By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Politically motivated officials at the Pentagon have pushed for convictions of high-profile detainees ahead of the 2008 elections, the former lead prosecutor for terrorism trials at Guantanamo Bay said last night, adding that the pressure played a part in his decision to resign earlier this month.
Senior defense officials discussed in a September 2006 meeting the "strategic political value" of putting some prominent detainees on trial, said Air Force Col. Morris Davis. He said that he felt pressure to pursue cases that were deemed "sexy" over those that prosecutors believed were the most solid or were ready to go.
Davis said his resignation was also prompted by newly appointed senior officials seeking to use classified evidence in what would be closed sessions of court, and by almost all elements of the military commissions process being put under the Defense Department general counsel's command, something he believes could present serious conflicts of interest.
"There was a big concern that the election of 2008 is coming up," Davis said. "People wanted to get the cases going. There was a rush to get high-interest cases into court at the expense of openness."
Davis said he thought the military commissions could go forward as a legitimate way to try alleged terrorists in U.S. custody, but he said he had serious concerns about how the new officials were approaching the commissions. He said he felt a sense of expediency over thoroughness was taking hold and that efforts to use classified evidence -- a controversial idea that has drawn congressional concern -- could taint the trials in the eyes of international observers.
Davis abruptly resigned after complaining that his authority in prosecutions was being usurped. He argued that Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, a new legal adviser to the convening authority for military commissions, should remain a neutral and independent party and should leave prosecuting cases to prosecutors.
In his complaint, Davis alleged that Hartmann inappropriately requested detailed information on pending cases, defined the sequence in which cases would be brought forward and expressed an intent to personally conduct pretrial negotiations with defendants' attorneys.
A Pentagon review found that Hartmann did not attempt to coerce Davis's team but advised that he should "diligently avoid aligning himself with the prosecutorial function so that he can objectively and independently provide cogent legal advice" to the convening authority -- the official in charge of supervising the commissions.
J.D. Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday that Hartmann was not available for comment. Gordon said the military commissions will provide detainees with fair trials.
"We are working closely with our interagency counterparts to ensure that prosecutions by military commission result in fair and open trials while at the same time protecting sensitive information that, if revealed, could be damaging to U.S. and allied forces still conducting combat operations against al-Qaeda and their supporters," Gordon said.
Hartmann arrived as legal adviser to the convening authority last summer, and suddenly, Davis said during a lengthy interview, his office was inundated with what he called "nano-management," including requests to oversee cases that had previously been left solely to prosecutors.
Part of the new focus, Davis said, was to speed up cases that would show the public the system was working. Davis said he wanted to focus on cases that had declassified evidence, so the public could see the entire trial through news coverage. That would defuse possible allegations that the trials were stacked against defendants.
But Hartmann said he was satisfied with putting on cases that included closed sessions, because the law allows it.
"He said, the way we were going to validate the system was by getting convictions and good sentences," Davis said. "I felt I was being pressured to do something less than full, fair and open."