Though he now lives in a red-brick mini-mansion down a silent, frostbitten cul-de-sac in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., Alberto Mora is at heart a Miami Cuban. Among the clues are a voracious appetite for debate and the Bustelo espresso he brews for visitors to his sparsely decorated home.
And until recently, you could tell by his politics. When U.S. soldiers invaded Iraq in 2003, he was general counsel for the U.S. Navy, the equivalent of a four-star general. He was a die-hard right-winger who had earned appointments to both Bush administrations.
But this past fall, he voted for Barack Obama.
A pivotal reason: He found the Bush administration’s inattention to human rights law “offensive . . . I’m elated and hopeful,” he says during an interview at his home two days before the inauguration, “that this new administration will lead other countries in establishing global prisoner-treatment guidelines that are even more stringent than those in effect before Bush mangled them.”
You could say this is Mora’s thing. Perhaps more than any other American, he’s responsible for turning the tide on prisoner abuse at Guantánamo Bay. For two years, with memos and heavyweight legal arguments, he waged a quietly vicious inner-Pentagon campaign to stop the torture.
“Mora’s an American hero,” says Michael Gelles, a Navy psychologist who also helped bring prisoner abuse to light. “He created a debate that led to a full reversal.”
Mora has a genetic distaste for tyranny. His Hungarian mother and Cuban-born father both saw their homelands hammered by Communist rule. He was born in 1952 in Boston, while his father, a physician, studied at Harvard. The family moved to Havana when Mora was still an infant. They fled for good when Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
He studied at liberal bastion Swarthmore College—an experience that hardened him to the “inept” politics of the left—and earned a law degree at the University of Miami. He then moved from heavyweight local firm Greenberg Traurig to a George H.W. Bush appointment as general counsel of the U.S. Information Agency.
In 2001, Mora was appointed to the Navy’s top civilian legal position—and was initially underestimated. “He was very quiet, low-key, and thoughtful,” says Mike Brant, director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, that force’s policing unit.
Mora was soon tested. After September 11, he says, “there was this enormous apprehension that more attacks were imminent, and it was our job to prevent them quickly,” he says now. “We needed intelligence.”
Just over a year later, on December 17, 2002, Brant came to him. He lugged Guantánamo interrogation logs that detailed in clinical prose harsh tactics used on Mohammed al-Qahtani, a suspected missing hijacker of 9/11, and other detainees. He had been handcuffed and called a pig as he was forced to pick up trash with his mouth. He had been made to dance blindfolded and allowed to sleep only four hours a day, with cold water periodically dumped on him.
Mora could have easily dismissed Brant, who wasn’t following a clear chain of command. He didn’t. “His reaction was, ‘We’re going to do the right thing here,’ ” says Brant. “And the right thing, in his mind, wasn’t necessarily what was already happening.”
Mora started digging and soon learned that the abuses were more policy than fluke. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had approved previously prohibited techniques in a hush-hush memo, and Guantánamo judges had approved the harsh interrogation.
He took the information to White House General Counsel Jim Haynes, then jetted to his mother’s Key Biscayne home, thinking something would be done about a “terrible mistake.” But when he returned, Brant informed him that the brutality had only increased at Guantánamo. For instance, al-Qahtani had been shaved forcibly, made to urinate on himself, and then blasted with pop music in his ice-cold cell. “Alberto was taken aback by the administration’s lack of action, but it only made him more determined,” says Brant. “It also became very apparent that he was willing to put his professional future at risk.”
On January 15, 2003, Mora sent Haynes a memo stating that Guantánamo’s prisoner treatment was, “at a minimum, cruel and unusual treatment and, at worst, torture.” He told Haynes he would sign it by the end of the day—making it an official document and instant front-page news—unless the interrogation tactics were suspended.
The threat seemed to stun even Rumsfeld, who that day authorized the suspension pending further inquiry. But Bush legal adviser John Yoo opposed Mora, and the next year, Abu Ghraib photos demonstrated the culmination of what Mora calls a “policy of cruelty.” In 2004, Mora wrote a 22-page memo detailing his thwarted struggle—a historic document declassified soon after he retired from the Navy in January 2006.
That year, he was awarded the Profile in Courage Award, an exclusive laurel given out by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation that might’ve been designed with Mora in mind: It honors those who defy personal risk and public opinion to follow one’s conscience.
These days, he’s a vice president and general counsel of the Mars candy company. He’s “not a Democrat . . . yet,” he says, but he’s optimistic about the next four years. “With the declaration that Guantánamo will be shut down, our reputation for intolerance of torture, cruelty, and inhuman degradation will begin to be restored.”