Citing a combined 6,000 years of combat and command experience, 176 flag officers penned a letter last week to Donald Trump insisting the president-elect not follow through on campaign promises to torture U.S. enemies.
"We are concerned about statements made during the campaign about the use of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of detainees in U.S. custody," the generals and admirals wrote in a letter dated Jan. 6, a copy of which was released by advocacy group Human Rights First. The authors call torture unnecessary and unlawful, counterproductive and in violation of "our core values as a nation."
Among the high-profile retired leaders who co-signed the list include Gen. Keith Alexander, the former head of the National Security Agency, Gen. John Allen, former head of operations in Afghanistan and an adviser to Hillary Clinton, Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Adm. Bill McRaven, both former chiefs of the shadowy Joint Special Operations Command which oversees units like SEAL Team 6, Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George W. Bush who retired shortly after 9/11, and Adm. James Stavridis, the former NATO supreme allied commander.
"Our greatest strength is our commitment to the rule of law and to the principles embedded in our Constitution," they wrote. "Our servicemen and women need to know that our leaders do not condone torture or detainee abuse of any kind."
On the campaign trail, Trump said he would bring back waterboarding, and even advocated for the torture of extremists' families.
He appeared to reverse that view after a November meeting with Jim Mattis, the former Marine general whom Trump has since nominated to serve as defense secretary. Trump said he was "surprised" that Mattis, who retired in 2013, did not advocate for torture in any case, and recounted the general's telling him, "I've always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture."
The issue became a central point at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday morning to consider the virtue of overturning a legal restriction against anyone from becoming secretary of defense who has served in the military within seven years prior.
Eliot Cohen, the former State Department official who quit advising the Trump transition team in a publicized spat, testified that the president-elect's thoughts on torture caused him the greatest concern, and reaffirmed why he believes Mattis' insight in a Trump Cabinet would be so important.
"I have sharply criticized President Obama's policies, but my concerns pale in comparison with the sense of alarm I feel about the judgment and dispositions of the incoming White House team," said Cohen, now a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mattis "would be a stabilizing and moderating force, preventing wildly stupid, dangerous or illegal things from happening."
Trump has to have someone he will listen to as his Pentagon chief, Cohen told the committee, adding he believes Trump would listen to Mattis.
"One can only hope," retorted Sen. John McCain, the committee's chairman. The Arizona Republican, himself a POW during the Vietnam War, has been a critic of the president-elect, particularly on his comments regarding torture and has said Congress would investigate any presidential order to the military to conduct torture.
Most members of the committee in attendance Tuesday ultimately expressed support for nominating Mattis, per a recommendation from Cohen and Kathleen Hicks, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who also testified.
So far Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York Democrat, is the only member of the committee who has openly said she is considering not supporting Mattis over concerns of a perceived break from a long tradition of civilian oversight of the U.S. military. Committee staffers say privately that one or even a minority of the committee's senators could prospectively delay a nomination, but could not ultimately block it.
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