Rights Groups Tell Obama: Reward Those Who Opposed America’s Use of Torture in the “War on Terror”


In a significant gesture in the run-up to the UN International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture, which takes place on June 26, and was inaugurated in 1998, on the 11th anniversary of the ratification of the UN Convention Against Torture, ten human rights groups in the US, including the ACLU, Amnesty International, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch and the PEN American Center, have sent a letter to President Obama, urging him to honor the overlooked lawyers, officials and soldiers who, under the Bush administration, took a stand against torture, often at great risk to their careers.

As the groups point out, these individuals — who include Sgt. Joe Darby, former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora, Col. Morris Davis, Lt. Col. V. Stuart Couch, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld and former CIA Inspector General John Helgersen — upheld America’s values and its laws when the Bush administration had moved over to the “dark side” embraced by former Vice President Dick Cheney, and their contributions deserve to be officially acknowledged, especially as others who actively contributed to the illegal and immoral torture program were rewarded by President Bush.

Obviously, the elephant in the room, when it comes to asking President Obama to honor those who publicly opposed the Bush administration’s torture program, is that this should also be accompanied by a call for the officials who authorized the program (up to and including President Bush, who boasted about authorizing waterboarding — a crime — in his autobiography last year) or attempted to justify the torture program (like John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, who wrote and approved what are now known as the “torture memos”) to be prosecuted according to the US federal anti-torture statute.

However, while I regard this as a serious omission, I’m prepared to endorse this campaign, as it is obviously designed to insert a resounding anti-torture message into the mainstream by praising those patriotic Americans who opposed torture rather than through the more confrontational means of demanding that the President — or his Attorney General — fulfil their obligations under the anti-torture statute and the UN Convention Against Torture. It is wrong that anyone should have to tiptoe around this issue, but then America, here and now, rocked by President Obama’s lack of courage and by the mad wailing of his unprincipled and mostly Republican detractors, is not a sane place.

I’m cross-posting below the letter, a follow-up article by the ACLU, telling more of the stories of those who resisted the Bush administration’s lawlessness, and an op-ed from the New York Times, by Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the ACLU, and Larry Siems, director of the “Freedom to Write” program at the PEN American Center, which kick-started the entire process.

Please note that you too can be involved, by visiting this page and signing the petition to President Obama. Whether you are in the US or anywhere else in the world, please consider adding your name to those calling for President Obama to acknowledge those who shone a light for justice in the darkest hours of America’s recent history.

The letter to President Obama

June 16, 2011

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear President Obama:

We were among the many Americans who strongly supported your executive order prohibiting American personnel from using torture. As you said when you issued the executive order in January 2009 and again at the National Archives in May 2009, torture is inconsistent with our laws and our values and counterproductive as a matter of national security policy.

We are writing to you now to urge you formally to honor the soldiers and public servants who, when our nation went off course, stayed true to our nation’s most fundamental ideals. Honoring these brave men and women would be important in any circumstances, but it is especially crucial now because some have used your administration’s success in locating Osama bin Laden to reopen the debate about torture and to propose that the United States should once again adopt torture as a method of gathering intelligence. Formally commending those who rejected torture would send a necessary message that torture is — and will always be — inconsistent with who we are as a nation.

In your remarks at the National Archives, you reflected on the United States’ response to the terrorist attacks of September 2001. You said, rightly, that “all too often our government made decisions based on fear rather than foresight.” Perhaps worst of all, as you observed, “during this season of fear, too many of us — Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists, and citizens — fell silent.”

Not everyone remained silent. As advocates from the ACLU and PEN American Center recently observed, “[t]hroughout the military, and throughout the government, brave men and women reported abuse, challenged interrogation directives that permitted abuse, and refused to participate in an interrogation and detention program that they believed to be unwise, unlawful and immoral.”

There were soldiers and government employees alike that recognized — as you did — that in using torture not only had we “failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions” and “failed to use our values as a compass,” but that we had compromised the security we sought to protect.

We owe a debt to the public servants who rejected torture. The US government has a long history of honoring the brave acts of our soldiers and public servants who have courageously taken a stand to preserve our government’s integrity and American values. Recognizing those who opposed the violation of the most fundamental humane treatment standards would send a message to current government personnel across all agencies that they have a personal responsibility to ensure that torture prohibitions are upheld. Today, as voices are raised once again in support of torture, your administration should reinforce the public’s understanding that our national values require a complete rejection of prisoner abuse.

Honoring those who stood up against cruelty would not exhaust our national responsibility to reckon with the abuses that were committed in our name, but it would be a significant step, and a crucial one. By officially acknowledging those public servants who safeguarded our principles even as fear caused us to compromise our commitments, your administration would send a clear message to all Americans about who we are and what we stand for as a nation.


American Civil Liberties Union
Amnesty International, USA
Center for Victims of Torture
Human Rights First
Human Rights Watch
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
Open Society Foundations
PEN American Center
Physicians for Human Rights
The Rutherford Institute

In an accompanying article, the ACLU spelled out who some of the principled individuals are who refused to pt their allegiance to the President above their allegiance to the Constitution.

Honor Those Who Said “No” To Torture

President Obama has disavowed torture, but he has been reluctant to examine the Bush administration’s abusive interrogation practices. By refusing to examine the past, we betray the public servants who risked so much to reverse what they knew was a disastrous and shameful course.

These courageous individuals include:

Sgt. Joe Darby is former Army Reservist best known as the Abu Ghraib whistleblower. Then 24-year-old Darby was serving in Iraq when he discovered a set of photographs showing other members of his company torturing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison. The discovery anguished him, but ultimately he burned the photos onto a CD and delivered it with an anonymous letter to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command. Celebrated by some, and threatened with death by others, Darby has said that he “never regretted for one second” turning in the photographs.

Former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora led an effort inside the Department of Defense to oppose legal theories put forward by Justice Department lawyers that justified the use of coercive interrogation techniques. Mora argued that the techniques were ineffective and unlawful.

Col. Morris Davis, an Air Force officer and lawyer, was appointed to serve as the third Chief Prosecutor in the Guantánamo military commissions system. Col. Davis made clear that he would never permit the introduction of evidence extracted through waterboarding and insisted that the proceedings be transparent. Col. Davis resigned from his post in 2007 [after he was placed in a chain of command under Pentagon General Counsel William J. Haynes ii, who had played a role in introducing and defending the torture program, and who wanted information derived through the use torture to be used in the military commissions].

Lt. Col. V. Stuart Couch, a veteran Marine pilot and prosecutor, volunteered to return to active duty to help achieve justice for a fellow Marine who had been co-pilot on the second plane that struck the World Trade Center. A self-identified evangelical Christian, Couch ultimately decided he could not seek a conviction based on statements obtained through torture [in the case of Mohamedou Ould Slahi], stating that the abuse violated basic religious precepts of the dignity of every human being.

Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld was the lead prosecutor in the military commissions case against detainee Mohammed Jawad, who was a teenager when he was captured in Afghanistan. After learning about the abuse and torture that Jawad was subject to in custody, Vandeveld decided he could no longer continue with the case. He later filed an affidavit in support of the child prisoner’s case, referring to himself as Jawad’s “former prosecutor and now-repentant persecutor.”

Former CIA Inspector General John Helgersen wrote a meticulously researched report [PDF] documenting some of the abuses that had taken place in CIA prisons, questioning the legality of the policies that had led to the abuse, and characterizing some of the agency’s activities as inhumane.

So far, our official history has honored only those who approved torture, not the courageous men and women who rejected it. For example:

George J. Tenet, former CIA director who signed off on torture, was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Bush.

Geoffrey D. Miller, a retired United States Army Major General who oversaw the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest non-valorous military and civilian decoration of the United States military.

Steven Bradbury, a former Justice Department lawyer responsible for some of the infamous “torture memos,” received awards from the Justice Department, the Defense Department and the National Security Agency.

Top officials of the Bush Administration approved the torture of prisoners, but brave men and women throughout the military and the government challenged the policies, called out abuses, and worked to end the use of coerced evidence. These courageous individuals should be honored for their integrity and their commitment to real American values.

Honoring Those Who Said No
By Jameel Jafeer and Larry Seims, New York Times, April 27, 2011

In January 2004, Spec. Joseph M. Darby, a 24-year-old Army reservist in Iraq, discovered a set of photographs showing other members of his company torturing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison. The discovery anguished him, and he struggled over how to respond. “I had the choice between what I knew was morally right, and my loyalty to other soldiers,” he recalled later. “I couldn’t have it both ways.”

So he copied the photographs onto a CD, sealed it in an envelope, and delivered the envelope and an anonymous letter to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command. Three months later — seven years ago today — the photographs were published. Specialist Darby soon found himself the target of death threats, but he had no regrets. Testifying at a pretrial hearing for a fellow soldier, he said that the abuse “violated everything I personally believed in and all I’d been taught about the rules of war.”

He was not alone. Throughout the military, and throughout the government, brave men and women reported abuse, challenged interrogation directives that permitted abuse, and refused to participate in an interrogation and detention program that they believed to be unwise, unlawful and immoral. The Bush administration’s most senior officials expressly approved the torture of prisoners, but there was dissent in every agency, and at every level.

There are many things the Obama administration could do to repair some of the damage done by the last administration, but among the simplest and most urgent is this: It could recognize and honor the public servants who rejected torture.

In the thousands of pages that have been made public about the detention and interrogation program, we hear the voices of the prisoners who were tortured and the voices of those who inflicted their suffering. But we also hear the voices of the many Americans who said no.

Some of these voices belong to people whose names have been redacted from the public record. In Afghanistan, soldiers and contractors recoiled at interrogation techniques they witnessed. After seeing a prisoner beaten by a mysterious special forces team, one interpreter filed an official complaint. “I was very upset that such a thing could happen,” she wrote. “I take my responsibilities as an interrogator and as a human being very seriously.”

Similarly, after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told interrogators that they could hold Guantánamo prisoners in “stress positions,” barrage them with strobe lights and loud music, and hold them in freezing-cold cells, FBI agents at the naval base refused to participate in the interrogations and complained to FBI headquarters.

But some of the names we know. When Alberto J. Mora, the Navy’s general counsel, learned of the interrogation directive that Mr. Rumsfeld issued at Guantánamo, he campaigned to have it revoked, arguing that it was “unlawful and unworthy of the military services.” Guantánamo prosecutors resigned rather than present cases founded on coerced evidence. One, Lt. Col. Stuart Couch of the Marines, said the abuse violated basic religious precepts of human dignity. Another, Lt. Col. Darrel J. Vandeveld of the Army, filed an affidavit in support of the child prisoner he had been assigned to prosecute.

There were dissenters even within the CIA. Early in 2003, the agency’s inspector general, John L. Helgerson, began an investigation after agents in the field expressed concern that the agency’s secret-site interrogations “might involve violations of human rights.” Mr. Helgerson, a 30-year agency veteran, was himself a kind of dissenter: in 2004 he sent the agency a meticulously researched report documenting some of the abuses that had taken place in CIA-run prisons, questioning the wisdom and legality of the policies that had led to those abuses, and characterizing some of the agency’s activities as inhumane. Without his investigation and report, the torture program might still be operating today.

Thus far, though, our official history has honored only those who approved torture, not those who rejected it. In December 2004, as the leadership of the CIA was debating whether to destroy videotapes of prisoners being waterboarded in the agency’s secret prisons, President Bush bestowed the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, on George J. Tenet, the former C.I.A. director who had signed off on the torture sessions. In 2006, the Army major general who oversaw the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo was given the Distinguished Service Medal. One of the lawyers responsible for the Bush administration’s “torture memos” received awards from the Justice Department, the Defense Department and the National Security Agency.

President Obama has disavowed torture, but he has been unenthusiastic about examining the last administration’s interrogation policies. He has said the country should look to the future rather than the past. But averting our eyes from recent history means not only that we fail in our legal and moral duty to provide redress to victims of torture, but also that we betray the public servants who risked so much to reverse what they knew was a disastrous and shameful course.

Those who stayed true to our values and stood up against cruelty are worthy of a wide range of civilian and military commendations, up to and including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Honoring them is a way of encouraging the best in our public servants, now and in the future. It is also a way of honoring the best in ourselves.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

13 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Kristin Higgins wrote:

    done /shared

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I’m digging and sharing this now, Andy. I have been on the right side in this issue for decades.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Kristin and George, and all those who have shared this. I do encourage readers to sign the petition and to circulate this, so that President Obama doesn’t get the impression that no one cares.
    Also, while I hope to have stressed that I understood why the letter did not deal specifically with accountability for those who authorized and attempted to justify the use of torture during the Bush administration, I do want to acknowledge that I recognize that accountability remains an outstanding objective of the groups concerned, and that the ACLU’s position remains as it was in 2009, at the time of this op-ed for McClatchy Newspapers in April 2009:
    And also in “Establishing a New Normal,” a review of the Obama administration’s first 18 months, which was published in July 2010 (see pages 7-9):

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I just signed it.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Mui J. Steph wrote:

    I think Obama knows people care, Andy, but the problem is he doesn’t care.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    I know what you mean, Mui, but not enough people care, or are prepared to show that they do, otherwise Obama would be obliged to act. I’m a firm believer that our leaders rarely do anything they should unless there is public pressure.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Huma Kashif wrote:

    obama is ruthless he has no value for life.when they get power they think they are gods.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Ghaliyaa Haq wrote:

    Dugg, signed, emailed, posted. Thanks Andy!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Huma and Ghaliyaa. The other option — equally poor — is that they go to all the social functions, Huma, but are kept away from the real decision-making. We know Cheney did this with Bush, but I”ve heard that Obama is also isolated by more powerful forces than himself.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Graham wrote:

    Hi! Andy! Signed & shared. Thanks for posting & all the great works you do. I hope this finds you very well! Peace

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Carol Anne, as well as can be expected, with all the struggles ongoing on so many fronts. Good to hear from you!

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Luke Brandt wrote:

    Thanks Andy. I hope President Obama will do the decent thing on this letter.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Luke. Yes, I hope so too. The important thing, however, is to keep up the pressure, especially in the run-up to the 10th anniversary of Guantanamo opening, on January 11, 2012.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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