Bravin also chronicles the effort to transfer the terrorism portfolio from the Justice Department — which enjoyed a terrorism conviction rate of almost 100 percent — to one of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s cabinet rivals, Donald Rumsfeld, and how that, too, was meant to put a thumb on the scales of justice. “In one early draft, the secretary of defense would select all the participants — the members of the commission, the prosecutor, the defense attorney — and then would decide any appeals,” Bravin writes.
Days after officials produced that draft, Vice President Dick Cheney brought it to the president and discussed it with him over lunch. “Normally,” Bravin writes, “documents for the president’s approval are filed with the White House staff secretary, who circulates the draft among key officials for last-minute comments or concerns.” Instead, the president signed the commissions order hours after his discussion with Cheney, without the staffing. The White House issued a small press release. “As news reports picked up the press release, there was shock — most of all among administration officials who discovered they had been cut out of the process,” Bravin writes.
While the book provides a roster of villains, including what could only be called a gleeful evisceration of former chief prosecutor Robert Swann, there are heroes, too: men in uniform who were deeply uncomfortable about the direction the military commissions were taking. One of those people was Marine Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, who appears to have been a key source for the book.
Couch ended up as the chief prosecutor’s point man for the most significant cases at Guantanamo. He was asked to build cases on detainees. Yet as he dug into one case after another, he hit roadblocks that made prosecution impossible. Either the CIA would not provide intelligence for the case, or the prisoners were abused, or the evidence was thin.
The book ends with the May 2012 arraignment of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind, and his four co-defendants. I was at that arraignment, and as Bravin reports, it took 13 hours. Defendants misbehaved. Defense attorneys objected. And the prosecution was forced to read almost the entirety of the 87 pages of charges in half-hour rotations.
The problem is that by ending there, Bravin leaves readers with plenty of dark stories about the commission’s past but without a strong sense of how the commissions may have been reformed since that time. Bravin leaves the impression that the commissions may never transcend their history. His pessimism — though not unwarranted — seems, at best, premature.
Dina Temple-Raston reviewed this book for The Washington Post.