It’s leadership. The only way we can reassert our leadership on human rights is to make clear that we recognize these obligations as obligations. That means we shouldn’t be parsing the language or leaving any ambiguity about our country’s commitment to reject torture and cruel treatment.
There’s a great opportunity here, as General Hoar said, with this delegation going to Geneva, the first time for the Obama Administration to appear before this Committee Against Torture that oversees the compliance with the treaty that the U.S. did so much to help craft. This is a real opportunity to go there and embrace as a legal obligation what is already U.S. policy and, frankly, U.S. law, thanks to Senator McCain and the Detainee Treatment Act and back in 1994, the criminal prohibition against torture.
There’s a lot of talk about an interagency process and various legal interpretations and all that. I’m a lawyer. I’m proud to be a lawyer but we all know what happens when the lawyers got involved in the previous administration. There was an absolute ban on torture and lawyers were asked to find some wiggle room and they did. They crafted arguments that gave the blatantly illegal use of torture and official cruelty a veneer of legality.
Now, of course, a lot of times people go to their lawyers to get that kind of – to find that wiggle room and the job of the drafter’s treaties and statutes is to make sure there’s this little possibility of that as possible, but ultimately you chart your way through this with leadership and that’s what we’re asking for. That’s what General Hoar and General Krulak were asking for when they wrote to the President last week that he take a stand here and make clear that the United States unequivocally rejects torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.
The way this plays out will absolutely reflect on President Obama’s leadership and his legacy on this issue that he made so clear was central to his Administration when he signed his executive orders as one of his first official act in office. Many of the group of retired generals and admirals that General Hoar and General Krulak led were in the Oval Office with the President when he signed those executive orders.
Here we are, the Administration reporting for the first time. The last one I wanted to make was that I would’ve hoped that the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA torture program would have been out by the time the delegation was appearing before the torture committee in Geneva. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet and I think that underscores even more how important it is for there to be no ambiguity at all in the message that the United States Government is projecting there in front of the UN Committee Against Torture and the world about the unacceptability of torture and cruelty no matter where they occur.
General Hoar, do you have anything you’d like to say?
Gen. Joseph Hoar:
I just, one more time, would emphasize the fact that torture under any circumstances is forbidden by law and the Government made a mistake some years ago in allowing it under some circumstances. I think we’re still recovering from that misstep. It’s unfortunate but we should be able to learn from that experience and make sure that it never happens again.
Thank you. They’re very important and eloquent, and I can only underscore that, that the world is getting a better sense and they will have a fuller sense once the Senate Intelligence Committee Report is declassified and released. It really can’t be overstated how important it is for the United States to, after it has made this detour into the use of torture and in fact the attempt to legitimize the use of torture in other official cruelty through legal arguments, that the approach to the obligations set forth in the torture convention and the message to send to the world must be unequivocal. There can’t be asterisks and footnotes. What’s really needed here is leadership and that’s what we’re calling on the President to demonstrate.
Thank you all for joining us and we actually, Human Rights First, will have a team in Geneva next week to monitor the questions and the performance of the U.S. delegation, so I encourage you to stay in touch with us if you have further questions and check our website. You’ll see our reporting back from Geneva there at www.humanrightsfirst.org.
Thanks very much. Have a good day.
Gen. Joseph Hoar:
Thanks, Elisa. Bye-bye.
Thank you, General Hoar.