By Peter Finn
Tuesday, March 23, 2010; A17
As the Office of Military Commissions, the Defense Department entity that administers military tribunals, gears up for the first trials under the Obama administration, the prosecution and defense teams have gotten new chiefs.
Navy Capt. John F. Murphy, an assistant U.S. attorney seconded from New Orleans, will oversee the prosecution of Guantanamo Bay detainees, and Marine Col. Jeffrey Colwell, a career officer, will command the military defense lawyers.
Both men have previously worked as military lawyers at the detention facility in Cuba, where Murphy prosecuted Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's driver, and Colwell represented Ahmed Ghailani, a Tanzanian accused of helping to organize the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa.
The two Boston area natives don't know each other but plan to have their first meeting in the coming weeks. And both say their roles are critical to the administration of justice for terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay.
"Our job is to ensure that the United States has the very best representation," Murphy said.
"It is our job to make the government do what the law and the Constitution requires," Colwell said.
In 2007, when the Justice Department advertised internally for prosecutors to work at Guantanamo Bay, Murphy, who earned his law degree from Northeastern University in Boston and his master of laws from Emory University in Atlanta, signed up.
"I saw the opportunity as a real marrying of my military experience and my federal trial experience," said Murphy, who supervises more than 100 personnel, including about 50 lawyers.
Murphy, 50, spent his first three years of active duty in the Philippines, prosecuting and defending cases throughout Southeast Asia. He joined the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Orleans in 1992 and, like a number of prosecutors at Guantanamo, has experience prosecuting complex drug and violent-crime cases. Murphy served with Central Command for 13 months immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, joined the commissions office in April 2007 and became chief military prosecutor last May, when proceedings were suspended on order of the president.
Ten months later, not only are tribunals about to restart, but Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four co-defendants accused of organizing the Sept. 11 attacks might be returned to a military commission for trial, after plans to prosecute them in federal court in Manhattan collapsed.
Murphy declined to discuss the possibility of Mohammed returning to a military tribunal. Nor would he respond to comments that military prosecutors under his command do not have the requisite experience to handle such a complex terrorism case.
But a military lawyer at the Office of Military Commissions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media about the matter, said: "We have the A-team now to prosecute that case. Those attorneys are ready, and some of those folks have worked on [that case] for four or five years."
Before becoming chief defense counsel, Colwell represented the only Guantanamo detainee to be transferred to federal custody for trial. With little fanfare, Ghailani was moved to New York in June, where he pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges.
Colwell, who was appointed this month, said he will take no position on the merits of military commissions as the forum to try Guantanamo detainees.
"It's not appropriate for me to vocalize a position, as I am not representing a client," he said, adding that he will focus on getting military lawyers the resources they need to vigorously defend their clients.
Colwell, 44, who supervises about 80 people, including about 40 military lawyers, said, "We have great people in a very unique mission."
A veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Colwell, who earned his law degree from Suffolk University in Boston, has held various positions in the Marine Corps as a prosecutor, defense counsel and military judge. Before joining the Office of Military Commissions in 2008, he was a secretary of defense corporate fellow at 3M in St. Paul, Minn, for one year.
"I'm proud to have been selected," he said. "Without us, there is no rule of law."
Colwell, like others in his office, bristles at recent attacks on Justice Department lawyers who have been labeled unpatriotic for representing Guantanamo Bay detainees.
"I would invite anyone to come in here and look me in the eye and question my patriotism," he said.