Irish American lawyer and U.S. war veteran James Cullen stood proudly with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office at the White House on the second full day of his presidency as Obama signed an executive order to shut down the United States military prison run by the CIA at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Cullen, a construction and real estate lawyer with offices in Manhattan, told the Irish Voice on Monday he was "impressed" that the new president found the time to meet with him and his friends from the Human Rights First - a nonpartisan international human rights organization based in New York and Washington, DC - two days into his presidency. "We were with the president for about 45 to 55 minutes before we moved into the Oval Office to witness him sign the executive order," said Cullen, who was 63 on Tuesday. Cullen and his colleagues stood inches from Obama and Vice President Joe Biden as Obama put pen to paper to initiate the closure of secret prisons operated by the CIA, and declare that the U.S. would not use torture in pursuit of intelligence. Cullen, whose mother came from Co. Offaly and father from Co. Sligo, was the first president of the Brehon Law Society, an organization of Irish attorneys who use their pool of talents to protect and defend the human rights of people mainly in Northern Ireland. It was his work on the Pat Finucane inquiry (Finucane was shot dead in the North in 1989 for fighting for and protecting civil and human rights) that put him in contact with the president of Human Rights First, Michael Posner. Little did they know that in future years their friendship would be instrumental in shutting the doors on Guantanamo Bay. After growing up in the predominantly Irish neighborhood of Sunnyside, Queens, Cullen was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War in 1969. The diploma he earned from St. John's University School of Law was put in the drawer for future use. Cullen started out as a private and left the Army in 1996 as a one-star brigadier general who did his time in the military justice system. "The teachings I received as a young conscript were to adhere to the Geneva Conventions, to do things right and to make sure that people were treated right, and as I got some grey hair, I then taught those coming after me to also adhere to those very same lessons," Cullen said. Photographs of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, a penal compound in Iraq, made public in 2004, began to boil Cullen's blood. Although wanting to believe that such abuse was isolated to a few sick individuals, reports quickly began to trickle out that similar torture and abuse was taking place at Guantanamo and at Bagram in Afghanistan. "There is something else going on when you see the touchstones of sexual humiliation, the dogs, the playing on the phobias. When they start to pop up you realize that there is something altogether at hand," he said. Cullen's eyes were soon opened to the fact that Abu Ghraib was not the isolated product of a few bad apples, as was the initial explanation by then Vice President Dick Cheney. Back in September 2001, Cheney announced that the United States needed to "work on the dark side" to respond to the 9/11 terror attacks. "When senior leadership loses its moral anchorage and begins to sends messages like that, it makes it very difficult for military commanders in the field to insist that their soldiers adhere to the laws," he said. Cullen, a father of three girls, puts it in simpler terms. "It's like giving your son the keys of the family car," he said. "The first time out you lay down very strict rules that can and cannot be done, but if you have some errant uncle in the background winking and nodding while you're trying to lay down the rules, and then hands the kid a six pack on the way out the door, you know you are going to have problems." Angered and frustrated by the way duties and intelligence were being carried out by the U.S., Cullen took matters a step further. He contacted Human Rights First, and his relationship with Posner became something of a sure thing. "I just think the world of Michael and Human Rights First. They are a great organization that does their homework and researches things thoroughly, and they have first-rate credibility nationally and internationality," said Cullen. Cullen asked Posner what could he do to help. "He said to me if I could get some people from the military to speak out on these issues, they might be accepted in some quarters a lot more readily than if Human Rights First spoke out, because he said there are those who would seek to marginalize human rights groups as misty eyed liberals who don't really realize what's going on," Cullen said. In 2004, with Posner's support, 40 retired military personnel, including Cullen, met quietly in Virginia. After deciding on a direct path of action, the organization had meetings with most of the presidential candidates while they were still hot on the campaign trail, with the exception of Republicans Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. Human Rights First also pleaded their case with Biden and Obama separately in the early stages of the primaries. "President Obama is an extremely bright guy. We didn't have to explain our concerns to him, he got it right away," Cullen said. Responding to the opinions of Bill O'Reilly and many others who have publicly stated that the U.S. will be a lot less secure when Guantanamo Bay closes it's doors, Cullen said that although he understands the mentality, it's a bogus argument. "Firstly, we have some bad guys down at Guantanamo, there is no question of that," Cullen said. However, he feels it's a possibility that the U.S. torture regimes carried out in Guantanamo may hinder the ability to prosecute those people because of the techniques used to torture them. "The greatest generation - the World War II generation - who were facing a far more formidable enemy than we were had the good sense at the Nuremberg Trials (a series of trials for the prosecution of prominent members of Nazi leaders in Germany) not to use any torture, not to use any techniques that would questions the credibility of verdicts that were brought in against war criminals," said Cullen. "We instead, through Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld, chose to use a method that was short term and ultimately may make it very difficult to prosecute these people." Cullen explains that "the bad guys" will be sent to super maximized prisons in the U.S. and not left out on the street as some people fear. He added that about 95% of the detainees in Cuba were not captured by Americans and could very well be innocent. "What is not understood, is that most of the detainees at Guantanamo were picked up by Afghan war lords and Iraqis in return for bounties," explained Cullen. Cullen said that many of the detainees who are innocent might be allowed back to their own countries, and those who can't for various reasons should be "safely resettled elsewhere." Cullen firmly believes that the U.S. will be subject to another terrorist attack. He blames the "failure to invest in productive intelligence organizational techniques" as the reason an attack is likely. "It is very tough for an Irish guy to admit that the British have ever done anything right, but they truly did build over the years an effective intelligence service, and what they have done, and we have failed to do, is to ensure that when someone is assigned to a particular location, they already have the language skills to move in that area effectively," said Cullen. He feels it's imperative for intelligence officers to arrive in a foreign country with a thorough cultural understanding and a deep historical knowledge of the people they are going to observe. More often than not, Cullen believes that C.I.A. personnel are sent on intelligence missions because it's time to "punch their bureaucratic ticket for promotion" "That is not how you build intelligence forces," he said. While the closure of Guantanamo was debated nationally for months, a similar closure of the detainee prison at Bagram is now on the cards for discussion. However, Cullen said, Bagram is very different to Guantanamo. "Bagram poses a different challenge in that it holds Taliban picked up principally by our own or coalition troops on the battlefield. The Bagram detainees are largely Afghan, so they are being held in their own country. The non-Afghans came there to fight for the Taliban," he said. Cullen said that the new presidential executive orders will now ensure that any CIA operatives at Bagram "must conform to the Army manual on interrogation and prohibit detention practices" that violate military regulations. "Some bad things occurred at Bagram from 2002-2004 with the C.I.A., but restoration of discipline there has brought those practices to an end," he said.
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