Military defense lawyers cite My Lai massacre in plea to Hagel

Military lawyers for former CIA captives held at Guantánamo are appealing to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to intervene in what they describe as deteriorating conditions and leadership failures on a scale similar to the Vietnam War’s My Lai Massacre. Hagel is a Vietnam combat veteran.

Army Capt. Jason Wright, defense counsel for the alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, said Tuesday he delivered the 13-page letter to the Pentagon Monday afternoon in a bid to get Hagel to intervene in what’s going on at the remote prison camps on the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.

The military lawyers call death among the detainees “imminent ... whether by suicide, starvation, organ failure or associated complications.”

On Tuesday, Navy medical staff was force feeding 30 of the 103 hunger striking captives, said Army Lt. Col. Samuel House, the deputy prison spokesman. None of the 30 are so-called high-value detainees — the men now held in a secret prison called Camp 7 after years of detention and interrogation by CIA agents.

“There needs to be active engagement, encouragement and leadership to treat the Guantánamo prisoners humanely,” said the letter signed by defense counsel for eight of the 15 ex-CIA captives.

“Recent trends in leadership fail in this duty. Just as the events leading to the massacre at My Lai derived from the dehumanization of the Vietnamese, there should be no question that the root of war crimes and mistreatment of prisoners likewise requires one human being to dehumanize another.”

Civilian lawyers for low-value detainees have written Hagel during the hunger strike. What makes this letter so exceptional is that it is signed by lawyers who are uniformed military officers in the Air Force, Marines, Navy, Marine Corps and Army — which Hagel served in as an enlisted soldier in Vietnam.

The Pentagon had no immediate response to the letter to Hagel, who is also the first former enlisted soldier, not an officer, to serve as secretary of defense.

But the prison has said through spokesmen that the guards treat their captives humanely. The chief of the guard force, who is singled out for criticism in the letter, just last week allowed reporters to watch guards silently observing the pre-dawn prayers of a cellblock under lockdown.

The prison is not allowing journalists inside the camps for two weeks while the prison installs and trains the latest rotation of Army media escorts, National Guard members from Indiana and Kentucky. Journalists have never been allowed to see Camp 7, the prison building whose conditions are described as deteriorating in the military lawyers’ letter. That lockup is so clandestine that the prison camps spokesmen are forbidden to include any of the 15 captives there in the daily tally of hunger strikers, or those being shackled into a restraint chair for twice daily tube feedings.

“Recent command actions that defy justification, such as placing hunger-striking prisoners in solitary confinement, camp-wide temperature modifications, and guard disruptions during attempted prayers, find their roots in prejudice,” the lawyers wrote.

They cited as an example the case of a captive who has been sick and chose to stay in his cell for days and “was nevertheless forced to exit his cell every day so that the guard force could toss his cell and search his person.” That man is alleged 9/11 conspirator Mustafa al Hawsawi, a Saudi, according to his attorney, Navy Cmdr. Walter Ruiz.

The lawyers say their clients have been subjected to a “systematic pattern of harassment, degradation” and seizure of privileged legal materials that have eroded the attorney-client relationship. Six of the men they represent are awaiting capital trials, five for the Sept. 11 attacks and a sixth for al-Qaida’s 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole.

The letter seeks to pre-empt a response that the Army has modeled its behavior after the Federal Bureau of Prisons guards, with full-time corrections officers rather than soldiers serving one- or two-year rotations.

“While ‘routine’ searches within the Federal Bureau of Prisons systems are permitted,” they wrote, “ ‘daily’ searches of this nature do not occur.”

The letter singles out the commander of the guard force, Army Col. John Bogdan, whose specialty is military policing.

The military lawyers asked Hagel to examine Bogdan’s “fitness to command” on grounds he was responsible for the detention center during their discovery of an eavesdropping system at attorney-client meeting rooms, and also because of “the rapidly deteriorating detention conditions under his command and his heavy-handed response to the current hunger strike.”

Hagel, who as a Republican senator from Nebraska visited the prison camps in July 2005, has not personally responded to letters regarding Guantánamo conditions.

Instead he has had Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs William Lietzau, whose been involved in prison policy since the Bush years, write the replies.

The war court lawyers say they have written Pentagon officials 12 times in four years but never have received a reply.

The military has acknowledged that prison guards this year undertook particularly aggressive searches at Guantánamo. During an April reporting visit, commanders displayed improvised weapons and said that the guard force had become too lax and permissive in past years. Now, according to the Pentagon defense lawyers, “prisoners are subjected to degrading bodily searches even when no rational basis exists for such procedures.”

Navy Capt. Robert Durand, the prison spokesman, attributed the new tough lockdown to Marine Gen. John Kelly, commander of Southern Command, whose guiding advice to the prison was “Never, ever, ever, ever, ever reward bad behavior.”

Kelly, who has oversight of the detention center, also enlisted during the Vietnam War era but did not deploy to combat.

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