“One of the most frightening days of my life”

(11 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

(h/t to parryander for the link to The Center for Victims of Torture from buhdydharma’s post, “What Do You Know About Torture? Updated”).

Back in June of 2007, Dave Johnson, Executive Director of The Center for Victims of Torture began the work that ultimately helped lead to President Obama’s executive order banning torture.  It’s an interesting story for activists everywhere on this issue, and can be found at  MinnPost.com.

As the article states:

Many Americans know the arc of the events leading up to Obama’s order. But few know the behind-the-scenes work it took to build support that would help the new president end a practice which had bitterly divided the nation.

* * *

With presidential elections coming up, the stage was set for Johnson and others at the dinner to thrust the issue into the political dialog. A proposed presidential order could be the vehicle.

“We had a good debate about the whole idea of an executive order,” Johnson said.

Johnson and his group were methodical.  The idea was begun by Marc Grossman “who had been Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs during the first term of former President George W. Bush.”  Clearly this group had contacts, and they used them.  The intial group of 15 people worked  hard and one of Johnson’s first actions was to go to Capitol Hill with Albert Mora, an anti-torture advocate and former general counsel of the US Navy.

Johnson called his Capitol Hill tour with Mora “one of the most frightening days of my life.”

Johnson’s group grew to include both religious groups and grassroots groups, combined with lawyers and former military.  They did their homework and showed how there was no justification, ever, for torture, and plenty of disadvantages, even aside from the clear moral evil of these acts:

In their meetings with senators and Intelligence Committee staffers, Mora stressed points that were to become part of the argument for the presidential order: If the United States undermined international law against torture then its own troops lost the protection of the law. An enemy who knows surrender might bring torture will fight longer and kill more people. And the country was losing intelligence sources because allies no longer were willing to turn over people for interrogation.

“He was very clear that the United States had lost important intelligence information,” Johnson said.

Working with a varied group of prominent legal, military and religious figures, the group drafted an Executive Order that they would push to have signed by whomever won the Presidency in November.

And they went on a grassroots campaign:

They hit the road with the message that torture is ineffective, immoral and a threat to national security. The first panel of speakers appearing in Richmond, Va., included an FBI agent who had interrogated Al Qaeda members, a former Marine prosecutor, a retired army brigadier general, a rabbi and a representative of the local Catholic archdiocese.

By Election Day, similar panels had presented their case to hundreds of people in Minnesota as well as in Ohio and Florida. The campaign also had hosted debate-watching parties and gathered thousands of signatures of support.

Finally, after the election, President Obama signed the Executive Order on January 22, 2009.  He and his staff wrote the order but acknowledged that Johnson’s group had provided an important template.

Ultimately, Obama’s team wrote his own version of the order. But if you watched Obama’s signing ceremony, you saw standing behind him many admirals and generals who had been active more than a year in the grassroots drive.

Johnson and his group put stopping torture as their paramount priority.  The Center for Victims of Torture works directly with those who have suffered from this barbaric practice.  And they know their work is far from finished.

“That’s why we are going to keep working with this group of people and continue to talk about the issues,” Johnson said. “The question is how do we create enough understanding of how damaging torture has been to the country and its security, so that when there is another attack against the United States we will be prepared to think and react strategically instead of through fear.”

The idea of prosecutions is not alien to Johnson’s group, but they take a longer view than many of us would feel comfortable with.  But the bottom line is they were able to break through the silence and work hard so that one of President Obama’s first priorities was to sign that Executive Order.

And the group has a view I have no trouble getting behind:

Meanwhile, Bush administration officials, including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, face punishment of sorts for their alleged responsibility. Travel outside the United States could be risky for them, Weissbrodt said, because other countries are moving to investigate cases in which their citizens were ill treated.

“I can be patient,” Weissbrodt said. “I don’t have to have it happen all at once.”

Johnson agreed there is no reason to rush into prosecution.

The pressure to hold people accountable will persist over time around the world, he said. Generals who worked on the grassroots campaign stressed the need for debriefing to learn “what broke down, what went wrong,” he said.

“Starting with the truth is a good beginning,” Johnson said. “It might help America come to terms with what it was in our culture that made people accept what was unacceptable.”

In Obama’s speech to the Congress he spoke of long term goals.  I think holding criminals accountable for their crimes against humanity will be one of those long term goals and I am beginning to mentally prepare myself for the long haul.

Buhdy’s post showed me that although those of us who have been working on this project for months are hyper-knowledgeable about this issue, most of our liberal and progressive allies are not.  They may hate torture and want it to stop but have not gone into depth on what all this means.

So, speaking for myself only … however long it takes and whatever it takes … I’m in for the duration.


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  1. … I think having The Center for Victims of Torture on our blogroll would be a good idea (assuming it’s not already there!

  2. … at orange.

  3. is the most valuable kind of work that can be done on the blogs.

    This diary has shown me the range of opinion and the variety of people that can be united to push policy in the direction of justice. It’s a good model for other work.

    I will be making copies of this to give to people.

    Glad you’re in for the duration.

  4. it’s really hard to understand if action is taking place and to see what the complicated legal and political moves mean. Torture has been surrounded by both secrecy, and the softening of the unacceptable by the turn to the dark of the media both news and entertainment. Kind of tragic that the main argument for stopping this obscenity is that it doesn’t work, pragmatically.

    I appreciate the need for the public to know what was done, but do not trust the people who legislated the power and secrecy, and legality to ever let the truth see the light of day. My senator is on the ‘intelligence’ committee and in 2007 after a tour, said Guantanamo was necessary and not abusive.

    My main concern is not the prosecution of the war criminals, which at this point would lead to a huge debacle politically. I am worried that these human right abuses, have at this point, are now embedded in our law. I worry that the Obama administration is keeping these powers on the books, so to speak, for an ‘national emergency’.

    While it’s good that Obama is issuing executive orders banning torture , it seems to me that this ties into the executive power/privilege issue along with the state secrets. This makes both truth and remedy, temporary and  the continuation easily hidden. The ACLU is working hard to bring these cases to the judicial system but so far the new DOJ seem to be taking the same stance as the Bushies, and fighting to keep them under the prerogative of the executive and the redaction folks.

    The fact that this has been embedded in the public’s mind as acceptable and necessary or worse a ‘we knew nothing..denial, only adds to the lets move on, mindset. However encouragingly I saw a poll yesterday that said 63% of the respondents want an investigation. In my opinion it should not be done by the current legislators who set it up so that this could occur.    


    • jessical on February 28, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    …I’d read peices of this before.  And was also impressed with the broad appeal to (and of) establishment realpolitik types in pushing back torture as an accepted practice.  

    I actually think that for the next four years anyway, there’s some chance — if the US get’s whacked again, but harder and more effectively — that we’ll have actual leadership instead of militaristic hysteria.  And part of that leadership involves folding in the lessons of the last whack, gaining sophistication.

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