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The Court-Martial of Ehren Watada Begins

The Court-Martial of Ehren Watada Begins

By Jason Leopold
t r u t h o u t | Report

Tuesday 02 January 2006

A pre-trial hearing is scheduled to take place Thursday in Fort Lewis, Washington, in the court-martial of Ehren Watada, the 28-year-old Army lieutenant who is the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse to deploy to Iraq on the basis that the war is illegal.

Watada's court appearance comes on the same day the new Democratic-controlled Congress returns to work and begins to investigate one of the lingering questions surrounding the nearly four-year-old war. It's the same question that Watada said led to his decision to publicly challenge the legality of the war and refuse deployment - whether the intelligence that led to the US-led invasion was cooked by Bush administration officials.

The general court-martial of Watada also comes on the heels of one of the worst months of the war for US troops since 2004, with the loss of 113 soldiers in December. The country welcomed the arrival of 2007 while receiving news that US casualties in Iraq have reached 3,000, and that there is no military plan to deal with the escalating violence going forward.

During a hearing last year, a military court determined that there was sufficient evidence to charge Watada with intentionally missing his deployment, contemptuous speech toward officials, and conduct unbecoming an officer, and to proceed with a general court-martial. In September, those charges were amended to include an additional count of conduct unbecoming an officer. The contempt charges were dropped in November. Watada faces a maximum six-year prison sentence if he is convicted. The trial is expected to begin in February.

Two weeks ago, Watada discussed his decision to publicly oppose the war during a speech at the Church of the Crossroads in Moiliili, Hawaii. Speaking to a crowd of about 350, Watada said he struggled with leaving his fellow soldiers behind, but ultimately he needed to take a stand because, as an officer, he could not consciously order soldiers under his command to die for a war he believes is wrong and illegal.

"I hated to leave my troops, but something had to be done to stop this insanity," he said. "How could I order men to die for something I believe is wrong? Wearing the uniform is not, and is never, an excuse."

Watada Is Not Alone

Groups critical of the Army's decision to prosecute Watada charge the Lieutenant is being made a scapegoat and a significant number of US service members oppose the war.

The Appeal for Redress, founded two months ago by 29-year-old Navy seaman Jonathan Hutto, has collected the signatures and statements of more than 1,000 US soldiers, many of whom are on active duty in Iraq, who publicly oppose the war.

"Many active duty, reserve, and guard service members are concerned about the war in Iraq and support the withdrawal of US troops," states the organization's mission statement on its web site. "The Appeal for Redress provides a way in which individual service members can appeal to their Congressional representatives and US senators to urge an end to the US military occupation. The wording of the Appeal for Redress is short and simple. It is patriotic and respectful in tone. 'As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq. Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for US troops to come home.'"

The soldiers plan to deliver their messages to members of Congress on January 15, which falls on Martin Luther King's Birthday.

Further demonstrating the military's increasing frustration with the war, a poll conducted by the Military Times last week found that a majority of its servicemen and women do not support increasing the number of troops on the ground in Iraq, and disagree with President Bush's handling of the conflict. Only half of those polled believe that success in Iraq is likely.

"The American military - once a staunch supporter of President Bush and the Iraq War - has grown increasingly pessimistic about chances for victory," states an article accompanying the Military Times poll. "For the first time, more troops disapprove of the president's handling of the war than approve of it. Barely one-third of service members approve of the way the president is handling the war. In 2004, when the military was feeling most optimistic about the war, 83 percent of poll respondents thought success in Iraq was likely. This year, that number has shrunk to 50 percent."

Still, the dissent, even among the military, does not appear to be working in Watada's favor. On Thursday, the Army will present details of its case against him, and then move forward with the court-martial in February. Thousands of anti-war activists are expected to be in attendance at Thursday's hearing to rally around Watada and call for the Army to drop the charges against him, according to the literature the protest groups distributed.

In order to prove the charge of conduct unbecoming an officer, Captain Dan Kuecker, the Army prosecutor based at Fort Lewis, Washington, has subpoenaed Truthout contributing reporter Sarah Olson and Gregg Kakesako, a Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter. Both reporters conducted interviews with Watada and published stories in June that the Army contends contained disparaging statements Watada made about the legality of the Iraq War.

Army Reverses Course on Truthout Subpoenas

Kuecker had also stated his intent to subpoena Truthout's executive director Marc Ash, assistant editor Sari Gelzer, and contributing reporter Dahr Jamail to appear at Watada's trial in February - a controversial move that could land the journalists in jail if they refuse to comply.

Kuecker had sought to compel Gelzer to discuss a short news report she filmed over the summer. In that report, Watada, at the Veterans for Peace annual conference, said the Iraq War was based on lies, and he remarked that US soldiers could refuse to fight. According to Bill Simpich, Truthout's attorney, the military had clearly expressed an interest in having Gelzer confirm the authenticity of the film and the statements Watada made that were caught on tape. Jamail also filed a report on Watada. The journalists have not been formally served with subpoenas.

In an e-mail sent to Ash and Simpich last week, Kuecker said he did not need Gelzer or Jamail to appear at Thursday's hearing.

"Just a note to ensure there is no confusion," Kuecker wrote in the December 29, 2006, e-mail. We are not requesting Sari Gelzer or Dahr Jamail to appear at the hearing next week. Please make sure Sari and Dahr understand."

However, it's still unclear whether Kuecker intends to subpoena the journalists for Watada's trial in February. Kuecker certainly made it appear that was his intent in an e-mail sent to Ash on December 10. Here is the text of that e-mail:

Marc ~

This is a formal request for all contact information (to include address and phone number) for Sarah Olson, Dahr Jamail, and Sari Gelzer. Also, please provide the physical address for This information is required as a part of an ongoing criminal investigation and prosecution. Please respond as soon as possible.

Thank you,


Daniel R. Kuecker
Captain, US Army
Trial Counsel

Ash referred Kuecker to Simpich, and Kuecker has attempted to have Simpich accept subpoenas on behalf of Gelzer and Jamail. Simpich has refused to do so.

In an interview last month, Simpich, speaking on behalf of Gelzer, said that he will vigorously fight any attempt on behalf of the Army to subpoena her. He said doing so would turn the Fourth Estate into an arm of the government.

It is "wrongheaded and wholly mistaken," Simpich said, for the military to seek Gelzer's testimony, because it would force her "to collaborate with the US military and help the government submit into evidence the very videotape that could expose Watada to additional years in prison."

Simpich said that if the military wants Gelzer to testify, "they're in for a big fight."

In an interview, Simpich declared that "What they're essentially doing is asking the Fourth Estate to collaborate with the military as a co-partner in terms of prosecutions. That turns the Fourth Estate upside down."

Jamail has hired his own attorney to represent him in the case. He was unavailable for comment.


Jason Leopold is a former Los Angeles bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswire. He has written over 2,000 stories on the California energy crisis and received the Dow Jones Journalist of the Year Award in 2001 for his coverage on the issue as well as a Project Censored award in 2004. Leopold also reported extensively on Enron's downfall and was the first journalist to land an interview with former Enron president Jeffrey Skilling following Enron's bankruptcy filing in December 2001. Leopold has appeared on CNBC and National Public Radio as an expert on energy policy and has also been the keynote speaker at more than two dozen energy industry conferences around the country.

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