It takes a lot of courage these days for a government official to stand up for the rule of law.
On Dec. 17, 2002, Alberto Mora received information from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service that prisoners at the Guantanamo Naval Base were being abusively interrogated. Mora, a loyal conservative, had been appointed by President Bush in 2001 to serve as general counsel of the Navy. Since the Navy had no responsibility for Guantanamo interrogations, Mora could have referred the report to others in the Pentagon, or simply decided to ignore it. Instead, he chose to investigate. What he discovered was deeply disturbing.
As he wrote in a recently declassified memo to the Navy's inspector general, Mora learned that his boss, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, had authorized interrogation techniques that ''could rise to the level of torture." Mora told the Pentagon's general counsel, William Haynes, that Rumsfeld's memorandum ''could have severe ramifications unless the policy was quickly reversed." He warned that the interrogation policy was ''unlawful" and that its consequences could be ''incalculably harmful to US foreign, military, and legal policies."
When nothing happened, Mora set out to change the policy. He knew he had to find allies in the Pentagon, and he began to recruit them by openly debating the Rumsfeld memorandum with other officials. A small bureaucratic victory came when the Department of Defense created a ''Working Group" to develop new recommendations. But this process was overwhelmed by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which weighed in with its own memo expanding the original Rumsfeld policy.
Mora challenged the Justice Department. He charged that the policy allowed ''cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees," and expressed deep disagreement with its ''extreme and virtually unlimited theory of the extent of the President's authority." Mora confronted the author of the memo, Office of Legal Counsel Deputy Director John Yoo, asking him ''whether the president could order the application of torture." Mora wrote in his memo to the inspector general: ''Yoo responded, 'Yes.' "
Mora was shocked. He worked hard to get the Pentagon to shelve what he called this ''deeply flawed" policy that now had been hijacked by the Justice Department. For nearly a year Mora thought he had succeeded in persuading his superiors to block the policy, because the Rumsfeld and Legal Counsel memoranda were never finalized.
Then in April 2004 the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke. Mora learned the bitter truth -- the torture policy he and others inside the Pentagon had fought so courageously to stop had secretly been kept in place all along, and the horrors they had warned against had come to pass.
Mora did not prevail in his bureaucratic battle, but his defense of the law and the Constitution demonstrated great political courage. That's why the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation today will recognize Alberto Mora with its Profile in Courage Award, together with John Murtha, a senior member of Congress and Vietnam combat veteran who made a difficult decision of conscience last year when he reversed his support for the Iraq war and sparked a national debate by calling for the withdrawal of US troops from the conflict.
''To be courageous requires no exceptional qualifications," wrote then-Senator John F. Kennedy in his 1957 Pulitzer-Prize winning book, ''Profiles in Courage." ''It is an opportunity sooner or later presented to us all."
We need leaders today who dare to defend the rule of law and the role of debate in our government against those who would suppress or circumvent them.
At a time when the proscription against torture has been undermined, when a secret domestic spying program has been carried out in apparent violation of federal law, when the president has claimed the authority to disregard hundreds of other statutes passed by Congress, and when the country has been taken to war under an erroneous pretext, we should follow the example of those who stand up for democracy. That's the message of Alberto Mora and John Murtha.
John Shattuck, CEO of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, is the author of ''Freedom on Fire: Human Rights Wars and America's Response."
© 2006 The Boston Globe