Staff changes hit war court

WASHINGTON -- The general who has been the most public Pentagon face of President Bush's controversial war court at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, is retiring, and an activist chief defense counsel is leaving his post soon, too.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hemingway retires at the end of the month as legal advisor in the Office of Military Commissions, the bureaucracy in charge of the first U.S. war-crimes tribunals since World War II.

The transition comes at a sensitive time -- just weeks after Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified at Congress that, given the "taint" of impropriety at Guantánamo Bay, the war court would lack credibility in some parts of the globe.

A 30-year veteran of the U.S. military justice system, Hemingway was recalled to active duty in 2003 to the second-most senior role supervising the war court.

At the Pentagon, he often gave public briefings about the war-court process while other Defense Department officials shielded their identities.

The commissions so far have been closed once by the U.S. Supreme Court, been revised by Congress and yielded one conviction -- last month's guilty plea by al Qaeda foot soldier David Hicks, 31.

Hicks admitted to providing military support for terrorism in exchange for a nine-month jail sentence, most of it served in his native Australia, and freedom by New Year's Eve.

Hemingway, in a letter to The Washington Post last week, said he personally negotiated that plea deal for Susan Crawford, a former military appeals court judge who is called the Convening Authority of the military commissions.

He wrote that he played that role because Hicks' lawyers had accused the Pentagon's chief prosecutor of misconduct, circumstances that made it "unlikely that counsel would be able to engage in constructive plea agreement discussions."

No replacement has been named for Hemingway, who retires May 1, said a Pentagon spokesman for Guantánamo, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, on Friday.

Until one is named, said Gordon, the job will be covered by Hemingway's deputy, a retired military lawyer named Mike Chapman.

Nor has the Defense Department assigned a new chief defense counsel to succeed Marine Corps Col. Dwight Sullivan, a reservist and former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who returns to civilian life in August.

Sullivan's office encompasses a far-flung, outspoken team of military and civilian lawyers in the Pentagon, assigned to defend Guantánamo captives from war-crimes charges, some theoretically punishable by execution.

Sullivan's staff of U.S. military judge advocates has aggressively challenged the process by which their clients, called enemy combatants, would be tried at Guantánamo.

They went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which eventually declared illegal the Pentagon's first formula for Military Commissions.

Hicks' attorney, Marine Maj. Dan Mori, traveled frequently to Australia to whip up sympathy for his client's case.

Other military lawyers in Sullivan's office have appeared to risk contempt citations from military judges in earlier war-court sessions by challenging the commissions' authority -- particularly to compel them to serve as defense attorneys for alleged terrorists who sought to defend themselves.

Gates had proposed closing the war court and prison camps in remote southeast Cuba, and moving some captives deemed most dangerous to the United States for detention and perhaps trial.

President Bush overruled him, according to an account in The New York Times.

The commissions are currently in a hiatus, awaiting Pentagon publication of rules for implementing aspects of the legislation that Congress passed last year.

The next two captives before the court could be Canadian captive Omar Khadr, 20, accused of the war crime of murder in the firefight death of a U.S. Special Forces medic in Afghanistan, and Salim Hamdan, 36, the Yemeni-born one-time driver for Osama bin Laden.

Also, the U.S. Supreme Court has a conference scheduled for Friday on whether to intervene prematurely in a challenge to the court system brought by Hicks and Hamdan.