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Browbeating Military Officers on Geneva Convention

Bush Appointees Browbeat Senior Military Officers on Geneva Conventions

By Ann Wright
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Thursday 28 September 2006

As a retired US Army Reserve colonel, I am aghast at the blatant browbeating by civilian political appointees of the Bush administration of another generation of senior US military officers. In late 2002 and 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began the browbeating. He forced US Central Command commander General Tommy Franks into accepting a war plan for Iraq that Franks knew had too few military personnel for the job ahead - the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

After he retired, Franks said he was worn down by Rumsfeld's never-ending complaints about too many military troops in the general's operations plan. Franks eventually decided to invade and occupy with the minimal forces that Rumsfeld demanded. We know the result: not enough troops to protect the civilian population or the civilian infrastructure (water, sewage, electrical plants); not enough troops to prevent looting; not enough troops to seal the borders from those coming in from other countries; not enough troops to fulfill the responsibilities of an occupying force as required by international law; not enough troops to protect the troops.

Now, William Haynes, the chief civilian lawyer of the Department of Defense, one of the administration's architects of torture and nominated to a life-long judgeship on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, has browbeaten the four military services' senior military lawyers, the Judge Advocate Generals (all two star officers), into signing a "do not object" letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee. The letter says that the senior military lawyers do not object to two key provisions of the Bush bill that would reinterpret US obligations under the Geneva Conventions and also would protect US intelligence agents from war crimes prosecutions. Previously the military lawyers had publicly questioned, in Congressional hearings in both the Senate and House, the reinterpreting of the Geneva Conventions. The "do not object" letter was written when, after hours of browbeating by William Haynes, the two star officers refused to sign a "letter of endorsement" of the Bush plan, but instead signed the lesser of the two options, the "do not object" statement.

According to the Washington Post (September 15, 2006), the Air Force's top lawyer, Major General Charles J. Dunlap, said that he was not forced to sign the "do not object" letter, but still had reservations about the administration's proposal, just not in the areas discussed in the letter. But, late on September 15, the Army's Judge Advocate General, Major General Scott Black, sent another letter to Senator McCain reinforcing the earlier stand of the lawyers, stating "further redefinition" of the Geneva Conventions "is unnecessary and could be seen as a weakening of our treaty obligations, rather than a reinforcement of the standards of treatment." The senior lawyers have made a noble and professional end-run around the browbeating!

Remarkably, at long last, Bush family friend, former secretary of state, and 35-year military veteran Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, finally broke his silence and acknowledged a bit of conscience regarding the effects of Bush administration's policies that he was a part of. In a letter to McCain, he said that reinterpreting the Geneva Conventions would encourage other countries to "doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism." No doubt Powell's goose is cooked with the Bush family.

The Bush administration's browbeating of senior military officers is over two key provisions of the bill concerning rules governing military commissions that will put terrorism suspects on trial.

In defining US obligations under the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, Bush's proposal is that only detainee treatment that "shocks the conscience" should be barred (and would allow degrading acts that do not shock the conscience of someone chosen by the Bush administration).

The Senate Armed Services Committee bill is silent on what constitutes compliance with Common Article 3 and thereby would force CIA officers to treat detainees humanely and to avoid degrading acts, under common understandings of international law. (CIA officers involved in the Bush administration's secret prisons program have consulted lawyers after being warned that they could face prosecution for illegally detaining and interrogating terrorism suspects, and new CIA recruits are advised to take out private liability insurance against the risk of lawsuits as CIA officers will have to pay for their own defense, according to the Washington Times (September 10, 2006).

The second key provision of the bill is on access to classified information during military commission trials of terrorism suspects. The Bush administration advocates classified information could be withheld from a defendant if a military judge approves the withholding and if the judge determines that the withholding of classified information would not obstruct a fair trial.

The Senate Armed Services Committee bill would give defendant declassified information or substitute summaries when possible. A military judge can dismiss charges if the government objects to a judge's order that sensitive information be provided to a defendant.

The Bush administration's violation of international law has severely damaged the reputation of the United States in the international community and has put our military personnel at risk throughout the world.

The browbeating for political ends of our senior military lawyers by the administration is degrading to our professional, volunteer military and calls into question, again, the actions of the civilian leadership of this nation. The administration policy approved by Donald Rumsfeld and William Haynes condoning torture, and now the silencing of professional views of proposed policies concerning the rules for military commissions trying terrorism suspects, undermine the "good order and discipline" of the military and are dangerous for our country.


Ann Wright, retired from the US Army Reserves as a colonel after 29 years (13 on active duty and 16 in the Reserves). She also was a US diplomat for 16 years, serving in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia and Mongolia. She was on the first team to reopen the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan in December, 2001. She resigned from the US government in March, 2003, in opposition to the war on Iraq.

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