War crimes

On Feb 7, 2002, President Bush issued an order. The order stated, in pertinent part “I accept the legal conclusion of the Department of Justice and determine that Common Article 3 of Geneva does not apply to either al Qaeda or Taliban detainees.”

With these fateful and ill-advised words, President Bush, our Commander-in-Chief, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not, started the U.S. down a slippery slope, a path that quickly descended, stopping briefly in the dark, Machiavellian world of “the ends justify the means,” before plummeting further into the bleak underworld of barbarism and cruelty, of “anything goes,” of torture. It was a path that led inexorably to the events that brings us here today, the pointless and sadistic treatment of Mohammad Jawad, a suicidal teenager.

The Geneva Conventions represented the baseline, they embodied the determination of the world to make war a more humane enterprise, to prevent a descent into wholesale barbarity, as had occurred during the Second World War. But now we were being told that humane meant something else, something less, than the Geneva Conventions. And we were being told that we could act inconsistently with the Geneva Conventions, when military necessity demanded it. Those of us who were familiar with the Geneva Conventions, whose job it was to know them, were puzzled and deeply troubled by the President’s order and had serious forebodings about the implications of such a decision. We understood that there were no gaps in Geneva, there were was no one who fell outside their protection, that Common Article 3 applied to everyone.

But the civilian political appointees of this administration intentionally cut out the real experts on the law of armed conflict, the uniformed military lawyers, the JAGs, were out of the loop, for fear that their devotion to the Geneva Conventions might pose an obstacle to their intended course of action. The State Department, led by Colin Powell, tried to raise a red flag, but to no avail. Instead, the administration chose to rely on the infamous torture memos by John Yoo, Robert Delahunty and Jay Bybee. These secret memos attempted to redefine torture for the purpose of providing legal cover for administration officials who approved the use of patently unlawful tactics. These legal opinions, now disgraced, disavowed, and relegated to the scrapheap of history where they belong, laid the groundwork for the wholesale and systematic abuse of detainees which ultimately ensnared my client, Mohammad Jawad.

The Feb 7, 2002, order of President Bush invited the rule of law to be circumvented.

Adding to the pervasive atmosphere of lawlessness in the early days of Guantanamo was the administration’s assertion that the detainees could be held indefinitely without charge, without access to counsel, without any recourse to challenge their detention. The administration asserted that the detainees were beyond the reach of any federal court and were not eligible for habeas corpus, a hallowed right guaranteed by the founding fathers of this great country. In effect, the administration created a legal black hole at Guantanamo, a policy universally decried by our even our staunchest allies in the war on terror, but steadfastly defended by the administration.

If there was any doubt that the President intended unlawful tactics to be used, all doubt was erased when Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld authorized, on Dec 2, 2002, numerous extra-legal special interrogation techniques.

America is a nation founded on a reverence for the rule of law. We should never forget that when we take an oath to enlist or be commissioned as an officer in the United States Armed Forces, we do not swear to defend the United States, we swear “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Under the Constitution all men are created equal, and all are entitled to be treated with dignity. No one is “undeserving” of humane treatment. It is an unmistakable lesson of history that when one group of people starts to see another group of people as “other” or as “different,” as “undeserving” as “inferior,” ill-treatment inevitably follows…After six and a half years, we now know the truth about the detainees at Guantanamo: some of them are terrorists, some of them are foot soldiers, and some of them were just innocent people, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the detainees at Guantanamo have one thing in common — with each other, and with us — they are all human beings, and they are all worthy of humane treatment. We should also never forget that no one in Guantanamo has been convicted of a single crime and that even in these deeply flawed military commissions, they are entitled to a presumption of innocence.

February 7, 2002. America lost a little of its greatness that day. We lost our position as the world’s leading defender of human rights, as the champion of justice and fairness and the rule of law. But it is a testament to the continuing greatness of this nation, that I, a lowly Air Force Reserve Major, can stand here before you today, with the world watching, without fear of retribution, retaliation or reprisal, and speak truth to power. I can call a spade a spade, and I can call torture, torture.

Today, Your Honor, you have an opportunity to restore a bit of America’s lost luster, to bring back some small measure of the greatness that was lost on Feb 7, 2002, to set us back on a path that leads to an America which once again stands at the forefront of the community of nations in the arena of human rights.

Sadly, this military commission has no power to do anything to the enablers of torture such as John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Robert Delahunty, Alberto Gonzales, Douglas Feith, David Addington, William Haynes, Vice President Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, for the jurisdiction of military commissions is strictly and carefully limited to foreign war criminals, not the home-grown variety. All you can do is to try to send a message, a clear and unmistakable message that the U.S. really doesn’t torture, and when we do, we own up to it, and we try to make it right.

—Major David J.R. Frakt, Excerpts from Closing arguments in Favor of Dismissal of the Case Against Mohammad Jawad

Someday, at the sunset of this nation perhaps, the architects of this will face the indictment of history and judgment for these war crimes. On that day, I will not cheer for their demise. On that day, instead, I will shed a tear—as I do right now—for what these people have done, acting in my name, to the country that I love.

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