Congressman Jim Moran on Torture and Accountability

06/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

After my interview with Congresswoman Diane Watson, I felt compelled to follow the Guantanamo torture theme.

Jim Moran (D), a 10-term Congressman representing Virginia's 8th Congressional District, accompanied Congresswoman Watson on one of her trips to Guantanamo.

The Congressman generously took time out of his busy schedule to grant me the following interview:

Kathleen Wells: First, I'd like to know when did you and Congresswoman Diane Watson visit Guantanamo Bay?

Congressman Moran: Well, I accompanied her in April. I've gone two or three times, but at least one of those trips was with Diane. And I think both of us are glad that we went. But in terms of informing us as to the conditions in which the prisoners are kept, I think it was only marginally informative. We didn't get a chance to get near the prisoners, let alone talk with them. And Guantanamo was set up to be a bit of a dog and pony show for the visitors, certainly. They have more visitors than they have prisoners. They are very adept at trying to communicate a message -- public relations.

Kathleen Wells: Were you able to witness interrogation procedures of the detainees?

Congressman Moran: Not at all. They had no interest in showing us the way in which they (detainees) were interrogated. They showed us videos, but the videos weren't necessarily representative.

Kathleen Wells: So, what are your thoughts about that; being in the Congress and not being informed or having any access to the methods used when detainees are interrogated?

Congressman Moran: Well, I wasn't surprised. But bear in mind, this was during the Cheney-Bush Administration. They had no intention of informing the Congress about anything. And for six years of that time, the Congress had no interest in learning anything. They were simply a rubber stamp. So the fact that we weren't given the respect of seeing any actual interrogations or having any communication with the prisoners was certainly consistent with the way in which Congress had been treated by the Cheney-Bush Administration.

Kathleen Wells: Congresswoman Watson indicated to me that the interrogators were private contractors. Would you agree with that characterization?

Congressman Moran: Some were. But that was largely in the beginning. I think the majority are government employees; in fact, military personnel. They do contract with some psychologists and other interrogators, but that's more the exception than the rule.

Kathleen Wells: Do you think those that violated the Geneva agreement, those that condoned torture, should be prosecuted?

Congressman Moran: I do. Because it's not about what we have done in the past, it's about what we will do in the future. And if we want to avoid these kinds of illegal and unconstitutional, harmful actions, people need to be held accountable.

Now from a political standpoint, it isn't a pleasant thing to do. It's a loser politically, except for a relatively small portion of the people who want to go through all that.

Kathleen Wells: What do you mean, "it is a loser politically?"

Congressman Moran: I think the Obama Administration understands that this will ignite the right wing. It will be more fodder for the hate radio networks. And it will distract people from their very full agenda of healthcare reform, cleaner environment through cap-and-trade, things like that.

Those are very high priorities. It is not the priority of the Obama Administration, I know, to bring these people to justice. They are in charge now. These people are past, history.

But I do think there is a responsibility, at least on the part of the Congress, many of whom stood by and let it happen, to bring these people down to justice so that it won't happen again.

Kathleen Wells: So, when you say, "part of the Congress, who stood by and let this stuff happen," are you saying that there is some accountability actually in the Congress?

Congressman Moran: I don't think there is much accountability in terms of actually knowing what was happening and not doing the right thing. But the culpability is in not figuring out what was taking place. The reality is the people who would have done anything about it were in the minority. It wasn't until the Democrats were elected to the majority of the Congress in 2006 that (there) would have been any opportunity to change any of this policy. But clearly there were some people, primarily those working with the White House and in the Republican Party, who did have some idea of what was going on and sanctioned it. I don't think it is likely that they will be held accountable because they didn't write the memos. They simply, at most, looked the other way.

Kathleen Wells: And we know that Gonzales and Bybee did write the memos, so...?

Congressman Moran: Yes, Bybee seems to be culpable. Gonzales clearly knew what was going on. John Yoo appears to be one of the apologists for unconstitutional actions. So, those people who wrote the justification for doing things that were in violation of the Geneva accords, I think, should be held accountable.

Kathleen Wells: So, is there anything else you'd like to address?

Congressman Moran: I know we all feel a temptation to move on and to leave this wretched eight years behind us and just kind of label it the worse administration in American history.

But unless we know the full extent of their actions and unless we undo the damage, we are basically sending a message to future generations that this kind of stuff should be tolerated. And I think that's the wrong message. Future generations ought to be able to read a history book and be at least maybe saddened by what happened over the last eight years. But they should at least be heartened by the fact that this generation, my generation, saw fit to hold people accountable and to put research into what took place, so that we will never go through the same kind of national nightmare where our reputation aboard is torn asunder and we've lost thousands of lives in a war that should have never been fought and we destroyed the economy and undermined our own values and principles that define who we are as a nation.

It's serious enough that there needs to be some accountability. And I think the Congress is the best place for that to occur. It doesn't mean we can't do other things while we are holding people accountable. The judiciary can look into this stuff. They can ask the (current) administration to release what's appropriate. And we can continue to move forward in terms of healthcare, infrastructure, investment and recovery from this deep recession.

Kathleen Wells: And do you feel that Congress is moving forward in investigating the wrongdoings of the last administration?

Congressman Moran: I think there is reluctance on the part of the legislative and executive branch. I can understand that reluctance. I sympathize with it from a purely expedient standpoint. I think you'd much rather move forward and let history take its toll on people who got in this mess.

But my own personal feeling, for whatever it's worth, (is) there does need to be some formal accountability process that takes place. Those who are culpable need to be judged by their peers and I think we need to put in place some kinds of structures to ensure that we never repeat our mistakes.

Kathleen Wells: If the American people put pressure on politicians to hold an investigation, to hold those responsible, that may have some influence on Congress, right?

Congressman Moran: Well, that's the way the system is supposed to work. We represent the people. The legislative branch doesn't necessarily act on its own initiative. We are there to represent the will of the American people. And once that will is determined, the executive branch's role is to carry out the laws as representative of the will of the people. So, basically, the executive branch's judgment is much more constrained than Congress. Their job is to carry out the laws that we make. Our job is to inform and be responsive to the will of the people. And then, hopefully, the media acts in a responsible enough role that the will of the people represents an informed judgment.

Kathleen Wells: Tell me how do you feel that the Obama Administration is different from the Bush Administration?

Congressman Moran: Well, the Obama Administration wants to do the right thing for America. I think there is a much better appreciation of who we are as people.

People calling the shots in the Bush Administration suffered from deep male anxiety, constantly trying to prove themselves. What's probably reflective of that is none of them were willing to serve in the military. They were cheerleader types still looking to prove themselves. And, of course, they used that military to try and do so.

The Obama Administration handles things very differently. He is intellectually secure and is not afraid to listen to other opinions. And he has the courage of his convictions.

To get back to your original question, Guantanamo is such a case study on how not do things. Here you've brought in 772 people, without any clear idea what you are going to do with them, without any basis upon which to hold them and, yet, deciding to hold them indefinitely; mischaracterizing them as the worse of the worse, when only five percent had been involved in any hostile action against the United States.

Here were 772 young men. You had an opportunity to expose them to all of the world's great literature. We have it all translated from the Library of Congress into Farsi or whatever language they understood. We could have given them the best literature ever in the world and enabled them to read that. Just as in the movie, "The Reader." Once the female prison guard was able to read and understand she was able to empathize.

Once anyone learns to read, then they enhance their ability to empathize. We had an ability to teach these young, impressionable men what it is that we, as a nation, stand for. Over a five-year period, they could have become people who could have served as our allies on this war against ignorant, violent extremism, which is orthodoxy.

We blew that chance. We kept them in a little cell. We only gave them the Koran to read. We know that our philosophy is far superior to this kind of medieval orthodoxy that they were taught. We did everything possible to radicalize them -- to the torturing, to the confinement, to only allowing them to read, one religious doctrine, the Koran, without the benefit of enlightened interpretation.

Kathleen Wells: And why was that? Why did that happen?

Congressman Moran: Because that's who Cheney and Bush and the people they hired were all about. Even the torture issue. I'll give you an example and, again, I'm digressing here. During World War II, we captured a number of Nazi officers and put them in a camp in Virginia. They needed people who spoke German and who they could trust and they brought in dozens of German Jewish men who had every reason to hate their captors. Instead they befriended them. They got to know them and they elicited more information than any interrogation camp in the history of interrogation. History is replete with those examples.

We don't take the Chinese Communist manual on how to elicit false confessions as the manual we apply. What you do is understand them, try to work with them to gain their confidence and you get the maximum amount of information. We didn't do that. We didn't try to understand them. We didn't try to work with them. We treated them like animals. And what information we got from the torture was not helpful. And I think that the reason why we did that is because of the very limited psyche, imaginations of the people who were in leadership. They were people who were not intellectually or emotionally secure. They were trying to prove themselves. They spent eight years trying to prove what tough guys they were.

Cheney at one point said, "We don't negotiate, we dominate." It wasn't him dominating. He was trying to use these young military men to overcome his own insecurities, apparently.

So, for eight years, this administration conducted itself in the most counter-productive way imaginable and we are left with a whole lot of damage. Basically, we are left with a manual on how not to do things. Well, I think we need to make that clear this is the wrong way. This is not who we are as a nation. And by exposing the people who made those decisions and the people who gave them the legal underpinning to act in illegal, let alone ineffective ways and that we show that we fully understand that. And that this is not reflective of who America is and America is much greater than this and that's the point of reviewing all of this and making clear that these people who acted in this way were not acting true to America's values.