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Retired US General on Alberto Gonzales: “He Has Endangered Our Soldiers”

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As the Senate prepares for confirmation hearings on White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales as the next attorney general, we speak with retired Brigadier General James Cullen–one of 12 retired Admirals and Generals who are calling on the Judiciary Committee to scrutinize Gonzales’ role in setting the stage for U.S. torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. [includes rush transcript]

The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin hearings tomorrow on the confirmation of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales as the next attorney general of the United States.

Central to the hearings will be Gonzales” role in paving the legal groundwork that led to the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In a highly controversial January 2002 memo, Gonzales wrote that the war on terror “renders obsolete [the Geneva Convention’s] strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.”

In August 2002, a Justice Department memo sought by Gonzales contended the president has “commander-in-chief authority” to order torture and proposed potential legal defenses for U.S. officials who may be accused of torture. The memo also argued that physical abuse of prisoners was torture only if it was “of an intensity akin to…serious physical injury such as death or organ failure,” and mental abuse was torture only if it caused “lasting psychological harm.”

The confirmation hearings have become even more controversial in the wake of a new Justice Department memo released just last Thursday revising the August 2002 memo to significantly broaden the definition of torture for which individuals could be prosecuted.

The hearings may also become more contentious because the White House has refused to provide copies of the memos to the Judiciary Committee. Sen. Democrat Richard Durbin of Illinois told the Associated Press “We go into the hearing with some knowledge of what has occurred…but without the hard evidence that will either exonerate or implicate Judge Gonzales in this policy.”

On Monday, a dozen retired generals and admirals, including former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili released a letter to the Judiciary Committee noting that Gonzales” recommendations “fostered greater animosity toward the United States, undermined our intelligence gathering efforts, and added to the risks facing our troops serving around the world.”

  • Brigadier General James Cullen (Ret), among 12 retired Admirals and Generals who yesterday released a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee urging Members to closely examine Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales role in setting U.S. policy on torture. Mr. Gonzales confirmation hearings begin January 6, 2005. Cullen last served as the Chief Judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals. He currently practices law in New York City.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: One of those who signed that letter is Brigadier General James Cullen. He joins us in the studio now. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JAMES CULLEN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the origins of this letter, quite unusual. A dozen retired admirals and generals writing this letter to the Judiciary Committee challenging the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General.

JAMES CULLEN: I would describe the letter as almost unprecedented in terms of the number of retired generals and admirals who have joined in it, and also the level of concern. I think it arises from all of our shared concern about the impact of Mr. Gonzales’s memo and the progeny of other memos that it spawned, including the one from Mr. Bybee, which you just quoted from. The impact on our soldiers, both in present conflicts and in future conflicts. For us, Mr. Gonzales’s position wrote the brief for the enemy on justifying maltreatment of American servicemen and servicewomen. Even in World War II, when the threat to America was far greater, and before we even had the present form of the Geneva Conventions, we abided by common international understanding on the proper custody and care of prisoners of war. General Eisenhower was adamant about that. He did not want to give the Nazis, who were hardly nice fellows, an excuse to abuse our prisoners. In general, it worked. We took care of the German and Italian prisoners of war, and generally, the Germans took care of the American prisoners of war appropriately. The current philosophy of Mr. Gonzales and the political lawyers within the administration is that somehow we are involved in a new war that justifies a departure from these past practices. We reject that kind of analysis.


JAMES CULLEN: The current conflict is one of insurgency. This is not the first insurgency we have fought. Anyone who managed to stay awake during a high school history class can recount any number of insurgencies that we have fought. Even during our own Civil War, we adopted and followed the Lieber Code, a professor at Columbia wrote out some rules of war, and it was followed by the Union armies and later on by the Confederate armies. So, there has always been a recognition that there are some rules that are inviolate. We bring that forward. The threats to our nation today, while serious and while people were killed, and I was just three blocks from the World Trade Center when the planes struck, I saw firsthand the devastation, nevertheless, in the world view, in our view of history, the threat to today, while very serious, doesn’t outweigh the threat in World War II nor indeed in our own Civil War or in other conflicts that we’ve been in. The need to afford protection to prisoners of war, the need to follow norms of international law in figuring out who is who among those people detained, categorizing them and treating them in accordance with international law remains as valid and as serious today as it has in bygone conflicts.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking to retired Brigadier General Jim Cullen who joined with other retired generals and admirals in an unprecedented letter to the Judiciary Committee challenging the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales. We’ll be back with him in just a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: The guest is Brigadier General James Cullen, who joined with other retired generals and admirals to write a letter to the Judiciary Committee, which will begin hearings on Thursday on Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General of the United States, challenging that nomination, and confirmation. Vanity Fair, in the latest issue, has a piece where they say that the sexual and physical abuse of Iraqi prisoners continued at least three months after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. Your response.

JAMES CULLEN: Well, there certainly have been reports, verifiable reports, that the wrongdoing continued. It is our contention that these kind of events don’t happen. They’re just not isolated events. In the military, people don’t go off on their own and do these kind of things. You will have individual acts of wrongdoing just like you do in the civilian community, but once you begin to see patterns, and particularly patterns of continuing misconduct, somebody believes that they have authority to do that. Now, even though Mr. Gonzales, I’m sure, never felt he was authorizing the wrongdoing to the extent that it has been revealed, at that level, you must believe at a policy level, when you put in motion, and you put out there memos of the type that he both authored and vided, you have to bear the harvest of what you are sowing.

AMY GOODMAN: The Washington Post today and the New York Times have major pieces. The New York Times saying that Alberto Gonzales intervened directly with Justice Department lawyers in 2002 to obtain a legal ruling on the extent of the president’s authority to permit extreme interrogation practices in the name of national security. The Washington Post saying “In March 2002, U.S. elation at the capture of the Al Qaeda operations chief Abu Zubaida was turning to frustration as he refused to bend to CIA interrogation. But agency officers determined to wring more from Abu Zubaida through threatening interrogations worried about violating international prescriptions on torture, they asked for a legal review — the first ever by the government–on how much pain and suffering a U.S. intelligence officer could inflict on a prisoner without violating a 1994 law that imposes severe penalties including life imprisonment and execution on convicted torturers. The Justice Department’s office of legal counsel took up the task, and at least twice during the drafting, top administration officials were briefed on the results. White House counsel Alberto Gonzales chaired the meetings on the issue, which included detailed descriptions of the interrogation techniques. Such as “water boarding,” a technique intended to make detainees feel as if they are drowning. He raised no objections, and without consulting military and State Department experts in the laws of torture and war, approved an August 2002 memo that gave CIA interrogators the legal blessings they sought.”

JAMES CULLEN: Well, I’d like to pick up on one point in particular. At no time within my knowledge did Mr. Gonzales or the other political lawyers within the administration, who were concerned with these matters, approach the judge advocate generals of the different services. They knew what the answers were going to be. The judge advocates would never approve these kinds of either departures from the Geneva Convention or carrying out torture to this extent.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about lawyers within the military.

JAMES CULLEN: Military lawyers. Exactly. The uniformed lawyers in contrast to the political lawyers. The general counsel, for example of the Department of Defense never took objection, either, as Mr. Gonzales took no objection. They didn’t put on the brakes when they needed to.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Bybee, the attorney within the Justice Department. What were the memos he was responsible for? He has since been elevated in the Bush administration to be a judge. Now, Alberto Gonzales, also directly involved with these memos, has been nominated, so has been elevated under the Bush administration. They want him to be Attorney General.

JAMES CULLEN: Well, I just think that — and I might add that Mr. Haynes, the Department of Defense general counsel, apparently is also being nominated to be a judge, as a reward for going along with this whole pattern of conduct that’s going to cause us so much problems in the past. I point out that while we are engaged with a very dangerous enemy, nevertheless, it is the enemy. And I look back in history, how many of our prisoners refused to give up information to their captors. They acted honorably under terrible conditions in Vietnam, Korea and even in World War II. Now, are we going to write as I think we have, a brief for the enemy to say, well, you justified torturing people, now the same rule applies to us. The old golden rule of torture. I think this is the real tragedy of what the policy of Mr. Gonzales has spawned.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that the beheadings in Iraq, where those that were beheaded, people like Nick Berg, were put in orange jumpsuits before they were beheaded as people held by the U.S. are held in orange jumpsuits, are a reaction to what has come out around the torture?

JAMES CULLEN: Well, It’s very hard for me to speculate about what is in the minds of the crazies, and certainly, those kinds of acts–we have never beheaded anybody. We have never carried out acts of that nature, so we’re dealing with people who are themselves operating outside of the rule of law. Now, if they fall into our hands, the people who have committed heinous acts of that nature, we can deal with them appropriately within the military criminal justice system. But unfortunately, Mr. Gonzales and others seem not to care too much about the rule of law.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have faith that the Democrats in the Senate Judiciary Committee will ask the kinds of questions you are in your letter, do you believe the Geneva Conventions apply to all of these captured by the U.S. authorities in Afghanistan and Iraq, could you support affording the international committee and the Red Cross access to all detainees in custody, do you believe that the CIA and other government intelligence agencies are bound by same laws and restrictions that constrain the operations of the U.S. armed Forces, et cetera, the questions that you raise in this letter?

JAMES CULLEN: Unfortunately, I’m not confident. I read a statement by Mr. Schumer the other day that suggested that it’s a much lower standard for the appointment of an Attorney General, and that the president really ought to be given leeway in whoever is appointed as Attorney General, even though the Attorney General is the chief law enforcement officer of this country, and one would hope that a person given such enormous responsibility has good judgment. But Senator Schumer seems not to be that deeply concerned about it, and I regret that, even though I have respect for him and for the other senators, including Senator Specter. I would hope they get into these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you go from here? Will you be at the hearings?

JAMES CULLEN: No, I will not be, but one of the other signatories to the letter, Admiral John Hudson, who is the retired Navy judge advocate general, I believe, will be testifying.

AMY GOODMAN: So, do you believe that Alberto Gonzales has endangered U.S. troops?

JAMES CULLEN: I think that he has. Not intentionally, but certainly the policy that he has put in place has endangered our soldiers.

AMY GOODMAN: Brigadier General Jim Cullen, joining us in our studio. Signed a letter along with a dozen retired admirals and generals. Brigadier General David Brahms, Brigadier General James Cullen in our studio, Brigadier General Evelyn Foote, Lieutenant General Robert Gard, Vice Admiral Lee Gunn, Admiral Don Guter, General Joseph Hoar, Rear Admiral John Hutson, Lieutenant General Claudia Kennedy, General Merrill McPeak, as well as General John Shalikashvili, the former chair of the joint chiefs of staff, and others, signing the letter that has been sent to the Judiciary Committee, challenging the confirmation of Gonzales as Attorney General. Thank you for being with us.

JAMES CULLEN: Thank you.

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