By Laura Sanicola
When the report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence brought the issue of torture to the public sphere in Dec. 2014, Professor Orlando Rodriguez was reminded of the talk at Fordham in May 2012.
He recalled the protests, the petitions and the polarization of faculty and students surrounding the decision of Fordham’s president to extend an honorary doctorate to John Brennan, President Deputy National Security Advisor for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, FCRH ’77, and to invite him as official commencement speaker for the graduating class.
Despite a 2012 petition with 202 signatures, Brennan still received the degree and delivered his speech on Edward’s Parade to several turned backs from the audience.
In September 2014, Brennan also received the Brien McMahon Award for Distinguished Public Service from Father McShane.
Three years after Brennan was awarded the degree, Rodriguez and seven other Fordham faculty members are calling for its revocation. The faculty group, under the name Fordham Faculty Against Torture (FFAT) have made public a petition that “call[s] upon the university to exercise its moral leadership and reaffirm its guiding principles.” The petition has a threefold purpose: (1) revoking the honorary degree awarded to Mr. Brennan; (2) promoting reflection within the Fordham community on how our university can better live up to the values espoused in its mission statement; and (3) initiating a public dialogue on how, in the wake of the human rights violations committed by our government, we can advance the cause of restorative justice.
“Mr. Brennan is complicit with the war crimes and human rights abuses documented by the Senate,” reads the petition, which has garnered 186 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.
Such “war crimes” include promoting the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, which include acts such as waterboarding, hooding, sleep deprivation and forced stress positions on the grounds that they will yield information vital to national security. The petition then references a 6,700-page report based on the analysis of over 6 million pages of internal CIA documents in which the Central Intelligence Committee concluded that the U.S. torture program had produced no intelligence of any value to national security, which would falsify Brennan’s claim to the contrary.
The office of Father McShane currently declines comment.
“The Fordham Board of Trustees has been advised that a petition is being circulated and is awaiting its delivery,” said Bob Howe, Fordham Director of Communications.
“Fr. McShane has been very gracious and civil to us so far, quite in keeping with the man I have known for 22 years,” said Dr. David Myers, a member of FFAT and professor of history at Fordham. “We disagree with the university’s decision strongly, even vehemently, but we recognize that we are all part of the Fordham community, and we have a stake in it together”
Also in public circulation is a letter to Father McShane from FFAT dated Jan. 29 as a follow-up to a meeting a week earlier.
“This petition is one step toward redressing the wrongs of this situation and educating ourselves and our community about it,” FFAT states. The letter is signed by Dr. Orlando Rodriguez, professor of sociology and anthropology, Dr. Jeanne Flavin, professor of sociology and anthropology, Dr. Jeannine Hill Fletcher, professor of theology, Dr. Glenn Hendler, associate professor and chair of English, Dr. Bradford Hinze, professor of theology, Dr. James Kim, assistant professor of English, and Dr. David Myers, professor of history.
According to Myers, FFAT met with Fr. McShane after sending him the letter and a draft of the petition. He proposed to the faculty that he wanted to invite Brennan back to Fordham, but that Brennan would not feel welcome in the face of a petition that called for a revocation of his degree.
“The suggestion was that we hold back on the petition until Mr. Brennan could appear,” Myers said.”
But FFAT was unrelenting. “Our answer was that, while we were and are willing to hear Mr. Brennan and engage in a constructive dialogue with him — we still are! — to have him return without public recognition of the controversy and conflict surrounding the honorary degree would be more of a celebration than a frank discussion in the name of restorative justice,” Myers said. “So we wrote Fr. McShane to that effect and he responded that he would withdraw the idea.”
“After considerable reflection, we concluded that the kind of dialogue we seek would not be enhanced by Mr. Brennan’s presence,” the letter continues. FFAT seeks to initiate “an extensive academic conversation on such matters as the history of torture, the psychology of torture, the sociology of torture, the politics of torture, theological views on torture and cultural representations of torture” in light of the December CIA torture report.
Among the events planned is a viewing of the film In Our Son’s Name on Tuesday, Feb. 24 at 5:30 p.m. in Keating First Auditorium. The film depicts the lives of Phyllis and Orlando Rodríguez, parents of one of the victims of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. It also includes a series of “teach-ins” starting on March 24 that will examine how Fordham can uphold its tradition and mission statement in teaching and furthering the cause of human rights. These events will be spread throughout the semester and will set the stage for greater reflection in the fall.
“Only by acknowledging the fact that harm has been done can a community begin to repair its moral fabric…only by acknowledging the fact that our university erred in awarding an honorary degree to an advocate of torture can Fordham restore its moral integrity,” FFAT expressed to McShane.
During a forty-five-minute news conference in the days following the release of the report, Brennan stated that “CIA officers’ actions did comport with the law and policy should neither be criticized nor conflated with the actions of the few who did not follow the guidance issued.”
“There were no easy answers,” Brennan continued, “and whatever your views are on [enhanced interrogation techniques], our nation and in particular this agency did a lot of things right during this difficult time to keep this country strong and secured.”
But this answer did not fly with Fordham faculty and students.
“John Brennan lost my respect when he abused the power of his office in trying to hide and mislead the senate oversight committee,” Mark Attanasio, GSB ’15, said. “He didn’t follow the law. The CIA should be held accountable to elected civilian leadership.”
FFAT is explicitly concerned with Brennan’s use of the phrase “enhanced interrogation” in place of torture, “extraordinary rendition” in place of “state-sponsored kidnapping.”
“When things are not called by their proper names, clear reasoning becomes impossible; right and wrong become hopelessly confused, and the pursuit of truth is doomed to fail,” the letter states. “Our petition aims in part to remedy this situation by restoring things to their proper names and clearing a path for fruitful academic inquiry.”
“Our goal, our duty, is to call Fordham back to its mission statement,” said Myers.
“Fordham is committed to research and education that assist in the alleviation of poverty, the promotion of justice, the protection of human rights and respect for the environment.”