Dan Rather Interviews Alberto J. Mora, Former U.S. Navy General Counsel
From our Archives: 100 for 100
November 2, 2006
ALBERTO MORA: My pleasure.
DAN RATHER: It's a pleasure to be with you.
Tell me your story. Walk us through briefly how and when you got onto the Guantánamo story that later consumed so much of your time.
ALBERTO MORA: I was in my office at the Department of the Navy in late 2002, late one afternoon, when the Director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Dave Brant, came to me, and he said that some of his people who were stationed in Guantánamo had heard—not witnessed, but had heard—that there was some detainee abuse going on, and did I want to hear more about this. I said I felt I had to.
Then we arranged for a larger meeting the following day. Dave came back in with several of his senior agents. I invited the Navy two-star admiral who was the Judge Advocate of the Navy to attend, along with a few others. Dave Brant and his people told us a story of detainee abuse in Guantánamo. It was limited to one or just a few individuals, and they provided us some fragments of transcripts that indicated clearly that there was abusive treatment going on. They also said that the rumor in Guantánamo was that this abuse had been authorized by higher authorities in Washington, but they had not seen those authorizations.
My reaction was that this was unlawful activity, it was profoundly contrary to our national interests, contrary to our interests in the war on terror, and that it would be a scandal if in fact it was not controlled. I promised the individuals I would try to find out more about this and see what I could do. That's how it started.
DAN RATHER: Let me back up for a moment. Your job at the time was?
ALBERTO MORA: I was General Counsel of the Department of the Navy, which made me the chief legal officer of the Navy and Marine Corps.
DAN RATHER: And your direct superior?
ALBERTO MORA: Was the Secretary of the Navy.
DAN RATHER: So that's the position you were in when they came to your office and said, "Some of the men are worried about what's going on in Guantánamo?"
ALBERTO MORA: That's right.
DAN RATHER: What happened next?
ALBERTO MORA: I tried to track down these authorities they had discussed. I called the Army General Counsel, who was a good friend—
DAN RATHER: The Army General Counsel?
ALBERTO MORA: That's right. What is called Executive Agent for Detainee Treatment, meaning that they had the lead among all the services for providing logistical and other kinds of support to the combatant commanders as part of the operations in the war on terror. So I knew that if anybody would know about these authorities it was likely to be the Army chain of command.
So I called this individual. I said, "I'm hearing that there are abuses of detainees in Guantánamo. Do you know anything about this?" He said, "I know a lot about this. Come on down." I almost fell out of my chair, because you place those kinds of phone calls and you never get a positive answer—at least I wasn't expecting to receive one.
I went down to his office, met with him, and he pushed across the papers, a stack of documents that started at the very bottom with a request from the commanding officer of the Guantánamo prison for the use of certain "counter-resistant interrogation techniques," as they were labeled, three different categories of interrogation techniques.
The documents indicated that it went up the chain of command, through SOUTHCOM [the U.S. Southern Command] in Miami, up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon, and then the top document was a transmittal memo from the Department of Defense General Counsel to Secretary Rumsfeld asking for authority to engage or apply certain of these interrogation techniques. The documents had Secretary Rumsfeld's signature, indicating approval of some, not all, of the techniques.
DAN RATHER: What was your reaction?
ALBERTO MORA: As I thumbed through the documents, I was looking for language of limitation. Specifically, what I was looking for was a sentence in there that said "You may apply these techniques only to the point at which they reach the level of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment," which arguably would have made all of this permissible and legal. But those words weren't in there. It was a completely unlimited set of discretion. As such, I felt that this document was unlawful.
But I also felt throughout my initial review that this was all a mistake, meaning that up and down the chain of command nobody had really thought through seriously enough what the implications of the authority requested and granted was, and that had they known they would never have given this kind of authority.
DAN RATHER: So that's what was going through your head at the time?
ALBERTO MORA: Right.
DAN RATHER: Did you or did you not say to yourself, "This looks to me like big trouble?" Or was it, "I don't like the looks of this, but we can probably be okay with it?"
ALBERTO MORA: I never said the last thing. It was big trouble from the start. I mean this was authorizing what I thought was unlawful activity, an activity that, because of its very nature, would become scandalous. It was bound to create a severe public outcry and backlash were it ever known that in fact the United States was engaged in this practice.
I felt it would also have serious foreign policy consequences to us. I
thought it would impair our ability to fight the war on terror successfully
because our allies would not tolerate this kind of conduct.
There was nothing good about that set of documents in my view.
DAN RATHER: And where did you go from there and where did the story go from there?
ALBERTO MORA: I took the document stack to the Department of Defense General Counsel, who had sent it to Secretary Rumsfeld for his authorization, and put the document down on the desk. It was a lengthy conversation, lasted about an hour. The critical point was my telling the General Counsel that these documents authorize torture. His immediate response was, "No, they don't."
Then I urged him to think through a little more carefully about these specific interrogation techniques. For example, deprivation of light—my question to him was, "What does this mean? Deprivation of light for an hour, a day, a week, a month, until he goes blind?" Deprivation of sound—the same sort of questions. Detainee-specific phobia techniques—what are these; the rats, the bats, the snakes? Lock somebody up in a coffin—for how long? Clearly, each one of these techniques individually, and certainly in combination, if applied in certain ways, could easily reach the level of torture.
That was the argument I made. There were other arguments as well. I left the office thinking—in fact, being certain—that as soon as I would leave the office, calls would be made to the Secretary and actions would be taken to rescind the authorizations.
DAN RATHER: And were they?
ALBERTO MORA: Nope, not initially.
The following day, I went to Miami on a Christmas vacation. During that vacation, I continued to get reports from NCIS that the abuse was still continuing in Guantánamo.
DAN RATHER: NCIS is?
ALBERTO MORA: The Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
It struck me then that this was all still a big mistake but it had not been
I went back to Washington. My staff, the Navy JAG [Judge Advocate General] staff, had been conducting greater in-depth legal research and policy research into the implications of these authorizations. I went back to see the General Counsel with the same and some new arguments as to why we shouldn't be doing this kind of activity.
DAN RATHER: I want to refer to things that I think you have said before, but—correct me if I'm wrong—you believed that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's authorization of certain interrogation methods and techniques amounted to condoning torture?
ALBERTO MORA: They could condone torture.
DAN RATHER: And why was that your belief?
ALBERTO MORA: Because there was no limitation on the scope of the
effect that these techniques could achieve. What you would hope to see in those
kinds of documents would in fact be limitations on the degree to which you could
go and apply the techniques.
DAN RATHER: Help us understand. In abuse or mistreatment, cruelty, and torture, what distinctions do you make between abuse, mistreatment, cruelty, torture? Give us a rough definition of terms.
ALBERTO MORA: It is very difficult to define. One can say the classic
definition, which is that cruelty is the imposition of severe physical or mental
pain or suffering on a person.
Torture is an extreme version of cruelty. The distinction is important because there is a legal distinction, both in domestic law and international law, between cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, on the one hand, and then torture, on the other.
Torture is banned under international treaty conventions and U.S. domestic legislation and is regarded to be a universal crime. Many nations believe that there is universal jurisdiction against anybody engaged in the application of torture. Pinochet, for example, was apprehended and tried in Spain and Great Britain because it was alleged that he had committed torture on a number of Chilean individuals during his tenure as president of Chile.
Now, cruelty is barred under U.S. domestic legislation. But the international prohibition of this is less certain, even though the Geneva Conventions, for example, do also bar the application of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. But because there is a distinction, it is important to keep that distinction in mind, and that distinction has played an important role in the debate in this country as to how detainees should be treated.
To my mind, it is unfortunate that many people have classified all of this as torture, because it is entirely possible somebody may not be applying torture, and say he is not applying torture, but nonetheless be applying cruel treatment to detainees.
In my view, the standard which we subscribe to as Americans constitutionally, as part of our values, as part of our legislation, is that we do not treat anybody cruelly. That is the basis and part of the foundations of our democracy, certainly the basis for our legal system.
DAN RATHER: Excuse me. Keeping in mind that by your definition cruelty is bad, it's terrible—but torture is worse?
ALBERTO MORA: Torture is worse.
And then, complicating matters even further, whether something is cruelty or torture is always specific to the individual. You might have an eighty-year-old grandmother, and mild treatment might be considered by her as torturous. If you have a middleweight prizefighter in peak condition sitting in the chair undergoing exactly the same treatment, his tolerance for that kind of abuse would be much, much higher. So all of this will depend on the individual and what the effects are on that person.
DAN RATHER: You have spoken about crossing the line of cruelty. Where is the line?
ALBERTO MORA: It's difficult to say. This is one of those terms in the
law that does not lend itself to a very precise, mathematical definition. Which
is not to say that the boundary doesn't exist, because there are many terms in
the law that have somewhat vague terms. It's almost like the definition of
pornography, that you know it when you see it. There comes a certain point where
the application of certain treatment to individuals becomes so abusive that then
most reasonable people would say it is either cruel, or even becomes torturous,
DAN RATHER: Let me pause and get the chain of command straight. You were Counsel for the Navy. You answer to the Secretary of the Navy. The Secretary of the Navy answers to whom?
ALBERTO MORA: The Secretary of Defense.
DAN RATHER: Directly to the Secretary of Defense?
ALBERTO MORA: Right.
DAN RATHER: But you mentioned the Chief Counsel for the Defense Department. Would he have been your superior?
ALBERTO MORA: Not really. The chain of command is from the President to the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commanders in times of war. So military operations now in Iraq, for example, answer to this chain of command. The Secretary of the Navy is not engaged in military operations, so he is not in the chain of command for those kinds of purposes.
All of the military services are engaged in the training, equipping, and organizing of the military services. We provide combat-ready forces to the Secretary of Defense and to the combatant commanders.
However, the Secretary of the Navy's authorities stem from the Secretary of Defense, so the Secretary of the Navy is responsible and acts under the authority, control, and direction of the Secretary of Defense.
The Department of Defense General Counsel could, acting under the Secretary's authorities, give me instructions as Navy General Counsel, which I will be bound to follow for these very reasons.
DAN RATHER: You said almost from the beginning you thought this was not just trouble but big trouble, and you went back and you shared that with your superior?
ALBERTO MORA: Right.
DAN RATHER: Who shared it with the superiors above him?
ALBERTO MORA: My superior told me to use my judgment. When I went back and talked to Secretary England, who was transitioning to the Department of Homeland Security, he acknowledged what I told him. I indicated to him what I intended to do, which was to raise the matter and seek it to be abandoned by DoD [the Department of Defense], and he gave me authority to go ahead using my own judgment.
DAN RATHER: And you did that?
ALBERTO MORA: That's exactly what I did.
DAN RATHER: And what happened?
ALBERTO MORA: As I mentioned, I went to Mr. Haynes once. Nothing happened after the first visit, for a period of two weeks plus. I came back to the Pentagon after my Christmas vacation and raised the matter again with him at length, providing other reasons why this could not be done.
For example, there is the fact that this behavior was criminal behavior under most European jurisdictions. These European countries were our allies in the war on terror, or we wished them to become our allies in the war on terror. But I felt that their involvement in these kinds of activities would be hindered, or made even impossible, because they would always be questioning whether or not any activity they would get into on detainee treatment may not be aiding and abetting in what would be considered criminal activity within their own jurisdictions.
Also, these very interrogation techniques have been analyzed by the European Court of Human Rights, for example, and held to be cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, which was classified as illegal.
These policies also implicitly repeal our nation's historic commitment to
So there was a whole battery of reasons, ranging both from the law, to foreign policy, to security policy, all of which argued that a policy of cruelty was not in our best interests. I made that argument to the General Counsel. Ultimately, nothing happened then either.
About January 15th of that year—this was 2003—I went to the General Counsel
again and gave him a draft memorandum, which I proposed to sign and send out
that afternoon, stating that these techniques constituted torture. After he had
reviewed the memorandum, he called me and he said that he had good news: that he
had talked to Secretary Rumsfeld about it, and that Secretary Rumsfeld was
prepared to rescind those authorities. In fact, the Secretary did rescind those
authorities that day.
DAN RATHER: It turns out that the Administration either would not or could not see it the way that you saw it. Is that a fair assessment?
ALBERTO MORA: I think it's probably a fair assessment. But I think the historical record is not entirely clear. I know many would disagree with me in saying that. I think many would say that the historical record is amply clear on this. But I don't think it is exactly clear.
DAN RATHER: But in this area what are the major questions? You say you would agree with it as a general proposition but you think in detail history may prove it wrong. What are the major questions for history?
ALBERTO MORA: There were two channels through which abusive treatment occurred. One was initially in the Department of Defense channels, operational military forces. The other was in the intelligence channels. I think the record is clear that many of these high-value detainees were held by intelligence agencies and were interrogated by intelligence agencies. I think the record is now also pretty clear that requests for authority to apply these kinds of treatments went up, certainly to the White House, from both channels. We're not certain what kind of authorities the intelligence agencies received.
I know that Secretary Rumsfeld rescinded those harsh interrogation techniques
in early 2003. And yet, after that there were authorizations issued to certain
military commanders stating that, although these techniques were banned,
individuals had discretion to come back to the Secretary and seek approval of
their application and he would consider those. The record isn't clear whether
those applications were sought and received, and the record isn't clear as to
what happened with the intelligence channels.
I think what the historical record will show is that abuse fell into various different categories. Some abuse was expressly authorized by the highest authorities. I think some abuse occurred as a result of, perhaps, lack of leadership, confusing signals being sent out, lack of adequate command and control on the part of military and other kinds of authorities.
And I think some abuse occurred despite the best efforts of everybody in command to prevent this from occurring. For example, in Iraq the Administration has always been of the view, or has taken the position, that Geneva Convention rules applied, and of course they forbid the application of cruel treatment to all detainees. And yet, Abu Ghraib occurred and other types of abuses occurred.
So where does each specific instance of abuse fall in these various categories? I think it would span the gamut. But it is enough to say that for some detainees the United States government authorized and applied a policy of cruelty.
DAN RATHER: You came to that conclusion when?
ALBERTO MORA: I came to that conclusion after Abu Ghraib.
DAN RATHER: Why then?
ALBERTO MORA: Because in the intervening time Secretary Rumsfeld had rescinded the authorization of techniques; and the DoD General Counsel had written a letter to Senator Patrick Leahy which spoke for the Administration, and the letter said that the United States not only did not apply torture, it did not apply cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. I wrote an email to the General Counsel after I saw that and I congratulated him, because I felt this was exactly where our nation should be, and I told him I was proud to be on America's team.
Also, I had heard from the agents at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service that the abuses at Guantánamo had stopped, and I had not received any further reports of abusive treatment, until after Abu Ghraib then opened up what in fact was a much broader pattern of abuse within the U.S. government.
DAN RATHER: What else did that tell you? You said up until Abu Ghraib you had some doubt as to what the situation was and after that you reached your conclusion.
ALBERTO MORA: What it told me is summarized by the statement, that for a period the United States had adopted a policy of cruelty. To me that is a damning statement, because it is contrary to everything we stand for, it is subversive of our principal values, it is destructive of our constitutional order, and it is counterproductive in the war on terror and our foreign policy.
DAN RATHER: To those persons, and there are some, people who love their country as much as you and I do—that's not our issue—but to the people who say, "Even if that's so, in the wake of 9/11, cruel acts beget cruel acts"—a version of "I don't like it, but the country probably had to do it in order to defend itself"—you would say what?
ALBERTO MORA: I would say that if we thought it through a little more carefully, we would see how destructive such a policy would be of our nation. Our country, our Constitution, our set of beliefs, is based upon the premise of the overriding importance of human dignity. It is because we believe in the importance of human dignity that the Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment and the jurisprudence of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibits cruel treatment to individuals.
If you can apply cruel treatment to an individual, such as a 9/11 hijacker, then it means that the statement that our forefathers premised the Constitution on, which is that all persons have inalienable rights, which would include the right to be free from cruel treatment, was a false statement. And if that was a false statement, then the underpinnings for our Constitution start to dissolve.
But beyond that, I would answer the individual by saying that the application of cruelty has made us weaker, has made us less able to defend ourselves, in the war on terror.
Now, why is that? The reason is because in this particular war, where the adversary is broadly dispersed in many different countries, we need by definition a broad coalition. Our traditional allies all have laws that make it a criminal activity to apply cruelty. These individuals in these nations have not been able to cooperate with us as we would have wished because their cooperation in cruel treatment is a criminal act under their legislation. So it has inhibited the formation and maintenance of a broad-based coalition to fight the war on terror, and it would continue to have this effect to the extent that the United States continues to pursue a policy of cruelty.
DAN RATHER: I want to get back to your story. By the time Abu Ghraib happens, we are at what time and you are at what place in your military career?
ALBERTO MORA: This would have been about my third year in the Pentagon. I was still Department of the Navy General Counsel. I would have about another year and a half to go before I would leave the Department of the Navy.
DAN RATHER: And your rank was?
ALBERTO MORA: It was equivalent to a four-star admiral, although I was a civilian of course.
DAN RATHER: I understand.
What happened after Abu Ghraib with you?
ALBERTO MORA: After Abu Ghraib, then the debate became more acute as to these kinds of policies. The investigations were launched inside the Department of Defense and there was increased debate within the Pentagon as to whether or not we would engage in these kinds of policies.
I should say also that there was a lot of confusion, confusion and a lack of information, within the upper reaches of the Department of the Navy and elsewhere as to precisely what had been authorized and who was responsible for what.
My activities at that time as they related to detainees were involved in the creation of what are called combatant status review tribunals, to assess whether or not the detainees in Guantánamo were properly classified as unlawful enemy combatants, and also the establishment of the administrative review boards to help reassess them on an annual basis concerning dangerousness and whether they should continue to be held.
My involvement also extended to the policy analysis of some of these legal decisions in the war on terror. One can analyze application of cruelty as a legal matter, but one also should analyze it as to whether it is as a policy supportive of our larger overarching foreign policy and national security goals. I was also engaged in that debate in the Pentagon.
DAN RATHER: How much longer were you in the military?
ALBERTO MORA: I left the Department of the Navy in December of 2005.
DAN RATHER: While this was going on, from the moment you raised your questions and said, "This doesn't look right to me," when you went to the General Counsel of the Army, your friend, and he showed you the papers, did you face criticism for raising the questions?
ALBERTO MORA: No. I think what would come as a surprise to most individuals is that I was never directly criticized for my actions in the Department of Defense or the Department of the Navy. To the contrary, I received an enormous amount of support from both civilians and career military lawyers and operators concerning this stance.
Most individuals in the Department of Defense are firmly of the view that these activities are unlawful, contrary to our national values, and contrary to our interests in the war on terror.
DAN RATHER: At Guantánamo, knowing what you know, do you believe that crimes were committed there?
ALBERTO MORA: It's possible that crimes were committed there. Certainly, if any of this treatment reached the level of torture, I don't think there would be anybody who would disagree that a crime was committed.
DAN RATHER: And the responsibility for those crimes then would be how high? Would it stop with the commander of Guantánamo?
ALBERTO MORA: It's hard to say. That would be a difficult question for me to answer, and one that it would be difficult for me to speculate on. It is specific to the individual, specific to the acts. If it reached the level of torture—and that's a fact-specific inquiry—then the ensuring inquiry would be how high did these authorities go, who knew about this, and who authorized it.
DAN RATHER: You know, there are many people—and now I'm speaking about people outside the military, or there may be some inside the military—who say, "Listen, there has been so muchAbu—Ghraib, what has happened in Guantánamo, whether you believe that crimes that can be prosecuted were committed or not, this is not the American way. We have seen the pictures, we have heard the testimony. How could this happen?" This is the question that gets asked of journalists very often: "How could this happen without higher-ups, particularly the highest higher-ups, knowing about it?"
Now, you've been on the inside. Could it happen that they didn't know?
ALBERTO MORA: Oh, absolutely, it could easily happen. Anybody who reads military history will understand that this occurs in every conflict in all armed forces. You have the pathological individuals who only too readily apply brutal treatment to detainees. It happens.
In our case, the case of the United States, the answers are more complex, because I think what happened here is something we've seen in other conflicts. For example, during World War II the United States detained 130,000 Japanese-American citizens for the duration of the conflict, even though they were American citizens and even though the Constitution would hold that you can't do that. Instead, the Supreme Court endorsed the constitutionality of that detention.
American history shows that when the nation is attacked and our citizens are both afraid and angry, then many citizens are willing to bend the rules for what they perceive to be a measure that is necessary for their safety. I think that is what happened in this kind of case. We both dehumanized the enemy and, because we were acting somewhat out of fear, we felt that these measures were necessary to protect Americans. I think those were the underlying assumptions and beliefs that led to the application of these measures.
DAN RATHER: Correct me if I'm wrong. Part of what you are telling me that you learned out of this—perhaps you knew it before—is that fear leads to anger and anger can lead to extreme acts.
ALBERTO MORA: I think that's right. It's important to recognize that now. Thankfully, in no small measure because of the aggressive posture of the President, of the American military, American law enforcement, and American intelligence agencies, we have not been attacked since 9/11. But I think most people believe that another attack is not only likely, it's probable at some point.
I think it is important for us as a nation to understand the consequences of adopting these kinds of policies now, when we are not under direct attack, when we are not considering the wisdom of these measures in the backdrop of American dead. It is during these times of relative tranquility that we can make a cool assessment of what the cost to the nation would be, so that when that attack does come again, if it comes again, we are able to make the right calls this time, unlike the last time.
DAN RATHER: From what you have seen, is there a case to be presented to an international war crimes tribunal about what happened in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib?
ALBERTO MORA: Mr. Rather, I'd prefer not to go down that path. If that were to be the case, it would be personally painful for me, because it would involve individuals that I served in the Administration with. Others may go down that road and seek to answer those kinds of questions, but it's not an inquiry that I think I would probably be a part of.
DAN RATHER: Well, as you well know, to ask the question is not to suggest that I know the answer. My common-sense guess is that most Americans would prefer to handle it in our own judicial system, in our own military, in our own Department of Defense. But outside the country the question gets asked, "Why shouldn't this be taken to a war crimes tribunal?"—which you have given your answer to, that that's not a place where you want to go.
Has this changed you as a person and as a professional?
ALBERTO MORA: I think if it has changed me it is because it has made me reflect much more deeply into the underpinnings of our Constitution and our values. As a lawyer, you tend to ask primarily the question "Is it legal?" But there are situations, such as this one, in which we are talking about U.S. behavior overseas, where domestic laws don't always apply. Then you have to ask yourself the question "Is this right behavior, right action, by the United States?" It causes you to analyze the structure of our beliefs, the structure of our values, the intersection of our values and our ethics with law. To that extent, it has made me much more aware of our legal system, our values, and what it is that we stand for as a nation.
It has also caused me to reflect as to the intersection between law and foreign policy. Law supports our foreign policy; it is not divorced from it. Foreign policy is not undertaken or executed in the absence of legal structures. It's important that we think more about this.
How we behave, whether we treat detainees with cruelty or not, is also to say how we wish the world to be. If we can apply cruelty to detainees, it is to say that we would be tolerant of other nations applying cruelty to other individuals for other reasons. To do that would be to turn our backs on a historic American vocation, which is to support human dignity, to support human rights, and to labor for those international institutions that are supportive of these ventures. If we turn our back on all of this, then the world will be a very different place, and it would not be as good a place as it is now.
DAN RATHER: You said it's in the nature of being a lawyer, that's what a lawyer does, to ask the question "Is it legal?" Should it be, or is it, in the nature of a warrior to ask those same questions?
ALBERTO MORA: Lawyers ask those questions all the time. American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan take casualties every day because they exercise restraint, and they exercise restraint in the use of force because it is in the American nature to protect the innocent and it is the American nature to protect those who may be innocent even though they may be in a zone of conflict.
When the Marines went into both Iraq and Afghanistan, the commander of the Marine forces in his message to the Marines urged them on both occasions to maintain their honor clean, and the message was unmistakable: A Marine will not use force indiscriminately, will only use force against the enemies of the nation, will not use methods that we know to be un-American.
So warriors think about that all the time, and that's one of the things that makes them as effective as they are in fighting our nation's battles.
DAN RATHER: Now I'm asking you to help me with some analysis. How did we as a country, as a people, reach the point where a lot of people overseas, outside of our own country, believe that we have deliberately, with malice aforethought, or certainly with forethought, gone to cruelty and torture as a matter of foreign policy, military policy, and national policy? How did we get there?
ALBERTO MORA: Well, for most of our traditional allies—meaning all of
Europe and Canada, Australia, New Zealand, other nations—for them there's no
doubt about it, for them it's crystal clear, that the United States has embarked
on a policy of cruel treatment of detainees and has, as the Parliamentary Union
of the European Community put it, turned our back on our most fundamental
Any American official, like myself, who traveled overseas and participated in international fora during the last four and a half years, was confronted by foreign officials who would accuse us of precisely these kinds of activities. I've been accused publicly by Colombian supreme court justices and the chief military officers of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand of having engaged in violations of the laws of war, of having betrayed the Geneva Conventions, and of having severely undermined the very fabric of international law. These are views that are widely, even universally, held by our traditional allies, and it comes from the acts I've described and forgetting the boundaries created by the very precedents, the laws, the institutions, and practices that we have created since World War II.
DAN RATHER: You've traveled, you said, at least fairly extensively. How do we climb back to the high ground?
ALBERTO MORA: I think we have started to do that. The adoption of the McCain Amendments, which prohibit cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, in December 2005 is a very important step in that direction. It has been reinforced by the Detainee Treatment Act. I think most people are now of the view that U.S. legislation now very clearly and universally forbids the application of cruelty to any detainee, regardless of who holds them and regardless of where that person is held. That is a big step in terms of regaining our moral authority and returning to the status quo ante.
But there is more that needs to be done. This war on terror is going to go on for a long time. Our willingness to apply due process to individuals, to treat people decently and humanely, will be tested in many other ways. The trials of the detainees in Guantánamo, for example, and the degree of fairness that we afford them, will be tests of our character and our legal system. We have to be vigilant about these kinds of matters.
So there will be many more opportunities to be tested and to demonstrate our return to traditional values in the years ahead.
DAN RATHER: What's the single most important thing, in your opinion, for the American people to know about the subject of cruel, unusual, torturous treatment and the allegations that they have been applied to prisoners—the single most important thing for us to know?
ALBERTO MORA: That's a hard question. I would answer it this way. First of all, that we have done it, we have applied cruelty to individuals. Second of all, it is destructive of everything we stand for. And, third of all, it weakens us in the war on terror; it is false to think for a moment that it makes us stronger in this war.
DAN RATHER: What question have I not asked you that I should have asked you?
ALBERTO MORA: I think you've covered them pretty well.
DAN RATHER: Your background is what, just for the record and for people who haven't read about you or don't know about you? You grew up where, you went where, what's your political background, educational background?
ALBERTO MORA: I was born in Boston of a Cuban father and a Hungarian
mother. I grew up in Cuba until I was eight, then Mississippi until graduation
from high school. I went to Swarthmore College as an undergraduate, went into
the State Department as a Foreign Service officer, and traveled fairly
I would emphasize my Cuban and Hungarian heritage. There is nobody whose family has lived through communist dictatorships who does not understand, perhaps with a bit more immediacy than most Americans, what the absence of the rule of law and the disregard for human dignity would do to a country. Cruelty is a technique of dictatorships, not a technique that we want to have any commerce with. So, perhaps because my background embodies an important segment of those countries, I may be a little more sensitive to these issues than most individuals.
DAN RATHER: You grew up in Mississippi?
ALBERTO MORA: I did.
DAN RATHER: And went to college and university?
ALBERTO MORA: I went to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Then, after the State Department, I went to the University of Miami Law School. I practiced law in Miami as a trial attorney for ten years, and then came back to Washington to enter the first Bush Administration, where I was General Counsel of the U.S. Information Agency. I then returned to the private sector. I also served part-time under President Clinton on the Broadcasting Board of Governors. So I have been practicing law for over twenty-five years, but over all my entire lifetime, about a third of it has been in foreign policy positions, both in the career junior levels to high, appointed positions, under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
DAN RATHER: Generally speaking, though, in a Democratic administration one would not become the General Counsel to the Navy without being active in politics and being considered a Democrat. Now extrapolate from that. In a Republican administration—this is an appointment a lot of people would like to have—you don't get that job unless you at least convince somebody that you are a Republican.
ALBERTO MORA: You're right. I am a Republican. During my early life, I
was on the fence because I saw good and bad things about both parties. But what
happened was, during the Contra years in Central America, when the Democratic Party
refused to support the Contras, as the son of a Cuban father, I felt that I
could no longer entertain any belief that the Democratic Party stood for what I
stood for in the realm of foreign policy. So I joined the Republican Party. Then
I was appointed, as I mentioned, to the first Bush Administration.
But I was not political in the sense that I had worked in political campaigns or donated large amounts of money to the candidates. I had never really done any of that. But I have always affiliated myself more with the Republican ideals in foreign policy, and to some extent in domestic policy as well.
DAN RATHER: Where I was going with that is it would strike some people that it may have taken more guts, it may have taken more courage, to take the position you took as a self-described Republican and a conservative politically, who might have been expected to go along or get along a little more than most people.
ALBERTO MORA: I never saw it in that kind of fashion. When I saw the policy of cruelty in these decisions, among my early thoughts was, "This is going to hurt the President. The people who supported these kinds of policies are doing things that are going to hurt my Administration. They are going to hurt the Navy, the Marine Corps, going to hurt the Department of Defense, going to hurt the war on terror, going to hurt the nation, but are also going to hurt the President." My sense was that I was going to get into this policy debate and I was going to win because I was convinced that these were the better policies politically as well as for the country.
DAN RATHER: I think we're there. I really appreciate your time. I found it quite interesting, to say the least. I learned a lot.
ALBERTO MORA: I appreciate the questioning.
DAN RATHER: Congratulations.
ALBERTO MORA: Thank you.