AWOL military justice
By Morris D. Davis, December 10, 2007
Why the former chief prosecutor for the Office of Military Commissions resigned his post.
I was the chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, until Oct. 4, the day I concluded that full, fair and open trials were not possible under the current system. I resigned on that day because I felt that the system had become deeply politicized and that I could no longer do my job effectively or responsibly.
In my view — and I think most lawyers would agree — it is absolutely critical to the legitimacy of the military commissions that they be conducted in an atmosphere of honesty and impartiality. Yet the political appointee known as the “convening authority” — a title with no counterpart in civilian courts — was not living up to that obligation.
In a nutshell, the convening authority is supposed to be objective — not predisposed for the prosecution or defense — and gets to make important decisions at various stages in the process. The convening authority decides which charges filed by the prosecution go to trial and which are dismissed, chooses who serves on the jury, decides whether to approve requests for experts and reassesses findings of guilt and sentences, among other things.
Earlier this year, Susan Crawford was appointed by the secretary of Defense to replace Maj. Gen. John Altenburg as the convening authority. Altenburg’s staff had kept its distance from the prosecution to preserve its impartiality. Crawford, on the other hand, had her staff assessing evidence before the filing of charges, directing the prosecution’s pretrial preparation of cases (which began while I was on medical leave), drafting charges against those who were accused and assigning prosecutors to cases, among other things.
How can you direct someone to do something — use specific evidence to bring specific charges against a specific person at a specific time, for instance — and later make an impartial assessment of whether they behaved properly? Intermingling convening authority and prosecutor roles perpetuates the perception of a rigged process stacked against the accused.
The second reason I resigned is that I believe even the most perfect trial in history will be viewed with skepticism if it is conducted behind closed doors. Telling the world, “Trust me, you would have been impressed if only you could have seen what we did in the courtroom” will not bolster our standing as defenders of justice. Getting evidence through the classification review process to allow its use in open hearings is time-consuming, but it is time well spent.
Crawford, however, thought it unnecessary to wait because the rules permit closed proceedings. There is no doubt that some portions of some trials have to be closed to protect classified information, but that should be the last option after exhausting all reasonable alternatives. Transparency is critical.
Finally, I resigned because of two memos signed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England that placed the chief prosecutor — that was me — in a chain of command under Defense Department General Counsel William J. Haynes. Haynes was a controversial nominee for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, but his nomination died in January 2007, in part because of his role in authorizing the use of the aggressive interrogation techniques some call torture.
I had instructed the prosecutors in September 2005 that we would not offer any evidence derived by waterboarding, one of the aggressive interrogation techniques the administration has sanctioned. Haynes and I have different perspectives and support different agendas, and the decision to give him command over the chief prosecutor’s office, in my view, cast a shadow over the integrity of military commissions. I resigned a few hours after I was informed of Haynes’ place in my chain of command.
The Military Commissions Act provides a foundation for fair trials, but some changes are clearly necessary. I was confident in full, fair and open trials when Gen. Altenburg was the convening authority and Brig. Gen. Tom Hemingway was his legal advisor. Collectively, they spent nearly 65 years in active duty, and they were committed to ensuring the integrity of military law. They acted on principle rather than politics.
The first step, if these truly are military commissions and not merely a political smoke screen, is to take control out of the hands of political appointees like Haynes and Crawford and give it back to the military.
The president first authorized military commissions in November 2001, more than six years ago, and the lack of progress is obvious. Only one war-crime case has been completed. It is time for the political appointees who created this quagmire to let go.
Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have said that how we treat the enemy says more about us than it does about him. If we want these military commissions to say anything good about us, it’s time to take the politics out of military commissions, give the military control over the process and make the proceedings open and transparent.
Morris D. Davis is the former chief prosecutor for the Office of Military Commissions. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Air Force.