No Comment — March 13, 2008, 11:31 am

Bar Questions Independence of Military Commissions

Barry Kamins, the president of the prestigious New York City Bar Association, has issued a stinging letter to senior Congressional leaders calling for hearings on the independence and integrity of the military commissions in Guantánamo. The letter cites statements made by Col. Morris Davis, the former chief military prosecutor in Guantánamo, in interviews with the Washington Post and the Nation. In both interviews, Davis recounts conversations he had with William J. Haynes II, the General Counsel of the Department of Defense. The Post article stated:

Senior defense officials discussed in a September 2006 meeting the “strategic political value” of putting some prominent detainees on trial, said Air Force Col. Morris Davis. He said that he felt pressure to pursue cases that were deemed “sexy” over those that prosecutors believed were the most solid or were ready to go.
Davis said his resignation was also prompted by newly appointed senior officials seeking to use classified evidence in what would be closed sessions of court, and by almost all elements of the military commissions process being put under the Defense Department general counsel’s command, something he believes could present serious conflicts of interest.

“There was a big concern that the election of 2008 is coming up,” Davis said. “People wanted to get the cases going. There was a rush to get high-interest cases into court at the expense of openness.”

The account provided by the Nation raised similar issues:

When asked if he thought the men at Guantánamo could receive a fair trial, Davis provided the following account of an August 2005 meeting he had with Pentagon general counsel William Haynes–the man who now oversees the tribunal process for the Defense Department. “[Haynes] said these trials will be the Nuremberg of our time,” recalled Davis, referring to the Nazi tribunals in 1945, considered the model of procedural rights in the prosecution of war crimes. In response, Davis said he noted that at Nuremberg there had been some acquittals, something that had lent great credibility to the proceedings.

“I said to him that if we come up short and there are some acquittals in our cases, it will at least validate the process,” Davis continued. “At which point, [Haynes’s] eyes got wide and he said, ‘Wait a minute, we can’t have acquittals. If we’ve been holding these guys for so long, how can we explain letting them get off? We can’t have acquittals, we’ve got to have convictions.’”

Kamins notes with alarm that the Pentagon failed to counter Davis’s assertions, merely making a bland statement “disputing” Davis’s account without anything more.

Haynes subsequently resigned his position at the Department of Defense to become corporate counsel at Chevron Inc. But Kamins notes that his resignation does not put an end to the questions. He points particularly to a restructuring of the command arrangements surrounding the military commissions under which the prosecutors, defense counsel and the convening authority were all placed under the command of Haynes.

The Bar letter points to the fact that when two military prosecutors were asked to testify before Congress, Haynes intervened in both cases, ordering them not to appear. “The orders were an obstruction of the Congressional oversight function,” the bar letter states. It recommends that the prosecutors and Haynes be brought back before Congress, under subpoena if witness invitations are resisted, to answer specific questions about the independence of the commissions and the integrity of the process which has been structured.

The letter also raises questions about the paucity of resources allocated to the defense and points to a number of other procedural questions. It cites “grave concerns about the military commissions process, and the recent questions raised regarding the basic integrity of the process highlight the need for congressional action.”

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