Courting 44: How a loosely organized group of retired military leaders made their issue Obama's top priority

Published January 23, 2009 7:37 pm
Detainees » They lobbied for clean-up of national security abuses long before the election.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

From the economy to the environment to immigration, everyone wanted something different --- and fast -- from the newly-minted Number 44.

But when President Barack Obama brandished his executive pen two days into his term, it was aimed squarely at the alleged excesses of the Bush administration's national security policies.

As Obama signed orders closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, shutting down secret CIA prisons and ordering an end to harsh interrogation techniques, a solemn cadre of retired military officers stood by. Their presence in the Oval Office on Thursday was intended to bolster Obama's contention that his orders would strengthen national security.

But the former warriors had not been sought out by the new administration.

Rather, the ad hoc group, including a former Army general from Utah, had been courting 44 long before anyone knew who the new president would be.

It began with e-mails shared in confidence between former colleagues. It fermented in hallways outside military banquets. It took on form as former military leaders stepped out of retirement to write opinion pieces and give interviews critical of President George W. Bush on rendition, torture and human rights.

The loosely-organized group of retired flag officers doesn't have a name. But it does have an identity, one based on the ostensibly conservative idea that the United States needs a strong defense -- and the seemingly counterintuitive notion that Bush administration policies intended to deal decisively with terrorists were having the opposite effect.

"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."

Although many were well-connected, few in the group had experience lobbying. But Elisa Massimino did.

A few months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Massimino, the Washington, D.C. , area director of the nonprofit Human Rights First, met Rear Admiral John Hutson, the Navy's former chief attorney, for a debate on National Public Radio.

Their subject was Bush's Nov. 13, 2001, order establishing military commissions to try anyone captured in the newly-coined "War on Terror."

The order abrogated rights granted under traditional courts-martial, allowed for the admission of coerced statements, permitted evidence from undisclosed sources and limited review by federal courts.

Hutson and Massimino were supposed to be on opposite sides -- but found their agreements far outnumbered their disagreements. As America went to war they stayed in contact. Four years later, when Hutson and other retired flag officers wanted to turn their common opinions into a common cause, they turned to Massimino for help.

It was a union of somewhat strange bedfellows. Human Rights First maintains a diverse portfolio of liberal causes. Most of the officers in the group were staunchly conservative; Irvine said he doubts many of them had ever strayed from voting Republican.

But with regard to the Bush policies, "It was amazing to all of us how aligned our interests were," Massimino said.

There was one point of early consensus: If the United States was going to salvage its international reputation, the new president would have to make a clean break from the past policies.

That would mean ordering the closure of Guantanamo, rescinding permission for the CIA to use certain interrogation techniques, and shutting down a system of secret overseas detention facilities.

And, the officers agreed, all that would have to happen fast. Any delay, they believed, would signal that the new administration was being tolerant of the intolerable.

So they couldn't wait to find out who would be elected. They would have to lobby everyone in the race.

The meetings began in the spring of 2007 and included most of the Democratic candidates. On the Republican side, only former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee met with the retired officers.

In December 2007, the group secured a discussion with Obama at a hotel in Des Moines, Iowa. The junior senator from Illinois was polling behind Hillary Rodham Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin. But the long-shot candidate listened intently.

Though the conversation was kept private, the officers left confident that, if Obama were somehow to win the presidency, his administration might be responsive.

Just weeks after Obama's historic election, White House counsel-in-waiting Greg Craig and Obama Attorney General nominee Eric Holder met with the retired officers.

Obama had long promised the closure of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay. The future attorney general's involvement made it clear the new administration valued the group's advice on rendition and torture as well.

But Craig and Holder were noncommittal --- and Holder made it clear he attended in part to prepare for his confirmation hearing.

"He knew he was going to be questioned about these issues and he wanted as much information as he could get," said Charlie Otstott, a former Army lieutenant general who attended the meeting.

It wasn't until the days following Obama's inauguration that most of the officers realized the impact of their years-long crusade. Group members were invited to stand by the president as he issued his first substantial executive orders --- following almost to the letter the blueprint they'd offered Craig and Holder.

"We all had hoped that he would do that… but when we got the call, I think we all said, 'holy cow,' " Otstott said.

In the Roosevelt Room before the signing ceremony, 16 members of the group sat with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. As adversaries for the Democratic nomination, Obama and Biden met 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.

Otstott 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."

mlaplante@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">mlaplante@sltrib.com

President Barack Obama's order to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay gives military commanders a year to act and forms a task force to develop a strategy.

That concession to caution won Obama the qualified support of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

"I am pleased President Obama did not peremptorily close Guantanamo without adequately considering the ramifications of his actions, but rather decided to convene panels of his top officials and outside experts to review the way forward," Hatch said in a statement.

But, he added, "most Americans understand that the remaining detainees at Guantanamo do not have America's best interests in mind."

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, warned it will not be easy to find a place on U.S. soil where terror suspects can be held with the same level of security.

"Since the president has decided that it is a symbol that he wishes to remove, it becomes his responsibility to find a suitable alternative," Bennett said.

--- Matthew D. LaPlante

Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
comments powered by Disqus