The Cost of Doing Your Duty
The New York Times
October 11, 2006
During the recent debate over how to handle the prisoners at GuantanamoBay, the Bush administration made a lot of noise about its commitment to fair treatment for the detainees and its respect for the uniformed lawyers of the armed forces. Anyone who believed those claims should consider the fate of the Navy lawyer whose integrity helped spark that debate in the first place.
In 2003, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift was assigned to represent Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni citizen accused of being a high-ranking member of Al Qaeda -- for the sole purpose of getting him to plead guilty before one of the military commissions that President Bush created for GuantanamoBay. Instead of carrying out this morally repugnant task, Commander Swift concluded that the commissions were unconstitutional. He did his duty and defended his client. The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in June that the tribunals violated American law as well as the Geneva Conventions.
The Navy responded by killing his military career. About two weeks after the historic high court victory in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Commander Swift was told he was being denied a promotion. Under the Navy's up-or-out system, that spelled the end of his 20-year career, and Commander Swift said last week that he will be retiring in March or April.
With his defense of Mr. Hamdan and his testimony before Congress starting in July 2003, Commander Swift did as much as any single individual to expose the awful wrongs of GuantanamoBay and Mr. Bush's lawless military commissions. It was a valuable public service and a brave act of conscience, and his treatment is deeply troubling.
The law creating military tribunals for terror suspects, passed by Congress in a pre-election panic, leaves enormous room for the continued abuse of prisoners and for the continued detention of scores of men who committed no crime. If their military lawyers are afraid to represent them vigorously, their hopes for justice dim even further.
The Navy gave no reason for refusing Commander Swift's promotion. But there is no denying the chilling message it sends to remaining military lawyers about the potential consequences of taking their job, and justice, seriously.