06/04/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Retired Brigadier General: Those Who Approved Torture "Must Be Held Accountable"

Retired Brigadier General John Adams has something in common with his namesake and distant relative. Like the second president of the United States, the retired brigadier general adheres to one basic principle in his professional actions and beliefs: defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States. He stands convinced that those that have acted in a way that would, as he put it, "triage the Constitution" must be brought to justice, including those who approved of and authorized the use of torture on U.S. held detainees.

John Adams understands the gathering of intelligence, having served thirty-plus years in the military in numerous capacities around the world including as a U.S. Army Military Intelligence Officer. Adams was also a distinguished graduate of the Intelligence Officer Basic Tactical Course at the United States Army Intelligence Center in 1977.

In my interview with Adams, he made clear that during all his years of service and training, including his tenure as a professor at West Point, what he learned and what he taught was consistent: the United States military always acts under the rule of law, in accordance with the Geneva Convention, and upholds the Constitution. What was not taught, or even discussed, were terms like harsh or enhanced interrogation techniques ("I never heard those terms used"), or arguments concerning what constitutes a so-called unique enemy ("In all my training, the current discussions are the first time I ever heard that argument used"). Said Adams: "I have never known anyone in a leadership position in the military who would condone torture. They would never do it. It would go against all the training we had, and against what we were trained to do, which is to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law."

Adams had of course heard the argument as to why this longstanding military policy changed, that '9/11 changed everything.' No one needs to tell Adams what that day represents; on September 11, 2001, he was stationed in the Pentagon as Deputy Director of European Policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and he assisted in recovery operations in the immediate aftermath of the attack. The pain of that day will always be with him; his voice choked recalling the destruction he witnessed, how his thoughts immediately turned to his own children and the sadness he felt thinking their world had changed forever. Emotions in the Pentagon ran very high after the attack: "Of course there was a lot of emotion," said Adams, "and a lot of motivation for revenge, a feeling of 'let's go get these guys.' We're only human."

But Adams said bluntly that leaders need to make the distinction between gut level reaction and smart action. "The reason we have leaders is to make sure we don't give in to those urges, to help us channel those emotions and remember our training." Adams stated, unequivocally, that the guiding principle operating in the Pentagon on September 10, 2001 was the same on September 12, 2001: respect and uphold the law. Even following the worst terrorist attack on American soil, as military leaders broke down at the memorial service held for the victims at the Pentagon, Adams insisted the intense emotion was always tempered by one thought: "There is a role for reason."

What happened in the years following the September 11 attacks appalled the now-retired officer. "What happened at Abu Ghraib was disturbing." Grappling for words, he added, "More than disturbing. Reprehensible." As a military man, he couldn't understand how it could have been allowed to happen, reiterating that he "never heard anyone at any level who did anything but condemn abuse of those in our control."

He was struck with how what was done at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo was so at odds with the beliefs of the people he worked with:

Yes, after 9/11 there was certainly a sense of determination, but in no sense was there a feeling that we should turn to doing things that were inhumane. I never heard any senior leader say we have to change our methods of interrogation, except to tighten up our procedures in order to prevent abuse.

In 2004, Adams was part of a team which spent three months investigating Army procedures for the treatment of detainees that would apply to everyone from military police to military intelligence, and even food service personnel. All regulations involving interaction with detainees were examined, from the taking of notes to methods of interrogation, with the goal of creating a standard and overreaching policy concerning the treatment of detainees. Again Adams insisted that during those discussions the Geneva Convention was the standard used by everyone he met with, the articles of that Convention defined how detainees were to be treated.

So, what happened? Under who's direction did the United States military shift from an unshakable conviction to uphold the rule of law and follow the tenets of the Geneva Convention to sleep deprivation and waterboarding? That's what John Adams would like to find out, and no argument can shake his belief that it is in the best interests of the country that the truth be exposed and those responsible held accountable. "There are legitimate questions to be asked and we should not deny ourselves the opportunity to ask those questions."

On the question of whether the detainees were unique and therefore not entitled to the protection afforded by the Geneva Convention, Adams quoted from Convention III, Article 5, Part 1 which reads, "Should any doubt arise as to whether persons, having committed a belligerent act and having fallen into the hands of the enemy [which falls under the categorization of prisoner of war], belong to any of the categories enumerated in Article 4, such persons shall enjoy the protection of the present Convention until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal."

Adams questioned the legal reasoning behind U.S. instances of torture in light of this Article in the Geneva convention. "We excluded a group of detainees from the Geneva Convention, why? Did we convene a 'competent tribunal?' If so, who were they? And who convened them?"

Concerning whether an investigation could delay or distract from pressing goals facing the Obama administration such as the economy or health care, Adams said:

Yes, we have lots of goals that need to be accomplished. But where we've fallen short in obeying our own laws, we can't ignore that. One of the most important goals President Obama has is loyalty to our Constitution.

When presented with the argument that what was done was necessary to foil future plots and gain actual intelligence, Adams firmly disagreed: "There's never any intelligence worth getting that's worth mortgaging our own country." And Adams was not deterred by the prospect that investigations could lead to convictions for high level authorities:

If there's complicity on the part of senior people, then that's complicity in the commission of a crime and it needs to be held accountable. If it goes to a higher level, let's go there. But we won't know unless we ask the questions. Let's ask the questions and get hard answers, and not walk away from it just because it's hard.

And for those who believe the previous administration already answered those questions, Adam said: "Given their previous lack of veracity I'm not comfortable taking their word for it."

Adams didn't hesitate to express the utmost confidence in the current administration. "I trust President Obama's judgment, I trust the people he has around him. I know some of them, and they are among the best people I've ever known in my life," said Adams. Adams felt Obama's actions show that he regards the issue as urgent and important, as evidenced by the speed with which he released classified information and by his meeting with generals to discuss the use of torture less than a week after assuming office. "Obama's moving ahead and doing so with deliberate speed, which is exactly what's warranted," he said.

Adams had one more reason to believe that abuses of power by the previous administration must be investigated: to honor those who are serving now and those who are just joining the military. When he delivered the commencement speech to graduates of the Military Intelligence Interrogator Course at Forth Huachuca, Arizona in October of 2008, Adams spoke of the importance of defending the Constitution within the role they were about to assume, as representatives of the United States. Adams had nothing but praise for the high level of professionalism and training the graduates exhibited:

They've all been trained rigorously and the guiding light of that training is that the United States treats people in accordance with the Geneva Convention. That's the source of that pride; their country's devotion to the highest standards of ethics. They are committed to doing their very best to honor the professional ethic they have pledged to uphold. That's why we do need to answer the questions concerning the use of torture. We have to honor the service of those who serve so well... If we allow this to pass without action, what message are we sending to them?

We need to look ourselves in the mirror. When we stop doing that, we're not the United States of America.