In one of his first acts as president, Barack Obama signed executive orders closing this country’s secret prisons overseas, banning torture and authorizing an end to the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Obviously, Mr. Obama didn’t fully get his way. Guantánamo, though reduced to a few dozen prisoners, is still operating. And the current president has expressed full faith in the harsh methods described euphemistically as enhanced interrogation techniques. “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work — torture works,” Donald Trump insisted during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Standing behind Mr. Obama as he signed those orders on Jan. 22, 2009, were 16 retired generals and admirals who had his back, figuratively as well as literally. They were hardly soft-on-terrorism types. A few were lifelong Republicans. But these military men, working with Human Rights First, felt a moral imperative to oppose torture. They were convinced that it not only trampled core American principles, but also produced useless intelligence while potentially endangering United States troops who might fall into enemy hands.
A leader of that group was James Cullen, a former brigadier general who had begun Army life as a private during the Vietnam War. He became a lawyer, serving for many years in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, and later in private practice. In alliance with the human rights group, he and his once-uniformed colleagues lobbied major politicians to support a ban on coercive interrogations. General Cullen died in Scarsdale, N.Y., last week at age 72. His death is a reminder of how former military men and women of conscience and courage can provide helpful support for the civilian leadership — and, if necessary, be a bulwark against the worst instincts that at times grab hold of it.
We are living in one of those times, with a president whose respect for the rule of law is meager and whose expressed affinity for waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse” is strong. Mr. Trump has surrounded himself with retired generals, and many Americans are counting on them to restrain his most reckless impulses. The endless barrage of insults and threats from the tweeter in chief — plus decisions running counter to sound national security policy — shows that efforts to rein him in have been mixed at best.
After an Uzbeki immigrant plowed a pickup truck into people in Lower Manhattan on Halloween, killing eight of them, the president’s reflex was to “send him to Gitmo” — something never done with anyone arrested on American soil. It took a couple of days for advisers to finally persuade him that a transfer to Guantánamo was the wrong way to go.