Questioning the Powerful

"I thought that when we showed up for class, someone else would be teaching it," said one of my students at the start of my class on Monday, April 7, 2014.

"Really?" I asked. "Why?"

"Because of that question you asked the Admiral on Friday," he answered.

I looked around and saw the looks on the faces of a number of other students. They weren’t necessarily surprised that I was still in my job, but some of them did say that if they had asked the question I had asked, their careers in the military could well be over. That’s too bad because all I did was ask a question, a question that gave the Admiral an easy way out.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I need to explain where I teach, whom I teach, what led to my question of a visiting Admiral, who the Admiral is, how he answered, and how people reacted.

It all started on, believe it or not, April Fool’s day. I’m a tenured associate professor of economics at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Graduate School of Business and Public Policy in Monterey, California. My students are, for the most part, officers in the U.S. military. That day, professors received the following e-mail from the Provost.

Dear Colleagues:

This note is to notify you to make alternate class plans for classes taught Friday, 4 April during the 0900 – 1000 time frame.  

The US student body and Navy/Marine Corps military faculty will be attending a mandatory SGL by Admiral Harris, Commander of US Pacific Fleet.  His biography is available here. Attendance is mandatory for all students.  Please be seated in King Hall NLT 0850.  US Faculty and staff are encouraged to attend. 

This was no April Fool’s joke. A quick check of his bio said that this guy was the real deal. Commander of the Pacific Fleet is not a low-level job.

I don’t start with an assumption that there’s something wrong with US Admirals. That’s probably based on my experience with them. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I gave talks on economics to groups of 15 or so Admirals and Generals in special short courses held at NPS. In 2002, at one such talk, I laid out why it would be bad to go to war with Saddam Hussein, and a number of the Admirals, going by the looks on their faces and their explicit questions and comments, seemed to find my view reasonable and even somewhat persuasive. Also, in October 2010, I gave a talk on "Globalization" at a kind of boot camp held for the 55 newly chosen Admirals that year. Although that led to some pretty intense Q&A, especially on the question of whether China was a threat (I had said that the Chinese government threatened its own people but was little threat to us), it was generally well received.

So, even though I strongly believe in a noninterventionist foreign policy, I approach visiting Admirals the same way I approach my students: with openness and friendliness but also, sometimes, with tough questions.

Wondering more about who Admiral Harris was, I checked the web. And, lo and behold, I found something interesting: in 2006, he assumed command of the prison at Guantanamo in Cuba. Not only that, but it was on his watch that three prisoners, Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi Al-Utaybi, Salah Ali Abdullah Ahmed al-Salami and Yasser Talal Al Zahrani, died in the custody of US forces. Harris claimed that these were all suicides and said at the time, "I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.” When I read that statement, I recalled having heard it; I just didn’t remember the name of the Admiral who made it.

Reading further, I learned that Harper’s Magazine writer Scott Horton, in a March 2010 article titled "The Camp Delta ‘Suicides’: A Camp Delta Sergeant Blows the Whistle," raised some doubts about whether these really were suicides:

According to the NCIS documents, each prisoner had fashioned a noose from torn sheets and T-shirts and tied it to the top of his cell’s eight-foot-high steel-mesh wall. Each prisoner was able somehow to bind his own hands, and, in at least one case, his own feet, then stuff more rags deep down into his own throat. We are then asked to believe that each prisoner, even as he was choking on those rags, climbed up on his washbasin, slipped his head through the noose, tightened it, and leapt from the washbasin to hang until he asphyxiated. The NCIS report also proposes that the three prisoners, who were held in non-adjoining cells, carried out each of these actions almost simultaneously.

There’s much more in Horton’s long article.

I decided then and there to attend Admiral Harris’s speech and, if the opportunity presented itself, to ask him a question about the deaths.

The protocol at the Naval Postgraduate School is that the students, all in military uniforms, and other attendees arrive at least a few minutes before the school’s President, the Provost, the guest speaker, and the guest speaker’s party. Then, a high-level military official at the front of the room announces their arrival. The students are supposed to stand at attention – and they do. There is no requirement that others stand at attention – but we do. I have little problem with this. I would rather use my capital on a tough question than on an issue of protocol. I always make sure though, precisely because protocol matters, to stand but not at attention. I typically turn my head and watch the speaker’s party as they walk down the aisle.

Along with a Marine friend in uniform, I sat on the aisle near the front of the room, right by the microphone stand, so that I would have easy access during Q&A.

When Admiral Harris arrived, his party walked past me and sat in the reserved seats about five feet in front of me and ten feet to the left. One seat was labeled, if I recall correctly, Mrs. Bradley. I later learned that Mrs. Bruni Bradley is Admiral Harris’s wife. That mattered, as you will see shortly.

Admiral Harris began his address in a folksy manner, asking for all the people in the audience of over 1,000 to raise their hands if they grew up in Tennessee. I looked around and saw that no more than ten people had raised their hands. "That’s too bad," he said, "because the rest of you might have trouble understanding [me]." He caught me off guard and I laughed out loud.

The talk was actually pretty good. It was about the "rebalance" towards the Pacific. What I liked was that he didn’t seem to be stirring up fears about the Chinese to the same extent that some other Admirals had done in previous speeches.

When the talk ended, Admiral Harris opened it up for questions and said that the questioners could ask him anything. This was great!

My impression from past speeches by visiting Admirals is that they assume that getting someone to ask that first question is like pulling teeth. The assumption is usually correct and Admiral Harris seemed to share it, so he made another attempt to get someone to one of the microphones. But his assumption was wrong. Before he even got to the end of his sentence, I was at the microphone, question ready.

Looking at me, he said, "Yes?"

Here’s what I said, as best I can remember:

Good morning, Admiral. I’m David Henderson, an economics professor in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy here at NPS. I didn’t grow up in Tennessee, but I think I understood pretty much everything you said. I particularly appreciate your nuanced view of the Chinese.

My question is on another matter. When you were in command of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, three prisoners died at around the same time. Those deaths were reported as suicides. At the time, you stated, "I believe this was not an act of desperation but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us." Later, Harper’s Magazine published a story suggesting that they had died as a result of accidental manslaughter during a torture session, and that the official account was a cover-up. Now, with hindsight, do you still think the deaths were suicides and do you still think that they were acts of asymmetrical warfare?

At about the point where I said "reported as suicides," I heard a loud and upset "Oh, no" from his wife, Bruni Bradley. But that wasn’t Admiral Harris’s reaction. A few seconds later, when I started to quote the Harper’s article, Admiral Harris started strutting back and forth on the stage. I took his body language to mean, "I’ve heard this question many times. I can handle this."

"You’re right," he said, "that happened on my watch. That was on my watch. I’ve looked at all the reports and I’m still sure that those were suicides."

He didn’t answer the second part of my question.

Why did I ask these questions? I wasn’t trying to go all Tom Cruise on him with my version of "Colonel, did you order a Code Red?" To do that, I would have had to do a lot more research, which, in a teaching quarter, I don’t have time to do. And you can’t do that anyway when you get only one question at the microphone. I had three reasons for asking.

First and most important, I asked because my estimate, based on past experience, is that even though many of the students are fairly sharp, few of them seem to know much about what their own military does. I would bet that in a room of 1,000, fewer than 100 knew about the alleged suicides at Guantanamo on Admiral Harris’s watch and fewer than 100 had heard his line about asymmetric warfare. I wanted 1,000 people to know. It worked.

Second, as my students were to tell me later in class, this was the kind of question they wouldn’t dare ask even if they had done my small bit of due diligence. I’m not teaching at a normal civilian school. I’m teaching at a school that educates young military men and women, a number of whom will be in positions to decide who lives and who dies. They will be taking orders from people above them for quite a while. For that reason, I feel a moral obligation to model a certain kind of behavior for them: speaking truth to power or, at least, asking powerful people about the truth and putting them on the line to defend, deny, or admit.

Third, I wanted to see what he would say. Would he express any doubt about whether these were suicides? I didn’t know and I wanted to know.

I’ve asked tough questions before. When Leon Panetta, my former Congressman, came to NPS as Secretary of Defense, I asked [here at the 43:40 point] whether, given his own previous statement that Al Qaeda was down to a handful of dangerous people, he should say about the war, "Enough is enough." When Admiral McRaven, head of the Special Operations Command, came to speak, I quoted to him a New York Times article about President Obama’s "kill list" and asked, "Are you ordered to kill anyone on the kill list? If so, do you do your own due diligence to make sure they are indeed terrorists and not just military-age males who happen to be in the area?" I’ve asked other visiting Admirals tough questions.

But this time was different. Usually, after the event ends and people are milling around on the way out, three to five people – students, faculty, and people in the school administration – will come up to me and say "Good question." This time, no one looked at me and people seemed to look away when they saw me. That didn’t cause me to regret asking. I just found it interesting.

But about an hour later, I received an email from a student I had had two quarters earlier. He wrote:

Awesome question!!

I usually review/watch foreign news outlets (mostly BBC) because they ask the real questions and not the fluff.

Bravo, Sir.

The next Monday, when I showed up for class, the conversation I reported above occurred. I reassured the students that no one had called me in to discipline me or even hinted that my question was out of order. I would have been surprised if someone had. For one thing, I had run it by a mid-level Marine officer earlier to see if he thought it was appropriate, and he had.

The bottom line is that, even though it might feel intimidating at first, it’s a good idea to hold government officials accountable for their actions. A longtime friend and I were talking about Edward Snowden’s heroism recently. I told him that I would never have the courage to do what he did. I pointed out, though, that there is a lot of low hanging fruit around. If one million of us started picking that fruit – questioning people, challenging them, writing letters and articles about them – this world would be a better place.

Copyright 2014 David R. Henderson

Read more by David R. Henderson

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Hendersonis a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and a professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The
Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey
and co-author,
with Charles L. Hooper, of Making
Great Decisions in Business and Life
(Chicago Park Press).
His latest book is The
Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
(Liberty Fund, 2008).

He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer
, CNN, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published
in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s,
National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today,
and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified
before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services
Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources.
Visit his Web site.