Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Profiles in Courage: Standing up for what is Right!

"It takes a lot of courage these days for a government official to stand up for the rule of law." (from an op-ed piece by Foundation CEO John Shattuck, "In Search of Political Courage" at the JFK Library site, link)
What a lot is summed up in that sentence!

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library here in Boston recently awarded two Profile in Courage awards, marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of JFK's book of that title. The recipients are former U.S. Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora and U.S. Representative John P. Murtha (D-PA). Attorney Mora waged a behind the scenes battle for three years against the full brunt of the current administration's determination to use illegal torture against prisoners of war and detainees suspected of collaboration with Al Qaeda. Congressman Murtha demonstrated his extraordinary courage in reversing his conservative Democrat hawk stance supporting the invasion of Iraq when, in November, 2005, he called for withdrawal from Iraq.

The image of the Liberty Bell is from www.philadelphia-travel-services.com/images Let Freedom Ring!

Alberto Mora

On December 17, 2002 Alberto Mora received information from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service that prisoners at the Guantanamo Naval Base were being abusively interrogated. Mora, a loyal conservative, had been appointed by President Bush in 2001 to serve as General Counsel of the Navy. Since the Navy had no responsibility for Guantanamo interrogations, Mora could have referred the report to others in the Pentagon, or simply decided to ignore it. Instead, he chose to investigate. What he discovered was deeply disturbing.

As he wrote in a recently declassified memo to the Navy’s Inspector General, Mora learned that his boss, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, had authorized interrogation techniques that “could rise to the level of torture.” Mora told the Pentagon’s General Counsel, William Haynes, that Rumsfeld’s memorandum “could have severe ramifications unless the policy was quickly reversed.” He warned that the interrogation policy was “unlawful” and that its consequences could be “incalculably harmful to U.S. foreign, military and legal policies.”

When nothing happened, Mora set out to change the policy. He knew he had to find allies in the Pentagon, and he began to recruit them by openly debating the Rumsfeld memorandum with other officials. A small bureaucratic victory came when the Department of Defense created a “Working Group” to develop new recommendations. But this process was overwhelmed by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), which weighed in with its own memo expanding the original Rumsfeld policy.

Mora challenged the Justice Department. He charged that the policy allowed “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees,” and expressed deep disagreement with its “extreme and virtually unlimited theory of the extent of the President’s authority.” Mora confronted the author of the memo, OLC Deputy Director John Yoo, asking him “whether the President could order the application of torture.” Mora wrote in his memo to the Inspector General that “Yoo responded, ‘Yes.’”

Mora was shocked. He worked hard to get the Pentagon to shelve what he called this “deeply flawed” policy that now had been hijacked by the Justice Department. For nearly a year Mora thought he had succeeded in persuading his superiors to block the policy, because the Rumsfeld and OLC memoranda were never finalized.

Then in April 2004 the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke. Mora learned the bitter truth -- the torture policy he and others inside the Pentagon had fought so courageously to stop had secretly been kept in place all along, and the horrors they had warned against had come to pass.

Mora did not prevail in his bureaucratic battle, but his defense of the law and the Constitution demonstrated great political courage. That’s why the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation today will recognize Alberto Mora with its Profile in Courage Award, together with John Murtha, a senior Member of Congress and Vietnam combat veteran who made a difficult decision of conscience last year when he reversed his support for the Iraq war and sparked a national debate by calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the conflict.
Congressman John P. Murtha
In November 2005, John P. Murtha, a Vietnam War veteran and the ranking Democrat and former chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, galvanized debate about the war in Iraq by calling for the phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from the conflict. Murtha, who had voted in favor of the Iraq war, argued that American soldiers had become targets and “a catalyst for violence” in Iraq. His unexpected and dramatic reversal of support for the war put him at odds with military leaders, the Bush Administration, and many members of his own party.

While he was cheered in some quarters, Murtha’s call for an exit strategy sparked an angry backlash from war proponents, who accused him of wanting to “surrender to the terrorists.” Some complained that his comments were demoralizing to American troops serving in the conflict. Many of his fellow Democrats were reluctant to support him as long as public sentiment about the Iraq war remained opaque. Some critics publicly questioned whether Murtha deserved his Vietnam War decorations and demanded that his military records be opened to public inspection. Murtha refused to back down, instead stepping up his critique of the Administration’s handling of the Iraq war and demanding accountability.

As a combat veteran and a retired Marine Corps colonel with 37 years’ service in the U.S. military, Murtha’s decision to withdraw his support for the Iraq war carried particular weight. His decision to speak out against a protracted conflict shifted public sentiment about the war and generated a substantive national debate on the progress, policies and objectives of the U.S. presence in Iraq. Murtha continues to call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

[Initially, Murtha had voted to support invading Iraq after the September 11 attacks.] But he soon began to feel he could not stay silent after what he began hearing from our troops and senior military officials. He criticized the inadequate armor and other supplies for our troops. In September 2003, he said he’d been misled into voting for the war the year before.

Finally, last November, he decided as a matter of conscience to speak the unvarnished truth. He stated publicly that our troops in Iraq had done all they could, and it was time for them to come home.

You could feel the earth move in Washington, and the White House knew it. Their political operation went into overdrive, the attack dogs were sent out, and the “Swift Boat” tactics were dusted off. His military record was wrongly and irresponsibly called into question. He was accused of surrendering to the terrorists and “endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party.”

It was a familiar response from an Administration with a pathological aversion to thoughtful criticism – or any criticism – of its policy on Iraq.

They couldn’t fire or demote him, as they did with critics of their policy. They couldn’t ignore him or marginalize him, as they did with Alberto Mora.

Through all the attacks on his patriotism, he never wavered or backed down from his strong view. His courage in speaking out touched the entire nation, and he continues to do so.

Last week, he called on the Marine Corps to disclose the full truth about a shocking incident involving the death of a Marine followed by the death of numerous civilians supposedly in a bus in Haditha last November. The casualties were initially attributed to an I.E.D. explosion and shrapnel and firefight, but Murtha said he kept hearing reports from Marines in the field that something much worse had happened.

As he stated, “There was no firefight. There was no explosion that killed civilians in a bus. There was no bus. There was no shrapnel. There were only bullet holes inside the homes where the Marines had gone in….Our troops over-reacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood,” he said. That’s John Murtha, telling the war like it is.

As Andrew Jackson said, “One man with courage makes a majority,” and John Murtha has proved the truth of those words in our own time.

For his political courage and his dedication to principled public service, John P. Murtha is honored with the 2006 Profile in Courage Award.

No comments: