EXCLUSIVE: New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo

6.5.09

In a development that will only fuel suspicions that the Obama administration is indeed planning to revive the Bush administration’s much-criticized system of trials by Military Commission at Guantánamo (as flagged up by defense secretary Robert Gates in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee last week), I have just learned that the Commissions’ Chief Prosecutor, Col. Lawrence Morris, is retiring from active duty, and will be replaced by Capt. John Murphy (US Navy Reserve). No formal turnover date has been announced, but it is expected that the transition will take place over the next two months.

Col. Morris took over as Chief Prosecutor following the resignation, in October 2007, of Col. Morris Davis, who later dealt what should have been a mortal blow to what little credibility the trial system had –- in the face of widespread condemnation by legal experts, the government’s own military defense attorneys, several former prosecutors, and the US Supreme Court –- when he explained that he had resigned specifically because he had been placed in a chain of command under William J. Haynes II, the Pentagon’s General Counsel.

While lambasting the Bush administration for politicizing the entire process, Col. Davis singled out Haynes for particular criticism, because he had been pushing for the Commissions to allow the use of evidence obtained through torture, in spite of his own opposition. He later prompted Haynes’ sudden resignation, when he reported, in February 2008, that, in a discussion with Haynes about the Nuremberg Trials, in which Col. Davis had noted that there had been some acquittals, which had “lent great credibility to the proceedings,” Haynes had responded by saying, “Wait a minute, we can’t have acquittals. If we’ve been holding these guys for so long, how can we explain letting them get off? We can’t have acquittals. We’ve got to have convictions.”

Under Col. Morris, around two dozen cases were put forward for trial, although his tenure was dogged by controversy regarding the role played by Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, the legal advisor to retired judge Susan Crawford, the Commission’s Convening Authority. Crawford, a protégée of Dick Cheney and a close friend of David Addington, Cheney’s Chief of Staff (who remains in her job, despite the change of administration) has the final say on which cases will proceed to trial, and is supposed to provide the entire process with objective oversight.

However, as I discussed in an article last October, “The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials,” it is difficult to have any faith in her objectivity given her close connections to Cheney and Addington (the architects of the Commissions), and the fact that Col. Davis had criticized her for overstepping her administrative role. “[She] 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,” Col. Davis explained, adding, “Intermingling convening authority and prosecutor roles perpetuates the perception of a rigged process stacked against the accused.”

Last year, when Brig. Gen. Hartmann was repeatedly criticized by judges in the Commissions for pro-prosecution bias (and was ultimately removed from his post, although he was retained in another advisory role), it was difficult to escape the conclusion that, although there was a catalog of complaints about his abrasive personality, he had effectively been a sacrificial shield, set up to prevent scrutiny of the chain of command that led from Crawford to the Pentagon’s Office of Legal Counsel, and on to Cheney and Addington.

In accepting the job as Chief Prosecutor, Capt. Murphy must know that he is taking on a job that is fraught with difficulties, particularly after Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, who resigned as a prosecutor last September, delivered a blistering condemnation of the Commissions after his departure, stating,

My ethical qualms about continuing to serve as a prosecutor relate primarily to the procedures for affording defense counsel discovery. 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. One would have thought … six years since the Commissions had their fitful start, that a functioning law office would have been set up and procedures and policies not only put into effect, but refined. Instead, what I found, and what I still find, is that discovery in even the simplest of cases is incomplete or unreliable.

In a submission in a court case in January, Lt. Col. Vandeveld further explained that the Commissions’ prosecution department was in a “state of disarray” and “lack[ed] any discernable organization.” He stated that he did not “expect that potential war crimes would be presented, at least initially, in ‘tidy little packages,’” such as those that would be “assembled by civilian police agencies and prosecution offices,” but was dismayed to discover that

the evidence, such as it was, remained scattered throughout an incomprehensible labyrinth of databases … or strewn throughout the prosecution offices in desk drawers, bookcases packed with vaguely-labeled plastic containers, or even simply piled on the tops of desks vacated by prosecutors who had departed the Commissions for other assignments. I further discovered that most physical evidence that had been collected had either disappeared or had been stored in locations that no one with any tenure at, or institutional knowledge of, the Commissions could identify with any degree of specificity or certainty.

However, if Capt. Murphy’s record is anything to do by, this may not disturb him unduly. Last summer, he was the lead prosecutor in the trial of Salim Hamdan, one of Osama bin Laden’s drivers, when he pushed aggressively for the military jury to hand down a 30-year sentence to Hamdan, urging that his “penalty” should be something “so significant that it forecloses any possibility that he reestablishes his ties with terrorists.” In the end, of course, Hamdan was given a sentence of just five and a half years, and, with deductions for time served, was sent home to Yemen in November, to serve out the last month of his sentence.

Undaunted by this failure, Capt. Murphy recently surfaced as part of the prosecution team in the case of Omar Khadr, the Canadian who was just 15 years old when he was seized after a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002. As Khadr’s case is one that, outside of the Pentagon and the corridors of power in Canada, has attracted universal condemnation –- primarily because of the Bush administration’s neglect and abuse of a juvenile, and because of well-chronicled attempts by the prosecution to suppress evidence vital to his defense –- it may well be that, as a result, Capt. Murphy will pursue an aggressive agenda if the Obama administration decides to ignore all sensible advice to the contrary, and proceeds to revive the Commissions, rather than pursuing those cases worthy of trial (somewhere between 25 and 50, according to the best estimates) in federal courts on the US mainland.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Cross-posted on AlterNet and Common Dreams.

See the following for a sequence of articles dealing with the stumbling progress of the Military Commissions: The reviled Military Commissions collapse (June 2007), A bad week at Guantánamo (Commissions revived, September 2007), The curse of the Military Commissions strikes the prosecutors (September 2007), A good week at Guantánamo (chief prosecutor resigns, October 2007), The story of Mohamed Jawad (October 2007), The story of Omar Khadr (November 2007), Guantánamo trials: where are the terrorists? (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo charged with 9/11 attacks: why now, and what about the torture? (February 2008), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (ex-prosecutor turns, February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), African embassy bombing suspect charged (March 2008), The US military’s shameless propaganda over 9/11 trials (April 2008), Betrayals, backsliding and boycotts (May 2008), Fact Sheet: The 16 prisoners charged (May 2008), Four more charged, including Binyam Mohamed (June 2008), Afghan fantasist to face trial (June 2008), 9/11 trial defendants cry torture (June 2008), USS Cole bombing suspect charged (July 2008), Folly and injustice (Salim Hamdan’s trial approved, July 2008), A critical overview of Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo trial and the dubious verdict (August 2008), Salim Hamdan’s sentence signals the end of Guantánamo (August 2008), High Court rules against UK and US in case of Binyam Mohamed (August 2008), Controversy still plagues Guantánamo’s Military Commissions (September 2008), Another Insignificant Afghan Charged (September 2008), Seized at 15, Omar Khadr Turns 22 in Guantánamo (September 2008), Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Running the 9/11 Trials? (September 2008), two articles exploring the Commissions’ corrupt command structure (The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials, and New Evidence of Systemic Bias in Guantánamo Trials, October 2008), Meltdown at the Guantánamo Trials (five trials dropped, October 2008), The collapse of Omar Khadr’s Guantánamo trial (October 2008), Corruption at Guantánamo (legal adviser faces military investigations, October 2008), An empty trial at Guantánamo (Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, October 2008), Life sentence for al-Qaeda propagandist fails to justify Guantánamo trials (al-Bahlul, November 2008), Guilt by Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), 20 Reasons To Shut Down The Guantánamo Trials (profiles of all the prisoners charged, November 2008), How Guantánamo Can Be Closed: Advice for Barack Obama (November 2008), More Dubious Charges in the Guantánamo Trials (two Kuwaitis, November 2008), The End of Guantánamo (Salim Hamdan repatriated, November 2008), Torture, Preventive Detention and the Terror Trials at Guantánamo (December 2008), Is the 9/11 trial confession an al-Qaeda coup? (December 2008), The Dying Days of the Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns Chaotic Trials (Lt. Col. Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Torture taints the case of Mohamed Jawad (January 2009), Bush Era Ends with Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right to Halt The Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (March 2009).

And for a sequence of articles dealing with the Obama administration’s response to the Military Commissions, see: Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), The Talking Dog interviews Darrel Vandeveld, former Guantánamo prosecutor (February 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Obama Returns To Bush Era On Guantánamo (May 2009), New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), My Message To Obama: Great Speech, But No Military Commissions and No “Preventive Detention” (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Many Failures Of US Politicians (May 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009), A Broken Circus: Guantánamo Trials Convene For One Day Of Chaos (June 2009), Obama Proposes Swift Execution of Alleged 9/11 Conspirators (June 2009), Obama’s Confusion Over Guantánamo Terror Trials (June 2009).

11 Responses

  1. New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo « The Lift - Legal Issues in the Fight against Terrorism says...

    [...] For Military Commissions At Guantánamo Posted on 6 May, 2009 by Mathias Vermeulen Andy Worthington has learned that the Commissions’ Chief Prosecutor, Col. Lawrence Morris, is retiring from active [...]

  2. Lori Price says...

    I am linking this item to the CLG website and it will appear in today’s newsletter.
    Cheers,
    Lori R. Price
    Managing Editor
    Citizens For Legitimate Government
    http://www.legitgov.org/

    You can follow legitgov.org at http://twitter.com/Lori_Price_CLG

  3. Frances Madeson says...

    Seems like a bulldog; not unlike Winston Churchill. We’ll have to keep a close eye on this, Andy. Thanks for breaking the news.

  4. Citizens For Legitimate Government « The Ruthless Truth blog says...

    [...] New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo By Andy Worthington 06 May 2009 In a development that will only fuel suspicions that the Obama administration is indeed planning to revive the Bush administration’s much-criticized system of trials by Military Commission at Guantánamo…, I have just learned that the Commissions’ Chief Prosecutor, Col. Lawrence Morris, is retiring from active duty, and will be replaced by Capt. John Murphy (US Navy Reserve). No formal turnover date has been announced, but it is expected that the transition will take place over the next two months. [...]

  5. New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] For Military Commissions At Guantánamo Posted on May 7, 2009 by dandelionsalad by Andy Worthington Featured Writer Dandelion Salad http://www.andyworthington.co.uk 7 May [...]

  6. John Glad says...

    In the words of detainee Ghassan al Sharbi: “Same circus, different clown.”

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s brilliant, John. I’d forgotten that quote until you mentioned it.

    Demolishing the Commissions’ spurious credibility in four short words — and apt for the Cheney/Obama changeover too, if the shining hope who promised change isn’t careful.

    Can I have that al-Sharbi quote on a T-shirt?

  8. John Glad says...

    The quotation is all yours, Andy. You’ve earned it by proving its truth.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, John. Much appreciated.

  10. Former Insider Shatters Credibility of Military Commissions by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] is still serving as the senior Justice Department attorney on matters of national security, and Capt. John Murphy, the new chief prosecutor, has “taken off his Justice Department suit and put on a Navy uniform [...]

  11. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Profile « Emptysuit says...

    [...] On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Obama Returns To Bush Era On Guantánamo (May 2009), New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), My Message To Obama: Great [...]

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