CNN’s Roberts to Kids: ‘The President Said We Respect Human Rights. Do You Buy That?’

Just over 12 hours after Monday's NBC Nightly News reported that 50 out of 141 high school seniors visiting the White House presented President Bush with a handwritten letter asking him to "stop the violations of the human rights of... all detainees, including those designated enemy combatants," CNN's "American Morning" had 3 of the 50 students on for an interview. Co-host John Roberts asked the students to recount their experiences writing the letter, obtaining signatures, and handing it to the president, and asked one student, "[I]n response, the president said, ‘we respect human rights,' do you buy that?"

The three students who were interviewed - Mari Oye, Leah Anthony Libresco, and Colin McSwiggen, all recently-graduated high school students, were among the one-third of the Presidential Scholars who signed a letter asking President Bush, among other things, "to do all in your power to stop violations of the human rights of detainees, to cease illegal renditions, and to apply the Geneva Convention to all detainees, including those designated enemy combatants." Roberts emphasized the apparent intelligence of the three. "And you want to talk about brain power, the collective group that you're seeing there. Mari and Leah going to Yale next year, Colin accepted to MIT." None from the remaining two-thirds who didn't sign the letter made an appearance on "American Morning."

Roberts mentioned that Oye's mother was a Presidential Scholar as well, who visited the White House during Lyndon Johnson's presidency in 1968, and supposedly "always regretted not saying something to him about the Vietnam war." In response, Oye commented:

That's something that weighed heavy on my mind, and I wanted to think about how we would feel 40 years from now if we had the opportunity to speak, and also the privilege to speak to the President of the United States, and to not use that privilege in order to make a difference.

Roberts directed his "in response, the president said, ‘we respect human rights,' do you buy that?" question to Oye, who replied:

We brought up some very specific points in the letter about the treatment of detainees, even those designated as enemy combatants, and we strongly believe that all of these detainees should be treated, according to the principles of the Geneva Convention. So, this was a very specific point. We asked him to remove -- I asked him to remove the signing statement attached to the anti-torture bill, which would have allowed presidential power to make exemptions to the ban on torture. I really feel strongly about this issue, and also about the treatment of some Arab and Muslim-Americans after September 11th. My own grandparents were interred during World War II, simply for being Japanese-American. And I think that my background really affected the way that I feel and the compassion that I have for other people who are in a similar situation.

It is clear from all of this that one-third of those recognized as the "best and the brightest" in the country among high school seniors have bought the left-wing argument that terrorists not affiliated with any foreign military should be given the same rights as prisoners of war.

The full transcript of the interview from Tuesday's "American Morning:"

JOHN ROBERTS: The White House has heard criticism of its policies for detaining suspected terrorists before, but yesterday it came from an unexpected source. President Bush was meeting this year's high school presidential scholars, when one of them slipped him a handwritten letter, signed by several dozen of the teens. It read in part, ‘We have been told we represent the best and brightest of our nation. Therefore, we believe we have a responsibility to voice our convictions. We do not want America to represent torture.' Some of the students behind the letter are with us this morning from Washington. They are Mari from Massachusetts, Leah Anthony Libresco from New York, and Colin from Ohio. So, whose idea was this? Speak up.

LEAH ANTHONY LIBRESCO, PRESIDENTIAL SCHOLAR: Well, I think what happened was we were all talking about the opportunity to meet the president, someone who answers to us, the American people. And we didn't know what we should do or what w should say, but everyone wanted to seize the opportunity, and when we talked, we really wanted to talk about the issue of torture, because human rights and human dignity is a non-partisan issue, and it was something we all really felt strongly about, and wanted to take the opportunity to be heard.

ROBERTS: Right. So, when did you decide to write this, Mari?

MARI OYE, PRESIDENTIAL SCHOLAR: Well, originally we put it together over the course of a day, but it's something that was really envisioned by a lot of us ahead of time, not together, but as something that we felt was really, really important to work on together.

ROBERTS: Well, let me point out -- your mother was a presidential scholar...

OYE: Yes.

ROBERTS: ...met Lyndon Johnson back in 1968, I believe...

OYE: Yes.

ROBERTS: ...and said that she always regretted not saying something to him about the Vietnam war.

OYE: Absolutely. And that's something that weighed heavy on my mind, and I wanted to think about how we would feel 40 years from now if we had the opportunity to speak, and also the privilege to speak to the President of the United States, and to not use that privilege in order to make a difference.

ROBERTS: So Colin, what happened when you gave the president the letter?"

COLIN MCSWIGGEN, PRESIDENTIAL SCHOLAR: Well, the one who originally handed the letter to the president was, of course, Mari. She -- we were lined up for a photo-op, and he came right before the photo and started speaking to us. We had a very casual discussion. He said that it's important to treat others as you wish to be treated, and he said that we really need to think about the choices that we make in our lives. And as he lined up to take the photo with us, Mari handed him the note, and said, ‘Mr. President, some of us have made a choice, and we want you to have this.' He said all right, I've have it. After the photo, he asked if he should read the note, and Mari said well, that's up to you. But he read it right there, and we had a very casual discussion with him about it, right there front of the White House lawn.

ROBERTS: Wow.

MCSWIGGEN: And his response was, "We agree. Americans do not use torture."

ROBERTS: So, Leah, I mean, that's a pretty bold stroke to hand the president a letter, particularly one with that sort of controversial subject matter. It was signed by 50 students. Did you have any problem getting those 50 students to sign it?

LIBRESCO :We actually didn't. Though, these are 50 students individually, however, who made an individual choice, not speaking for the program. But the thing is we all feel so strongly. I don't think this is a controversial issue. I don't think human dignity and human rights is a controversial issue, so once we started talking to people about the idea of speaking up, people kept coming forward and saying yes, this is important. And that is what is so inspiring about the whole process, especially the presidential scholars, more than even the lectures we've had, or even meeting the president, meeting all of these people who are so smart, and so committed, and so invested in what's happening in our country. I mean, we're all so thrilled to have had this opportunity. We hope a lot of other kids get this opportunity, too.

ROBERTS: Mari, in response to the president said, ‘we respect human rights,' do you buy that?

OYE: What he actually said -- We brought up some very specific points in the letter about the treatment of detainees, even those designated as enemy combatants, and we strongly believe that all of these detainees should be treated, according to the principles of the Geneva Convention. So, this was a very specific point. We asked him to remove -- I asked him to remove the signing statement attached to the anti-torture bill, which would have allowed presidential power to make exemptions to the ban on torture. I really feel strongly about this issue ,and also about the treatment of some Arab and Muslim-Americans after September 11th. My own grandparents were interred during World War II, simply for being Japanese-American. And I think that my background really affected the way that I feel and the compassion that I have for other people who are in a similar situation.

ROBERTS: Well, obviously, you weren't shy about sharing your opinions, which is what the great thing about this democracy is. And you want to talk about brain power, the collective group that you're seeing there. Mari and Leah going to Yale next year, Colin accepted to MIT. We wish you a lot of luck in your collegiate studies and thanks very much for being with us this morning.

LIBRESCO, OYE, AND MCSWIGGEN: Thank you.

Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center