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Former Insider Shatters Credibility of Military Commissions, Describes Brutal Treatment of Teenage Detainee

Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld: "I am here today to offer a single, straightforward message: the military commission system is broken beyond repair."

On Wednesday, I reported how Retired Rear Admiral John D. Hutson, the former Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Navy from 1997 to 2000, had delivered compelling testimony to a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on “legal issues regarding military commissions and the trial of detainees for violations of the law of war,” explaining why the only valid forum for trials of suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay is the U.S. federal court system. 

The lucidity and directness of Hutson’s testimony was in marked contrast to the amendments to the existing Military Commission system -- and terrifying asides about the use of “preventive detention” -- that were proposed by Jeh Johnson, the Defense Department’s General Counsel, and David Kris, the Assistant Attorney General in the Justice Department’s National Security Division, in response to legislation already prepared by the Committee, which, it seems, will be presented to the Senate in the imminent future, even though it still allows (subject to certain restrictions) the use of information -- I hesitate to use the word “evidence” -- obtained through coercion, and other information that is nothing more than hearsay. 

The day after Hutson delivered his testimony, the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties Subcommittee of the House Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on “Legal Issues Surrounding the Military Commissions System,” in which Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld of the U.S. Reserves, a former prosecutor in the Military Commissions, delivered what should, I believe, be the final word on the unsuitability of Military Commissions as a valid trial system ( PDF). 

Vandeveld, who served in Bosnia, Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan before volunteering for Guantánamo, and who has been decorated on several occasions, sent shockwaves through the Commission system under the Bush administration, when he spectacularly resigned last September , declaring, “I am highly concerned, to the point that I believe I can no longer serve as a prosecutor at the Commissions, about the slipshod, uncertain ‘procedure’ for affording defense counsel discovery.” He added that the “incomplete or unreliable” discovery process “deprive[s] the accused of basic due process and subject[s] the well-intentioned prosecutor to claims of ethical misconduct.”  

The particular trigger for the dissatisfaction that led him to tell the Committee about “the mistaken proposals to revise and revive the irretrievably flawed military commissions at Guantánamo Bay,” and that turned him from, as he described it, a “true believer to someone who felt truly deceived,” was the incompetence and obstruction he encountered as he tried to build a case against Mohamed Jawad , an Afghan prisoner accused of throwing a grenade that injured two U.S. soldiers and an Afghan translator in December 2002, and it was this journey to the “dark side” that he reprised for the Committee on Wednesday to such devastating effect. 

Lt. Col. Vandeveld explains how he became opposed to the Military Commissions 

Telling the Committee that he had not always been “skeptical about the capacity of military commissions to deliver justice,” Vandeveld admitted that, at the beginning of his assignment at Guantánamo, when Jawad “told the court that he was only 16 at the time of his arrest, and that he had been subjected to horrible abuse, I accused him of exaggerating and ridiculed his story as ‘idiotic.’” He added, “I did not believe that he was a juvenile, and I railed against Jawad’s military defense attorney, whom I suspected of being a terrorist sympathizer.” 

Vandeveld explained that, initially, the case against Jawad “seemed uncomplicated,” because he had “confessed to his role in the attack on a videotape recorded by U.S. personnel,” and, as a result, the case “seemed likely to produce a quick, clean conviction, and an unmarred early victory for the prosecution, vindicating the concept” of the Commissions.