Former Insider Shatters Credibility of Military Commissions

Posted: July 17th, 2009 by Militant Libertarian

by Andy Worthington

On Wednesday, I reported how Retired Rear Admiral John D. Hutson, the former Judge Advocate General of the US Navy from 1997 to 2000, had delivered compelling testimony to a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on “legal issues regarding military commissions and the trial of detainees for violations of the law of war,” explaining why the only valid forum for trials of suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay is the U.S. federal court system.

The lucidity and directness of Hutson’s testimony was in marked contrast to the amendments to the existing Military Commission system — and terrifying asides about the use of “preventive detention” — that were proposed by Jeh Johnson, the Defense Department’s General Counsel, and David Kris, the Assistant Attorney General in the Justice Department’s National Security Division, in response to legislation already prepared by the Committee, which, it seems, will be presented to the Senate in the imminent future, even though it still allows (subject to certain restrictions) the use of information — I hesitate to use the word “evidence” — obtained through coercion, and other information that is nothing more than hearsay.

The day after Hutson delivered his testimony, the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties Subcommittee of the House Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on “Legal Issues Surrounding the Military Commissions System,” in which Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld of the US Reserves, a former prosecutor in the Military Commissions, delivered what should, I believe, be the final word on the unsuitability of Military Commissions as a valid trial system (PDF).

Vandeveld, who served in Bosnia, Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan before volunteering for Guantánamo, and who has been decorated on several occasions, sent shockwaves through the Commission system under the Bush administration, when he spectacularly resigned last September, declaring, “I am highly concerned, to the point that I believe I can no longer serve as a prosecutor at the Commissions, about the slipshod, uncertain ‘procedure’ for affording defense counsel discovery.” He added that the “incomplete or unreliable” discovery process “deprive[s] the accused of basic due process and subject[s] the well-intentioned prosecutor to claims of ethical misconduct.”

The particular trigger for the dissatisfaction that led him to tell the Committee about “the mistaken proposals to revise and revive the irretrievably flawed military commissions at Guantánamo Bay,” and that turned him from, as he described it, a “true believer to someone who felt truly deceived,” was the incompetence and obstruction he encountered as he tried to build a case against Mohamed Jawad, an Afghan prisoner accused of throwing a grenade that injured two US soldiers and an Afghan translator in December 2002, and it was this journey to the “dark side” that he reprised for the Committee on Wednesday to such devastating effect.

Lt. Col. Vandeveld explains how he became opposed to the Military Commissions

Telling the Committee that he had not always been “skeptical about the capacity of military commissions to deliver justice,” Vandeveld admitted that, at the beginning of his assignment at Guantánamo, when Jawad “told the court that he was only 16 at the time of his arrest, and that he had been subjected to horrible abuse, I accused him of exaggerating and ridiculed his story as ‘idiotic.’” He added, “I did not believe that he was a juvenile, and I railed against Jawad’s military defense attorney, whom I suspected of being a terrorist sympathizer.”

Vandeveld explained that, initially, the case against Jawad “seemed uncomplicated,” because he had “confessed to his role in the attack on a videotape recorded by U.S. personnel,” and, as a result, the case “seemed likely to produce a quick, clean conviction, and an unmarred early victory for the prosecution, vindicating the concept” of the Commissions.

As he “delved deeper into Jawad’s case file,” however, he “soon discovered a number of disturbing anomalies,” and explained that when he “attempted to bring these anomalies to the attention of my supervisors, they were harshly dismissive of my concerns and actually, on some unspoken level, began to question my loyalty, even though my combat experience exceeded both theirs combined.” He continued:

I began to realize that the problems with Jawad’s case were symptomatic of the military commissions regime as a whole. Indeed, if any case was likely to be free of such anomalies, it should have been that of Mr. Jawad, whose alleged crime was as straightforward as any on the prosecutor’s docket. Instead, gathering the evidence against Mr. Jawad was like looking into Pandora’s Box: I uncovered a confession obtained through torture, two suicide attempts by the accused, abusive interrogations, the withholding of exculpatory evidence from the defense, judicial incompetence, and ugly attempts to cover up the failures of an irretrievably broken system.

Evidence from U.S. Army criminal investigators showed that Jawad had been hooded, slapped repeatedly across the face and then thrown down at least one flight of stairs while in U.S. custody in Afghanistan. Detainee records show that once at Guantánamo, he was subjected to a sleep deprivation regime, known as the “frequent flier program,” during which he was moved to different cells 112 times over a 14-day period — an average of once every two and a half hours — and that he had tried to commit suicide by banging his head repeatedly against a wall. Evidence from a bone scan showed that he was, in fact, a juvenile when he was initially taken into U.S. custody. Field reports, and examinations by U.S. personnel in the hours after Jawad had been apprehended, indicated that he had been recruited by terrorists who drugged him and lied to him, and that he probably hadn’t committed the crime for which he was being charged. In fact, the military had obtained confessions from at least two other individuals for the same crime.

As a result, Vandeveld explained, he “came to realize that Mr. Jawad had probably been telling the truth to the court from the very beginning,” but when his subsequent attempts to secure a plea bargain that would allow Jawad to be repatriated fell on deaf ears, he made the “enormously painful decision to ask to be reassigned from the Commissions.” As he explained, “I simply could not in good conscience continue to work for an ad-hoc, hastily created apparatus — as opposed to the military itself — whose evident resort to expediency and ethical compromise were so contrary to my own and to those the Army has enshrined and preached since I enlisted so many years ago.”

Lt. Col. Vandeveld condemns the Commissions

Read the rest here.

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