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Detainee Affairs Post Goes to Lietzau

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Few Washington developments in recent weeks establish the parameters of “change you can believe in” better than this: following the resignation of Phil Carter, the White House is reportedly prepared to tap William Lietzau as the new deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs. Lietzau served as an aide to William J. Haynes II, the David Addington protégé who was Donald Rumsfeld’s lawyer at the Pentagon. In this role, he played a central role in creating a harsh new environment for prisoners taken in the war on terror, including the crafting of rules for a military commission that were subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court.

Spencer Ackerman’s in-depth examination of the Lietzau appointment in the Washington Independent today focuses on the critical assessments of the Army’s and Navy’s Judge Advocates General during the time of his Pentagon service:

Two senior military lawyers who fought with Haynes over military commissions and interrogations in the Bush administration said they were surprised to hear of Lietzau’s impending appointment to the Obama Pentagon. Retired Rear Adm. Don Guter, who served as the Navy’s Judge Advocate General from 2000 to 2002, described Lietzau as a close Haynes confidante but not an outspokenly opinionated figure. “If he disagreed with Jim Haynes you’d never know about it,” Guter said. “Because of his close association with Haynes I’d be more comfortable if I saw something public [indicating] he’d made a break with those policies.”

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Romig also described Lietzau as closely tied to Haynes, whose role in instituting extreme interrogations at Guantanamo Bay against the wishes of military lawyers cost him Senate confirmation for a federal judgeship. Romig, the Army’s Judge Advocate General during Bush’s first term, said that although he did not know specifically what positions Lietzau took on detainee interrogations or if Haynes even consulted him on the issue, “at that time, he was certainly in the bosom of the administration that was running interrogation programs that at the very least were quite troubling, and in many minds were a violation of the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions.” Lietzau’s expertise in international law — he was part of the Clinton administration’s delegation to the 1998 Rome conference that wrote the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court — should have allowed him to know “what was right and wrong with [Bush’s] interrogation policies,” Romig said.

In fact, if you survey Lietzau’s academic writings in this area, or examine his public appearances, you get the impression that he was completely comfortable with the detentions policy of the Rumsfeld Pentagon, including its darkest recesses. No one questions Lietzau’s smarts or his depth in dealing with detainee affairs. But not a few question his judgment and independence in the work he did for Haynes and Addington.

The key questions hovering over the Pentagon’s detainee operations are complex. But they could be expressed in a shorthand fashion: is the Obama Administration more the captive of the Bush legacy than it needs to be? With Lietzau as the new policy master in this arena, the answer to that question will be obvious.

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