No Comment — April 8, 2008, 6:41 am

A Tale of Three Lawyers

On Thursday in the National Press Club in Washington, a crowd gathered to witness the presentation of the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling to Lieutenant Commander Matthew Diaz. The story of Matthew Diaz was chronicled in this space repeatedly (also here and here). It is a story of courage, fortitude, conviction and suffering. Joe Margulies introduced the honoree with clarity:

no one can think it is fun when you sit in a courtroom as an accused, and a United States prosecutor points an accusatory finger at your chest and calls you a criminal and tells you that you have betrayed your oath and you have betrayed your country, and you have endangered the safety of the men and women that you swore to share your burdens with. And no one can think it is fun when you have to sit with your heart pounding in your chest as the jury files back into the room with a piece of paper folded in its hands, and that piece of paper holds your fate. And no one can think it is fun when that jury, your peers, pronounces you guilty. And no one can think it is fun when you have to face that same jury that will sentence you for what may be many years; many years that you will be away from your family, your life in tatters, your career ruined.

Matthew Diaz served his country as a staff judge advocate at Guantánamo. He watched a shameless assault on America’s Constitution and commitment to the rule of law carried out by the Bush Administration. He watched the introduction of a system of cruel torture and abuse. He watched the shaming of the nation’s uniformed services, with their proud traditions that formed the very basis of the standards of humanitarian law, now torn asunder through the lawless acts of the Executive. Matthew Diaz found himself in a precarious position—as a uniformed officer, he was bound to follow his command. As a licensed and qualified attorney, he was bound to uphold the law. And these things were indubitably at odds.

Diaz resolved to do something about it. He knew the Supreme Court twice ruled the Guantánamo regime, which he was under orders to uphold, was unlawful. In the Hamdan decision, the Court went a step further. In powerful and extraordinary words, Justice Kennedy reminded the Administration that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions was binding upon them, and that a violation could constitute a criminal act. One senior member of the Bush legal team, informed of the decision over lunch, was reported to have turned “white as a sheet” and to have immediately excused himself. For the following months, Bush Administration lawyers entered into a frenzied discussion of how to protect themselves from criminal prosecution.

One of the crimes the Administration committed was withholding from the Red Cross a list of the detainees at Guantánamo, effectively making them into secret detainees. Before the arrival of the Bush Administration, the United States had taken the axiomatic position that holding persons in secret detention for prolonged periods outside the rule of law (a practice known as “disappearing”) was not merely unlawful, but in fact a rarified “crime against humanity.” Now the United States was engaged in the active practice of this crime.

The decision to withhold the information had been taken, in defiance of law, by senior political figures in the Bush Administration. Diaz was aware of it, and he knew it was unlawful. He printed out a copy of the names and sent them to a civil rights lawyer who had requested them in federal court proceedings.

Diaz was aware when he did this that he was violating regulations and that he could and would, if caught, be subjected to severe sanction. What he did was a violation of law, even as it was an effort to cure a more severe act of lawlessness by the Government. Diaz violated the law in precisely the same sense as Martin Luther King reminds us, in the Letter from Birmingham Jail, that his arrest was based on a violation of law. That everything the Nazis did in Germany was lawful. And that every act of the Hungarian freedom fighters was a crime. In terms of the moral law, however, Diaz was on the side of right, and the Bush Administration and the Pentagon had, by engaging in the conduct that the Supreme Court condemned, placed themselves on the side of lawlessness, corruption and dishonor.

Diaz was charged, tried and convicted for disclosing “secrets.” For the Bush Administration, any information which would be politically embarrassing or harmful to it is routinely classified “secret.” In this fashion the Administration believes it can use criminal sanctions against those who disclose information it believes will be politically damaging. The list of detainees at Guantánamo, which by law was required to be disclosed, was classified as “secret.”

Diaz spent six months in prison and left it bankrupt and without a job. In addition to his sentence, the Pentagon is working aggressively to have Diaz stripped of his law license so he will not be able to practice his profession. The Bush Administration has sought to criminalize, humiliate and destroy Diaz. Its motivation could not be clearer: Diaz struck a blow for the rule of law. And nothing could be more threatening to the Bush Administration than this.

In the week in which Diaz received the Ridenhour Prize, another Pentagon “secret” was disclosed. This “secret” was a memorandum made to order for William J. Haynes II, Rumsfeld’s General Counsel, and the man at the apex of the Pentagon’s military justice system that tried, convicted and sentenced Diaz. The memo was authored by John Yoo. This memorandum was designed to authorize the introduction of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading interrogation techniques to be used upon prisoners held at Guantánamo, and ultimately also used in Afghanistan and Iraq. The memorandum authorized waterboarding, long-time standing, hypothermia, the administration of psychotropic drugs and sleep deprivation in excess of two days in addition to a number of other techniques. Each of these techniques is long established as torture as a matter of American and international law. The application and implementation of these techniques was and is a crime.

The exact circumstances surrounding the dealings between Haynes and Yoo that led to the development of this memorandum are unclear. However, it is clear that Haynes had previously authorized the use of the torture techniques, and had secured an order from Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld authorizing them.

Following the implementation of these techniques, more than 108 detainees died in detention. In a large number of these cases, the deaths have been ruled a homicide and connected to torture. These homicides were a forseeable consequence of the advice that Haynes and Yoo gave.

The introduction of torture techniques destroyed America’s reputation around the world, dramatically eroded a system of alliances that generations of Americans fought and labored to sustain and build, and provided the basis for a dramatic recruitment campaign for terrorist groups who are the nation’s principal adversaries in the war on terror. Yoo’s and Haynes’s conduct dramatically undercut the security and safety of every American. And equally, Yoo and Haynes demonstrated by their conduct contempt for the rule of law and the principles for which hundreds of thousands of Americans shed their blood in prior conflicts.

Yoo is currently a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, the author of a number of widely featured books, and a widely followed media figure whose works are routinely published in the Wall Street Journal and other publications. He remains a member of the bar in Pennsylvania and California.

Haynes recently left the position of General Counsel at the Department of Defense to become General Counsel–Corporate at Chevron Inc. He remains a member of the bar in North Carolina, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

A system that punishes and shames Matthew Diaz, yet obstructs any investigation into the misconduct of John Yoo and Jim Haynes, and particularly their focal rule in the introduction of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, is corrupt. Indeed, it persecutes the innocent and rewards the guilty. A bar association that disbars Matthew Diaz and leaves Yoo and Haynes free to practice is fundamentally corrupt. In essence, this choice reflects a legal profession that puts upholding the will of the Executive, even when it commands the most egregious and unlawful conduct, over the Rule of Law. It reflects the abnegation of the bedrock principles of the profession and the principles of the American Constitution and the Revolution which gave rise to it.

Lieutenant Commander Diaz reminds us of the powerful words of Justice Brandeis:

Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole of the people by its example. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law and invites every man to become a law unto itself. It breeds anarchy. To declare that the end justifies the means would bring terrible retribution.

In a day when the legal profession is disgraced repeatedly by the performance of lawyers in the service of their government, Matthew Diaz is emerging as a hero to many, and as a symbol that for some lawyers devotion to truth, integrity and justice still matters. Indeed, that dedication and willingness to shoulder the burden it can bring, is and will likely be seen by future generations of Americans as the higher form of patriotism.

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