The Commissions

Slate's blog on legal issues.
May 13 2008 5:01 PM

The Commissions

Well, Phil , after reading the Pentagon's press release on the decision to drop charges (for now) against al-Qahtani, I admit to being overcome by the more cynical angels of my nature. On the one hand, I can see a pretty sensible prosecutorial rationale for separating al-Qahtani from the five other "high value" detainees at Gitmo charged today with involvement in planning and executing the 9/11 attacks. As the Pentagon explained :

The Convening Authority has dismissed without prejudice the sworn charges against Mohamed al Kahtani. Because the charges were dismissed without prejudice, the government has the option of charging Kahtani separately, but he will not be tried with the other accused in this case.

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Translation: Al-Qahtani had been part of the big 9/11 conspiracy case we were planning to try jointly. But because the evidence supporting al-Qahtani's prosecution is particularly dicey (given, as Phil notes, what we did to him in custody), we'd rather not jeopardize the prospect of a successful joint prosecution of the five with the particularly ugly facts surrounding al-Qahtani's treatment. 

Fair enough, I suppose. We've had some of these accused 9/11 masterminds in custody for years now and have yet to bring a single one to justice, in part because of concerns the evidence is now too tainted by torture to be admissible in any court. A reasonable prosecutor who parachutes into this position could only try to do the best she can with the cards she's now been dealt. (I guess we'll have to see what's to be done about the fact that al-Qahtani's isn't the only case tainted by allegations of evidence gained under torture.)

But this story comes in the midst of what's already been a hell of a past few weeks of nearly soap-operatic news out of the commission trials at Gitmo—news that's included repeated allegations that the Pentagon has pressed for convictions in the interest of partisan political advantage, and the deeply embarrassing statements by the former commission chief prosecutor who resigned in protest and has spent the past several weeks touring the country explaining how the commissions cannot possibly produce fair trials. 

For details on these and other allegations, you might take a look at the fascinating opinion released by the commission on Friday, in which sitting commission judge (Navy JAG Capt. Keith Allred) issued an order excluding Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann from further involvement in the commission trial of Salim Hamdan on the grounds that Hartmann was exerting undue command influence on the trials (on behalf of the prosecution). Hartmann has held the only-in-Gitmo title of legal adviser to the convening authority for the military commissions—a role that essentially calls on him to provide objective legal advice to the Pentagon office in charge of running the commission proceedings. Apparently, the "objective" advice has included pushing the (since resigned) chief prosecutor to use evidence the prosecutor thought was "tainted and unreliable, or perhaps obtained as a result of torture or coercion." Not that this concern is itself especially news. One can now read some of the e-mail exchanges from the young military prosecutors who resigned from the commission office back in 2004 after alleging, among other things, the disappearance of evidence documenting detainees' allegations of torture. But the court's decision hardly helps the commissions' already battered image.

And then there are the accounts from the recent trial proceedings themselves, in which, despite the countless reasons why this shouldn't be the case, some of the most eloquent statements in the courtroom have come from a detainee. (Attorneys with my former employer Human Rights First are again blogging from Gitmo during the trials, and their recent filings are well-worth a read.) I'll just end with this particular snippet from Mr. Hamdan. Hamdan, recall, won an extraordinary victory in 2006, when the Supreme Court held the initial commission process unlawful under U.S. and international law. For a time after that, Hamdan became (as quoted by his attorneys) a remarkable champion of the U.S. legal system.  That view apparently has since changed.

If you ask me the color of this table, I will tell you it's white. You say, "it's black." I say, "no, it's white." You say, "no, it's black." I say fine, "it's black." You say no, it's white." This is the American government.

This process is serving no one's interests, most especially not those of the United States. Despite the best efforts of some of the many well-meaning military lawyers who've been at various stages associated with the commissions, I just don't see any way possible for this process at this point to be taken seriously. Have courts martial  Have them in the continental United States. This just has to end.