Pentagon official quits over lawyer remarks

 

crosenberg@miamiherald.com

A senior Pentagon official has resigned, it was disclosed today, three weeks after he ignited a firestorm of controversy by casting fellow lawyers as dishonorable for offering free-of-charge legal service to U.S.-held captives at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Charles D. ''Cully'' Stimson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, submitted his resignation Thursday, said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.

No replacement has been named.

But it comes at a crucial time. The Pentagon is gearing up to announce new charges and stage new war crimes tribunals called military commissions against at least a few of the 395 of so foreigners held in remote Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

And Stimson had been a major behind-the-scenes player, advocating Bush administration policy, shuttling special guests to the base and trying to promote a favorable image of the at-times controversial detention center.

It was unclear where he would go next.

Stimson, 43, is a Navy Reserves JAG officer and former federal prosecutor. He sparked a national legal controversy on Jan. 11, the fifth anniversary of the establishment of the prison camp, with some broadcast remarks on a Washington D.C. radio station, Federal New Radio.

Unprompted, during an interview, he rattled off a comprehensive list of leading U.S. law firms who let lawyers defend detainees -- and said corporate executives ``are going to make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms.''

Legal groups and some newspaper editorials swiftly condemned the comments as being at odds with the bedrock American principle of free or pro-bono representation.

Six days later, Stimson apologized in a three-paragraph letter to The Washington Post, renouncing his own remarks as at odds with his ``core values.''

But he never explained the first statement, or why the retreat. And some newspaper editorials and legal groups have rejected the apology.

Earlier, in a comment to The Miami Herald, Whitman had distanced the Defense Department from the remarks, saying that they neither reflected Pentagon policy nor thinking.

Still, the comments caused a coast-to-coast stir in the U.S. legal community. The San Francisco Bar Association asked its state board to conduct a formal disciplinary investigation, where Stimson was an inactive member.

Stimson is also an active member of the Maryland Bar and Miami defense attorney Neal Sonnett had said earlier that detainee issues and Stimson's remarks would be a hot topic at next week's winter meeting of the American Bar Association, in Miami.

''He had come to the determination that the controversy surrounding him was hampering his ability to be effective in this position,'' Whitman said Friday afternoon. ``And he wanted to put the needs of the Department of his own.''

Still Sonnett retorted, after learning that Stimson had stepped aside:

``His resignation is not going to quell the interest in the broader issues of due process and fair treatment and the right for detainees to have their day in court.''

Stimson held the job for about a year, and succeeded an earlier Bush administration appointee, Matt Waxman, who moved on a State Department.

During his year, Whitman said, Stimson had ''worked tirelessly'' on trying to improve the Pentagon's relations with international organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.

He also used the perch to requisition military aircraft and lead distinguished visitor day-tours of the prison camps -- including members of Congress, select media and other government officials.

''He was very committed to trying to dispel the misperceptions of Guantánamo,'' Whitman said.

During the vacancy, he added, Stimson's civilian deputy, Alan Liotta, a longtime Pentagon employee who had worked on POW and MIA issues, would be performing some of his functions.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., hailed the resignation. Leahy, a lawyer and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had written President Bush and urged him to disavow the remarks of his Defense Department deputy.

Today he said, that Stimson had made ``the right decision. Mr. Stimson undermined his own effectiveness with his reprehensible comments that showed a lack of commitment to foundational principles of our law and legal system.''

Added Martin S. Pinales, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, an organization of about 13,000 attorneys: ``He did the right thing by resigning. His remarks were totally inappropriate for a government in his position.''

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