Over the last two years I’ve had a good number of meetings with JAG lawyers involved in the Guantánamo process in various capacities – advising the convening authority, handling prosecution and defense. I have an article about some of that appearing in the July issue of Harper’s. They’re a very impressive lot, and while my forthcoming article will describe the defense counsel, I should add that the prosecutors I’ve spoken with have generally been thoughtful and concerned about the entire process. Obviously, they perform the role the service requires of them and usually keep their private opinions to themselves. But many of them make very clear that they have deep concerns about the system that’s been concocted in Gitmo – fundamental concerns about whether it’s just and whether it serves the interests of the United States to be conducting proceedings derided in the balance of the world, including by our allies, as kangaroo courts. There is a sense among them that the proceedings that Congress and the politicos at the Defense Department have crafted are unworthy of the military and unworthy of the JAG corps. And this is surely correct. Three separate teams of prosecutors have now quit rather than carry cases forward. That tells a huge story, of course. And in one of those cases, according to my sources, prosecutors were outraged when they learned that political figures had decided to withhold exculpatory evidence in order to “rig” the cases and “ensure a conviction.”
The decision handed down today by Colonel Peter E. Brownback III, the military judge in Guantánamo, throwing out the war crimes charges leveled at Omar Khadr, is a watershed event. The reasoning in his ruling applies equally to the other pending case, meaning that we’re now back at ground zero – after the President’s melodramatic White House announcement on September 6, 2006, during which he attempted to make Gitmo prosecutions into a campaign point, and after Congress gave him the legislation he asked for.
The ruling was done sua sponte – this is, on the court’s own initiative, not at the request of defense counsel. And it rests on a fairly technical point in the statute. The decision can be read different ways, of course, but I immediately saw it more or less the same way a retired Air Force JAG did who posted this comment at Laura Rozen’s warandpiece.com:
“This subtle but profound ruling constitutes a revolt by career military officers, especially military lawyers, who have previously compromised their integrity and oath of office to support a President and Administration who lied and violated US and international law to take the nation to war and keep it mired there for years. Note that the courageous ruling is by an Army colonel and the implications quote a Marine colonel — two officers at the end of their careers who have nothing to lose by placing institutional integrity ahead of loyalty to a commander-in-chief who has none. Sadly, the generals and admirals who should have made such stands over the last five+ years sat mute.”
Now “revolt” is an awfully strong word in this context. I wouldn’t adopt it. I would call this a “blow for justice,” and an expression of anger and frustration with an embarrassingly unfair system that Rumsfeld and his Neocon friends crafted at Guantánamo.