Guantánamo

Pentagon brass try to clear up their role in female guard controversy

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifying on Capitol Hill on March 22, 2016.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifying on Capitol Hill on March 22, 2016. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The two top Pentagon officials on Friday issued a statement of support of the independence of the war court at Guantánamo — as well as integration of women troops in all roles — in a clear-cut bid to try to mollify the Sept. 11 trial judge, who had ruled it looked like they were trying to contaminate his court.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued the 179-word statement on the eve of Memorial Day weekend and less than 24 hours before a Pentagon flight was scheduled to shuttle participants to a 9/11 war court hearing set to start Monday.

At issue was the judge’s Jan. 7, 2015, temporary ban on female guards handling alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four accused co-conspirators. He forbade female soldier from touching the men on their way to and from legal meetings and court while he chose between what defense lawyers called cultural and religious insensitivity and prosecutors called sexism. Carter and Dunford condemned the ban at a congressional hearing, calling it “outrageous.”

Army Col. James L. Pohl eventually did lift the ban in April in a 39-page decision that sided with the prison against the five men accused of orchestrating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. But he said he was extending it until Oct. 28 in light of several episodes of apparent unlawful influence.

While Pohl was hearing evidence on the issue, Dunford and Carter decried the ban as “outrageous,” and now retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly repeatedly criticized it, at one point personally apologizing to prison troops at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba over his inability to get Pohl’s order rescinded.

Pohl bristled at the remarks. He said, for female guards to return sooner to their duties on transport teams for the Sept. 11 defendants, senior Pentagon officials would have to “take appropriate action to absolve any taint” caused by their criticism of Pohl’s temporary restraining order.

So Friday that’s what they appeared to do.

“The Department of Defense, and we personally, are committed to fairness and transparency in military commission proceedings, and to the independence of the judges who oversee them,” said the statement.

“We continue to believe that our military has legitimate and strong interests in gender-neutral staffing, integration of women into all positions, and the prevention of gender discrimination,” it added. “We also believe that protection of the freedom of religion, and the access to representation, are fundamental to who we are.”

“To be clear, we had no intention to influence the military judges presiding over the military commissions,” it also said. “We respect the role of military judges in evaluating these issues as they might affect an individual case and we fully expect them to make their independent determinations on these and other matters.”

Kelly’s successor at the U.S. Southern Command, Adm. Kurt Tidd, disclosed in March that 15 troops had filed discrimination complaints over the order. His spokeswoman said eight were men, and all 15 complaints were lodged between Jan. 20 and Feb. 3, 2015. All have likely left the base by now as most troops serve nine-month tours.

It was not known how many, if any, women are currently assigned to Task Force Platinum, the code name of the special Army unit that guards Camp 7.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

Full statement

Military commissions are part of our system of military justice. The Department of Defense, and we personally, are committed to fairness and transparency in military commission proceedings, and to the independence of the judges who oversee them.

Our comments and those made by other senior officials regarding gender-neutral staffing of guard forces at JTF-GTMO (Joint Task Force Guantánamo) have given rise to a concern that the comments may have appeared to be intended to influence the proceedings. We continue to believe that our military has legitimate and strong interests in gender-neutral staffing, integration of women into all positions, and the prevention of gender discrimination. We also believe that protection of the freedom of religion, and the access to representation, are fundamental to who we are. To be clear, we had no intention to influence the military judges presiding over the military commissions. Along with other senior officials in the Department, we respect the role of military judges in evaluating these issues as they might affect an individual case and we fully expect them to make their independent determinations on these and other matters.

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