Transcript: Col. Morris Davis on Guantanamo’s 10th anniversary

Transcript of remarks by Col. Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay, at the New America Foundation’s panel on “Guantanamo Forever?” held on January 10, 2012: 

Col. Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay. SOURCE:

“Well, thank you. It’s uh – we got to quit meeting this way. I know, looking not just at the panel but the audience, I recognize some faces that were here last year. Hopefully one day we’ll meet here and we’ll look back on Guantanamo as a historical footnote rather than an ongoing chapter in our nation’s history.

“You know, Mitt Romney on the campaign trail has taken to quoting passages from America the Beautiful. I remember a passage there from the Star Spangled Banner that says, ‘Land of the free and home of the brave.’ But for some reason over the past decade we’ve become the constrained and cowardly.

“I mean I joined the military in 1983 because I believed in the land of the free and the home of the brave. And I’d like to have my country back – the one that I signed up to serve.

“We have people – fear mongers – that have played to fear and portraying people as the worst of the worst and turning our backs on the law and running from it for the past decade. And we’re still here today on the 10th anniversary of Guantanamo.

“You know, last year when I was here, we kind of went through the history of Guantanamo from 1494, when Columbus landed, to the present. I won’t bore you with that again. It’s on the website if you want to look at it.

“But I was the chief prosecutor from 2005 to 2007, and I resigned when I was pressured to use evidence obtained by torture. I think people can argue whether enhanced interrogation techniques – that’s what most people call torture – produce useful intelligence, but it certainly doesn’t produce reliable evidence to be used in an American criminal proceeding. And when I was told that President Bush said, ‘We don’t torture so who are you say that we do?’ is when I decided to resign.

“It wasn’t popular in Republican circles when I did that but fortunately I got hired to work for Congress.

“And I was the most optimistic person when President Obama got elected in 2009. [sic]

“I mean, in the military, you can’t participate in political activity. And I had just retired from the military, and for the first time got to participate in the fall of 2008. Put up an Obama sign on my yard. I donated money. I went door-to-door. Somebody came to my yard and set my Obama sign on fire. So I went and got another one and to put up another one.

“So I was extraordinarily optimistic when he took office and extraordinarily disappointed when he caved in on his promise to close Guantanamo and end the military commissions.

“I was working for Congress at the time, and I wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that said it’s double-standard justice what we’re doing. Apparently, Democrats weren’t any more pleased with me than the Republicans. I got fired the next day for writing the op-ed. Of course, my case is pending at the D.C. circuit before Judge [David] Sentelle, the same panel that aren’t real fond of detainee rights, and I don’t think they’re real fond of my first amendment rights. But we’ll see.

“But I’m very thankful to organizations that continue to fight the fight after a decade. You know the major organizations. They’re groups like Physicians for Human Rights, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and others that don’t give up.

“You know, it was a British citizen that said, ‘Never never never quit.’ Hopefully Americans remember that too and never quit.

“And I’m thankful for Kurt Schmoke at Howard University Law School for giving me a job. Howard’s motto is, ‘Leading the fight for social justice.’ And looking back at Thurgood Marshall and what he went through to lead the fight for civil rights, I think human rights and humanitarian law fall in that same category.

“If you think about Guantanamo, I mean, from exactly a year ago today to now, what’s changed? I mean, there are 171 people at Guantanamo. There were 173 last year. In a year’s time, we’ve had two people die. We’ve had one person convicted in the military commission. And we’ve had Congress pass the National Defense Authorization Act that makes Guantanamo a permanent fixture. But other than that, nothing’s really changed in the course of a year.

“I mean, think about for a minute, think about these words: falsely imprisoning people, holding them for long periods, trying them in inappropriate circumstances, conducting proceedings in secret, inadequate legal council, confessions obtained by coercion. Does that sound familiar?

“Well, that was from a press statement yesterday from State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland talking about the conviction of Amir Hekmati in Iran. And we condemn Iran for using those procedures, and I’m thinking, ‘It sounds awful familiar to me.’ They were hypocrites for holding ourselves up as being the standard bearer for the rule of law and humanitarian treatment. Yet what we condone for ourselves we condemn for others.

“How did we get there?

“John Yoo did an article in the Wall Street Journal about a week ago where he reviewed a couple of books by David Scheffer and William Shawcross.

“As you can probably imagine, he wasn’t particularly thrilled with Scheffer and he loved Shawcross. But in the article, John Yoo said – and I think this explains how we wound up where we are today.

“This is John Yoo speaking, ‘America’s response to 9/11 caused outrage among intellectuals precisely because it proves so successful preventing further attacks on the United States, eliminating Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda leadership, and beginning the overthrow of vicious authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. The Bush administration projected the international network of activist rights groups and courts in favor of robust unilateral response that drew upon the traditional sources of state power, including diplomacy, economic sanctions, and military force. America’s response was so effective and so hated because it relied on national sources of power, spurred on by a great people’s belief in his own exceptional place in history, taking advantage of its superior economy and military, the United States mounted a worldwide campaign to protect its own security and bring democracy and capitalism to lands that barely knew them.’

“That was the mindset that led to Guantanamo Bay.

“I think America is an exceptional country but we can’t use our exceptionalism to claim that we’re an exception to the laws that apply to everyone else on the planet.

“William Shawcross, who John Yoo mentioned, did an article the next day in the Wall Street Journal and he talked about the current administration.

“As I’ve said, I’ve been extraordinarily disappointed in the lack of leadership from President Obama. I mean, I agree that it’s a difficult when you’ve got a Congress that’s against you. And you give credit where credit’s due. Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney and the far right did a very effective job early in the Obama administration of going on the offensive and painting this as ‘either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.’ And rather than stand up and call their bluff and tell the facts like they are, the president chose to spend his political capital on health care reform, the economy and other areas.

“But we need to get back to who we are in the land of the free and the home of the brave for we do hold up the ideals that others live to.

“But Shawcross talks about the use of drones, which again is another interesting phenomena where President Obama hadn’t just embraced the Bush policies, he’s kissed it on the lips and ran away with it, particularly with the drone program.

“And William Shawcross wrote, ‘The decision to use a drone to kill American citizens in Yemen was a remarkable turnaround for a politician who had criticized almost every aspect of the War on Terror waged by his predecessor in the Oval office. By the fall of 2010, it did not come as such as surprise. By then Mr. Obama has also authorized military trials, which he had once condemned, to take place in Guantanamo, which he had promised to close. Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama had to learn the hard way that as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned, ‘We take, and we must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization.’

“So again I think that’s the mindset that led to a decade of Guantanamo and turning our back on the rule of law.

“As I said it’s unfortunate when we criticize others and we can’t hold ourselves up as the example.

“As a military person – and I spent 25 years in the military – if you think back to 1991 and the first Gulf War, we invaded Iraq and the war was over fairly quickly and with minimal casualties because the Iraqis put down their weapons and raised their hands when they saw American soldiers because of our reputation for humane treatment and following the rule of law. It’s in our national interest to have that reputation.

“Think about the image of America today. Would the same soldiers put their guns down and raise their hands and surrender if they thought they would be sexually humiliated, tortured, and indefinitely detained? So I contend from a military perspective and an international security perspective that it’s not in our interest to maintain this facade that Guantanamo needs to continue indefinitely into the future.

“As I mentioned in the case of Amir Hekmati, you know, it’s one thing to complain about his treatment as unfortunate as the situation that’s he’s in. But we don’t have a strong leg to stand on when we’re condoning the same process in Guantanamo.

“I was driving home a couple of weeks ago and I heard a story on NPR and I turned on the radio in the middle of the story. And it was talking about a person being detained in Cuba and how unfair it was. And I’m thinking, ‘This is going to be a story about Guantanamo.’ But it was a story about Alan Gross, who’s an American citizen who works for the State Department, who was apprehended in Cuba and prosecuted and being detained in a Cuban prison. And the State Department was condemning holding him in that Cuban prison, and I’m thinking, ‘On the other end of the island we’ve got 171 people that we’re doing the same thing to.’

“Again, I think it’s unfortunate that we find ourselves in this situation. I look forward to the day – I always enjoy seeing Andy but I hate seeing him once a year here where we lament about the ongoing saga at Guantanamo Bay. So I’m hoping that we get back to our roots and that when the campaign is over –

“I mean, it’s amazing to me that on the campaign trail right now it seems that you can’t be dumb enough and you can’t be hateful enough. If you’ve watched the debates, what have been the big applause lines? ‘You know, if a person doesn’t have health insurance, we’ll let them die.’ Yeah! ‘We’ve had more execution in Texas than anywhere else.’ Yeah! ‘Waterboarding – if I’m elected, we’ll get back to it.’ Yeah! That’s what the American public – at least that segment of American public – reacts to.

“So I really appreciate you taking time out of your day to come out here again this year to mark the 10th anniversary of Guantanamo, and I hope you’ll get back and talk to your friends and your neighbors and remind them we’re Americans and we’re better than this.



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