For Immediate Release: October 22, 2010
Thursday, October 21, 2010 at 2:00 PM, Moderated by Elisa Massimino, President and CEO, Human Rights First
Washington, D.C. – Transcript by Federal News Service
ELISA MASSIMINO: Thank you and welcome, everybody. I’m Elisa Massimino, the president and CEO of Human Rights First. Today, I’m joined by Adm. Don Guter, retired Judge Advocate General of the Navy, and Maj. Gen. Walter Stewart, a retired commander of the 28th Infantry Division from the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.
Since 2005, approximately 50 retired admirals and generals, including these two, have been engaged in a nonpartisan education effort to make sure that American counterterrorism policies comport with our laws, values and national security interests.
Members of the group have worked to educate policymakers, candidates and the public that torture is not only wrong; it’s bad for our national security; that Guantanamo must be closed and that our federal courts are the proper venue for trying terrorism suspects.
This group does not endorse candidates.
Over the past several months, members of the group have traveled to states including Pennsylvania and met with congressional candidates of both parties to speak with them about the importance of making sure our policies are smart and lawful and consistent with our values and our national security interests.
We’re speaking with you today because we’re aware that the question of where to try terrorism suspects has surfaced in Pennsylvania. In order to make sure that the debate on these issues is well-informed by the facts, we’re airing an advertisement over the next few days on network television in Pennsylvania.
Adm. Guter, over to you.
ADM. (RET.) DON GUTER: Hi, this is Adm. Don Guter. And I’m speaking to you today actually from New York City where I’ve been since last night, and as you know, there’s a trial going on right now with a former Guantanamo detainee, al-Ghailani. I believe you probably all know about that, with the bombing of the embassy.
And I wanted to talk to you because I think it’s absolutely critical that we treat the terrorism suspects in a way that continues to comport with our laws and values and national security interests. It’s not – these aren’t issues about politics. They’re issues about national security interest. And we’ve been involved with this for a number of years and that’s the most important thing for us.
We believe that the federal courts are the right place to try the suspects. And they’ve already convicted over 400 suspects. And in contrast, the military has convicted four people and two of them have already been released. So we don’t think we need to undermine our justice system or our value for the likes of KSM. We think these people should be tried in federal courts where we try numerous heinous criminals; drug lords and the like.
And again, speaking from New York City, I can tell you there are no issues here. It’s business as normal. No inconvenience, no security interests that are being violated; it’s just business as usual. And I think that’s important for everybody to understand.
As I said, we’ve been doing this for a number of years and we’ve found over those years that when we talk to people, be they candidates or policymakers or members of the public, the press, and we get out the facts, they agree that we can and should bring terrorism suspects to justice in federal courts.
Over months and years, I think we’re pretty pleased with our efforts. But as you can see, these efforts, although they’re largely successful, issues keep cropping up and they become political footballs, if you will.
Recently, we’ve met with about 11 congressional candidates in Pennsylvania from both parties although not the two senatorial candidates right now – at least I didn’t. In Illinois, members of our group met with 12 candidates, House and Senate – again, both parties; always keeping it nonpartisan. We’ve been working in Washington where we continue to talk to and try to educate elected officials. And recently, members of our group met with three of the four campaign committees and we shared with them our beliefs in the issues and that they might not be turned into partisan.
We monitor public debates on these issues and try and step in when we think that the facts are being portrayed not as accurately as they could be and we’re speaking out today on this call and in the advertisements that we’ve prepared because it’s important that we continue to try to get the facts out and make them stick.
Thanks very much, Adm. Guter. Gen. Stewart?
MAJ. GEN. (RET.) WALTER STEWART: Yes, my name is Gen. Walter Stewart. I’m speaking to you from Berks County, Pennsylvania, and a beautiful day today in Pennsylvania, and I’m sure you realize that and are enjoying it as well.
Well, I like to preface remarks when I get a chance to do a little advertisement here, and that is that the 28th Infantry Division is probably the finest group of young men and women that Pennsylvania and the nation has in service. So we’re always looking for a few good men and women to join our ranks, so if you could help get that word out, we certainly would appreciate it.
I am proud to be a member of Human Rights First and our military group of retirees in a nonpartisan manner that is trying to get out some concerns we have with really national direction. They’re not – as I said, I believe these are nonpartisan issues. And that’s the way they should be dealt with.
Adm. Guter has already mentioned that the civilian courts, the civil courts, have brought justice to jihadi criminals and thugs in 400 cases, where the military courts are only four. So you know, if you’re going to make a bet, I would say a 1-percent solution is probably not the bet that you should be making.
And also, you know, I view this as a warfighting issue as well. I mean, I’m a Vietnam veteran. I’ve been at the tip of the spear. So I know how confused that sometimes – those things can get. But here in the policy halls of the United States of America, there should not be confusion.
And I will say that running a court system is not a core competency of the military. We are not good at it. The civil courts are good at it. It is not one of those things that we are good at. Really, the courts don’t fight our wars and we should not be running a court system.
You know, I view part of what we’re doing here as both a moral and a strategic imperative, a warfighting imperative. Jihadi thugs and criminals, they crave being classes as warriors. And I think in almost all cases, those who have been tried in the civil courts have said it’s like – (inaudible) – warrior. There’s going to be others that are going to follow me. Military courts grant warrior status to those they try. The civil courts do not. The civil courts try these people as the criminals, mass-murdering criminals that they are. And that is exactly what they deserve.
I also think there is an issue of, if not condescension – that is not the right word on this – but you know, people should not – I think there is some degree that people will assume that, well, the military courts, you know, you’re going to have – it’s like they’ll be less lax on evidence and this sort of thing. And you know, it’s going to be easier to get a conviction in the military courts. Well, you know, the 400-to-one – the 1-percent solution – it obviously denies that.
But all military officers are sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. And that would include our military judges and whatever the system is with the officers on that. So they’re going to defend the – they’re going to apply constitutional principles just the way the civil courts would.
I also want to bring up the issue of – (inaudible) – never taken a combat division to war. But I have had many full-scale division exercises that I have been a participant in. And in our warfighting operations books, we always have an annex in there for psychological operations. And again, I go back to say that it is in our warfighting interest that jihadi thugs and murderers be categorized as jihadi thugs and murderers. They want to view themselves as warrior status, as warriors. And when we grant them that, we demean our own warriors.
We need to classify them as criminals, murdering criminals, extraordinary criminals, but common criminals nevertheless. And that’s my position on this. And I look forward to your questions.
MS. MASSIMINO: Thank you, Gen. Stewart. We have a couple people on the phone, I think. I don’t know if we have anyone lined up for questions right now. Can I – operator, can you let us know?
OPERATOR: Yes. At this time, if you would like to ask a question, please press the *, then 1 on your touchtone phone. If you’d like to withdraw yourself from the question queue at any time, you can do so by pressing the # key. Once again, it’s *1 to ask a question. And we’ll pause just a moment to allow questions to queue.
Again, that is *1 to ask a question.
It appears that we have no questions at this time.
MS. MASSIMINO: While we’re waiting, I just want to underscore – this is Elisa – one of the things that Adm. Guter mentioned about the receptivity that we’ve seen to this message and really the effort to get the facts out. I have been struck by what we’ve seen going all the way back to the efforts that we made during the 2008 presidential elections where we met with members of campaigns of candidates from both parties. And it was stunning to me the degree of receptivity there was once there was a discussion that was really based on the facts. And in fact, there was quite a lot of agreement on these national security issues when they were placed in that framework and taken out of the partisan context.
You know, in the visit to Pennsylvania that the group did several months ago where we met with – I think – almost a dozen candidates from all parties, we heard back from those candidates from all parties that these were facts that they had not been aware of and that this certainly was not the way that the issues had been portrayed in the media or in the political campaign ads and such.
So it was – I think – very encouraging to us to see this kind of receptivity to the fact. And of course, there can be no better spokespeople for this national security message than this group of retired military leaders, including Gen. Stewart and Adm. Guter.
ADM. GUTER: I would have to agree with you, Elisa. This is Don Guter. And as matter of fact, I can tell you it’s a motivator. It, I think in part at least, keeps us going. We have those sincere beliefs on these issues. But part of the motivation that keeps us going is the receptivity of everyone that we talk to, once we make them aware of the facts.
GEN. STEWART: This is Gen. Stewart, if I can weigh in on the awareness of facts. I will say that I’m out here in the rural Pennsylvania environment where probably, give it another hour or two for the evening to come on and there will be at least half a dozen folks sitting in trees around my neighborhood around here waiting for a deer to walk by.
And you know, we tend to be pretty conservative people out there, tough people. We’re not afraid of very much. But one of the things that I present to my neighbors who – I think they kind of automatically make the assumption that the military courts will be tougher courts. And when I draw the comparison and say, look, the civil courts will confirm these individuals as criminals and the military courts will confirm them as warriors, will grant warrior status to them, which unfortunately is what we’re doing. And in 100 percent of the cases, when I present those two arguments, they say, these people should be tried in the civil courts.
MS. MASSIMINO: Operator, can you check just to confirm whether or not we’ve got anybody who needs to ask a question?
OPERATOR: We have no questions in queue right now. But once again, if you would like to ask a question, please press the * then 1on your touchtone phone.
MS. MASSIMINO: One last point that I just want to reiterate before we close this out is – and again, Adm. Guter mentioned this – and that is that, you know, one of the things that we heard for some time as the debate about how to go about closing Guantanamo was very heated was that we would not be able successfully to bring any Guantanamo detainees to trial in the United States because it was too risky to do that, that it would be too disruptive to the neighborhoods in which these cases would be tried, and that if people were convicted, it would be impossible to hold them safely in our prisons.
And we’re seeing every day, I think, the counterfactual to that. We’ve heard from the American Correctional Association that they are quite confident that any prisoners who are convicted of these crimes can be safely and securely held in our jails anywhere in the country.
And as Adm. Guter pointed out, the trial of a former Guantanamo detainee is going on right now in Manhattan where I am. And all of the predictions of chaos and insecurity, none of those have proven to be true. You can go right down to the courthouse right now. And everyone is walking around. And most people are unaware the trial is even going on. But those who are have expressed no concern about their safety. And in fact, many of them are quite proud of the fact that our system was able to try terrorism suspects without disruption. And this is part of what makes our country great.
So if there are no other questions or no question – (chuckles) – I’ll pause one more moment to see. And otherwise, we will thank you all for participating.
OPERATOR: And we currently have no questions in queue.
MS. MASSIMINO: Okay, thank you very much, Adm. Guter, Gen. Stewart and thank you all for participating.