Civil Liberties

"It was clear to me that we were doing things contrary to the law": Matthew Diaz Speaks

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Diaz was jailed for revealing the names of the prisoners at Guantánamo. Last week he was honored for it.
On April 3rd in Washington, D.C., a man who spent five months in prison for breaking the law was honored at a luncheon in the name of Ron Ridenhour, the Vietnam War veteran who blew the lid off the My Lai massacre. His name is Matthew Diaz and he is a former officer with the Navy's Judge Advocate General's corps. He is also the winner of the 2008 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling, presented to him at the National Press Club.

Matthew Diaz's story is a dramatic one. It begins in the summer of 2004, when Diaz -- then a JAG corps officer -- started a six-month tour of duty at the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay. It was the week after the Supreme Court had handed down a decision in Rasul v. Bush upholding the right of prisoners to challenge their incarceration. Diaz realized that the administration was doing everything in its power to stall the release the prisoners' names, without which lawyers could not act on their behalf to initiate habeas corpus proceedings. As months passed, his frustration grew. The names of the prisoners weren't being announced, and there was very little information released about their condition. Only a fraction of the files on prisoner abuse -- which he helped compile -- was being made public. "I knew that if I didn't do anything, nobody else was going to," he would tell the New York Times.

So, late one night in January 2005, he logged onto a secure internal database, bringing up prisoners' names 100 at a time. For two weeks, contemplating the risks to his career, he kept the list of 551 names and corresponding serial numbers locked in his office safe. On January 14, the night of his farewell party, he enclosed the documents in an unmarked Valentine's Day card and mailed it to a lawyer at a civil liberties group in New York.

But the names weren't made public until 14 months later, following a Freedom of Information Act request made by the Associated Press. The documents mailed to the lawyer were confiscated by a federal agent; the card was traced to Diaz. Facing 24 years in prison for charges of wrongful and dishonorable transmission of classified documents, he instead received a sentence of six months. In May 2007, a jury of military officers convicted him on four of five charges and stripped him of his pension. The Navy subsequently decertified him as a JAG officer.

For breaking the law, Matthew Diaz has paid a heavy price. But in doing so, he upheld the Constitution and refused to be party to the U.S. government's abuse of constitutional rights in the post-9/11 world. In disclosing the names and serial numbers of the prisoners at Guantánamo, he also demonstrated the independent judgment and personal courage of Ron Ridenhour, the My Lai whistleblower, in whose honor these prizes were instituted.


The remarks of Matthew Diaz upon receiving the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling are below. For more information on the Ridenhour Prizes, go here.

Remarks of Matthew Diaz at National Press Club, April 3, 2008

Diaz was introduced by Joe Margulies, the lawyer of record in Rasul v. Bush.

Thank you. Thank you, everyone. Thank you, Joe. As a matter of fact, we, my defense team during the trial preparations, we had requested that Mr. Margulies be allowed to testify for the defense to educate the jury about the goings-on down at Gitmo. Of course, the government prosecutors fought our efforts to bring him into my trial. And the military judge ruled against us. So the jury did not have the benefit of his insight and his background in working so hard, as he has, on behalf of all of us, we, the people in this country, to ensure that our laws were being recognized and properly enforced. But I thank you for coming here to share this special moment with me and for saying the kind words that you have.

I'd also like to thank everybody involved who is associated with the Ridenhour awards process. I'd like to give a few shout-outs to some people you may not know, but who have been with me all along throughout this process. The attorneys and staff at Remcho, Johansen, & Purcell in California -- they worked behind the scenes during my court martial, assisted greatly my attorneys who defended me at my court martial. And they are taking the lead in my appeal. And they are doing it all pro bono because they're good people. I really appreciate their help. (Applause.)

I'd also like to thank the Catholic Worker Hospitality House out of San Bruno, California. For without them, I probably would not have been able to have a Savannah attorney represent me along with my military counsel at my court martial. And after being released from the brig in October with a sudden drop in income -- no income, as a matter of fact -- they assisted in keeping me from being homeless. (Applause.)

Of course, my family who has supported me throughout these times, particularly my mother who has come to join me from Chicago and my sister coming in from Chicago. (Applause.) Of course, my daughter who has not lost faith in her papi; thank you very much, Mi Hija. (Applause.)

And unfortunately, my wife, who had just finished nursing school in November and started a new job in January, could not get out of work to join me. But as it turned out, she ended up missing work because she was feeling a bit under the weather. But I could not have gone through this without her support, her driving up to Charleston every other weekend -- a four-hour drive one way -- to visit me and to keep my spirits high. I could not have done this without her and -- (inaudible, applause).

But most importantly, Mr. Ron Ridenhour for inspiring this award. Looking at the past winners, as we have, of The Ridenhour Prizes, I am honored and truly humbled to be recognized among such amazing individuals: people who are inspirational, people who I'm proud to ask my daughter to emulate. Of all the awards in my life--and I've received many over my 21-year military career -- this is hands-down my most cherished award. I'm being recognized for an act of conscience.

Like Ron and other recipients of this award, I believe in the Constitution. Granted, this country's history is far from perfect, but we, the people, have accepted this imperfect past and decided to live our lives in accordance with this great document. As an Army soldier and a Navy sailor, I raised my right hand to support and defend this Constitution. The oath of office I took, particularly as a naval officer, required me to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and that I would bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution and the country whose course it directs.

Per this oath, my loyalty is to the Constitution and this nation, not any individuals, military or civilian. I was hired by the Navy because the Navy wanted me for my brain. It surprised me -- (laughter) -- when they accepted me into the JAG corps. But they hired me for my brain, not my fighting skills. I'm tasked and I was tasked to interpret and apply the law and the regulations we're required to abide by. The law -- as I was taught at the Army's JAG school, when I was pursuing my master's in military law just two short years before being assigned at Guantánamo -- the law as I was taught, the international law as I was taught, one full semester during that program, the law of this nation that's so strongly advocated over the years, that has led other nations, sometimes by force, to observe and to get other nations to comply with these minimal standards. But with the Constitution, my legal training, Supreme Court ruling, and my own morality as my compass, it wasnot long into my tour at Guantánamo before it was clear to me that we were doing things contrary to the law.

As Professor Ellen Yaroshefsky from the Cardozo School of Law put it recently, I was operating in a system that had badly derailed from fundamental norms of justice. It was outrageous that a few unaccountable leaders and their House lawyers could turn everything we stand for in the wrong direction and then lie about it. We are fortunate to have courageous individuals, military individuals, military personnel such as -- and I name Geoffrey Corn, a retired Army JAG who is now on the faculty at South Texas College of Law; Admirals Gouder and Hudson, the top Navy lawyers at the JAG Corps during my time in the JAG Corps, inspirational mentors and leaders. We're also fortunate to have courageous individuals such as principled civilians who have visited Guantánamo and looked closely at the situation there. These courageous individuals, military and civilian, they use their knowledge to reveal the truth rather than subvert it.

For me, I had to act. Who knew when the names of those prisoners would be revealed, if ever? Who knew when the truth about conditions in that prison would become known? I had no choice.

In my many readings about Guantánamo I've come across the following quote that I'd like to share with you; I came across it quite often. It's from Justice Louis Brandeis, Supreme Court justice, and it goes:

"Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole of the people by its example. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law and invites every man to become a law unto itself. It breeds anarchy. To declare that the end justifies the means would bring terrible retribution."

This Supreme Court justice got it.

Finally, I'd like to dedicate this award to those who pushed back, as best as they can, to oppose wayward policies and instead chose the moral, legal, ethical path in fulfilling their duties in defense of the enduring values of this great country we all call home.

Thanks very much.

(Standing ovation.)

The Ridenhour Prizes are sponsored by The Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation.