On November 13, 2001, President George W. Bush casually signed off on a scheme coming out of Vice President Dick Cheney's orbit within the administration to create "military commissions" to judge and punish captured prisoners associated with al-Qaeda. No more Geneva Conventions or even trials within the federal judicial system for men labelled terrorists!
Administration legal hacks -- John Yoo, Alberto Gonzales, William "Jim" Haynes -- cobbled together an executive order that created a facade of legality for novel pseudo-courts charged with inventing rules and procedures to free our government from obligations to either national or international law. Their incurious Chief went along.
And so this sad, unnecessary, and cruel train of malfeasance and incompetence was set in motion. Bravin's book follows Lt. Col. Stu Couch, a well-meaning Marine Corps Judge Advocate General officer, who stumbled from obstacle to obstacle trying to make this jerry-rigged edifice function. It's a tale of bureaucratic futility and of Couch's growing awareness that he was struggling to go through legal motions in a context where no approximation of the law he believed was his profession was respected.
Nearly every case he was ordered to prosecute led back to a tortured defendant. His first visit to Guantanamo was revelatory.
Being a ethical officer and a competent attorney, Couch was horrified -- and immediately aware he was not going to be able to press charges against men who had been subjected to such treatment.
There were other difficulties. A British Muslim named Moazzan Begg had been picked up in Pakistan and imprisoned at Guantanamo. British Prime Minister Tony Blair was getting heat at home about this guy; if he was a terrorist, why wasn't he being tried? The Bush administration wanted charges against Begg and the job was given to deputy chief prosecutor Navy Commander Scott Lang.
That was in 2002. Three years later, Couch was given an Australian defendant named Mahdouh Habib to prosecute, again under pressure from the man's home country. He found that nothing had changed.
He never got that CIA file, though eventually it came out that Habib had been rendered for torture to Egypt and had told wild tales under duress that he later denied. There was no other evidence. The case had to be dropped.
Subsequently, Couch was given the case of the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, to prosecute. But again, he was denied access to the intelligence files on his target.
Not surprisingly, Couch began to feel left out on a limb by his bosses. Eventually the habeas case of Salim Hamdan was argued before the Supreme Court. Couch reported his feelings.
Not long after, Couch finally managed a transfer to a different, less conflicted, military law job.
Bravin relates the story of the Bush Administration military commissions unjudgmentally, as I have not. His narrative is probably more convincing for playing it straight. He offers this simple summation of how such a travesty could come to be: