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Watada Trial: Openings & Prosecution Blunders

Opening Statements and Prosecution Blunders

By Bill Simpich and Scott Galindez
t r u t h o u t | Report
Click Through To Original For Video Report

Wednesday 07 February 2007

Ft. Lewis, Washington - On the second day of the court-martial of First Lt. Ehren Watada, it seemed at times that the prosecution witnesses were really defense witnesses.

The day began with opening statements. The prosecution laid out the following charges:

Charge I: Violation of the UCMJ, Article 87
The specification: In that 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, U.S. Army, did, at or near Fort Lewis, Wash., on or about 22 June 2006, through design miss the movement of Flight Number [redacted], with which he was required in the course of duty to move.

Charge II: Violation of the UCMJ, Article 133
Specification 1: In that 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, U.S. Army, did, at or near Tacoma, Wash., on or about 7 June 2006, take part in a public press conference in which he communicated the following disgraceful statement, to wit: "It is my conclusion as an officer of the Armed Forces that the war in Iraq is not only morally wrong but a horrible breach of American law.... As the order to take part in an illegal act is ultimately unlawful as well, I must as an officer of honor and integrity refuse that order.... The wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of Iraqis is not only a terrible and moral injustice, but it's a contradiction to the Army's own law of land warfare. My participation would make me party to war crimes," or words to that effect, his statement bringing dishonor to the Armed Forces.

The additional specification: In that 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, U.S. Army, did, at or near Seattle, Wash., on or about 12 August 2006, take part in the Veterans for Peace National Convention in which he communicated the following disgraceful statement, to wit: "Today, I speak with you about a radical idea.... That to stop an illegal and unjust war, the soldiers can choose to stop fighting it.... Now it is not an easy task for the soldier. For he or she must be aware that they are being used for ill gain.... They must know that resisting an authoritarian government at home is equally important to fighting a foreign aggressor on the battlefield.... This administration used us for rampant violations of time-tested laws banning torture and degradation of prisoners of war. Though the American soldier wants to do right, the illegitimacy of the occupation itself, the policies of this administration, and the rules of engagement of desperate field commanders will ultimately force them to be party to war crimes.... If soldiers realized this war is contrary to what the Constitution extols - if they stood up and threw their weapons down - no President could ever again initiate a war of choice. When we say, 'Against all enemies foreign and domestic,' what if our elected leaders became the enemy?... To support the troops who resist, you must make your voices heard. If they see thousands supporting me, they will know.... We must show open-minded soldiers a choice and we must give them courage to act.... I tell this to you because you must know that to stop this war, for the soldiers to stop fighting it, they must have the unconditional support of the people.... Convince them that no matter how long they sit in prison, no matter how long this country takes to right itself, their families will have a roof over their heads, food in their stomachs, opportunities, and education.... Now, I'm not a hero. I am a leader of men who said enough is enough.... Never again will we allow those who threaten our way of life to reign free - be they terrorists or elected officials. The time to fight back is now. The time to stand up and be counted is today," or words to that effect, his statement bringing dishonor to the Armed Forces.

The evidence for the additional specification was a Truthout video of Ehren Watada's speech at the Veterans for Peace Convention. Part 1. Part 2.

The video played on the big screen in the courtroom and may have helped the defense as much as it helped the prosecution. The judge had already ruled out most of the defenses that Watada's counsel had intended to raise, including the Nuremburg defense, a defense that Watada raised in that speech.

During his opening statement, defense attorney Eric Seitz emphasized from the beginning: The only real question is why? What was Lt. Watada's intent? The questions that flow from that are: How did he comport himself? Did he dishonor himself, the officer corps, or the Army itself? He enlisted in 2003 against his family's wishes and took an oath to defend the Constitution that motivates him to this day.

He received positive evaluations, and arrived in Fort Lewis in June 2005 looking forward to a promising military career. But two issues soon drew his attention. One was the utter falsity of the threat that Iraq contained weapons of mass destruction, which was the justification for initiating the invasion of Iraq. The other was the falsity of the claim that the Iraqi leadership was tied up with the events of 9/11. The underlying facts documenting this falsity are accepted by most reasonable people as true and correct. Lt. Watada became very upset and disillusioned with what he was going to be called upon to do, and felt that action was necessary.

In early 2006, he resolved to do something to prevent putting himself and his troops at risk. He contacted his superior, Lt. Col. Bruce Antonia, explained his dilemma, and asked to be allowed to resign. He wrote a letter and they had a discussion. Antonia did not take Lt. Watada's letter seriously.

Lt. Watada offered to go to Afghanistan or anywhere else, but was refused. His offer to resign had been refused. He had ordered to go to the Public Affairs office, where he was informed in a talk that he should make no statements on duty, in uniform, or on the base - which he complied with. The June 22 deployment date was coming near, and Lt. Watada determined that he had to bring the matter to a head before the unit headed to Iraq. On June 7, the lieutenant held a Tacoma press conference and went public with his dilemma.

On August 12, Lt. Watada addressed the Veterans for Peace Convention in Seattle. The defense asked the panel to place the speech in context, as it asked the listeners to examine their conscience and decide for themselves what to do. Eric Seitz closed by reminding the panel that the prosecution had stacked the case originally with a request for as much as eight years of potential punishment (which drew an objection sustained by the judge), and that the lieutenant did not shirk his duties but rather upheld his oath to defend the Constitution. The prosecution presented three witnesses today; Lt. Colonel Bruce Antonia, Professor Richard Swain and Lt. Colonel William James.

Antonia testified that Lt. Watada was a high quality officer and very smart, an asset to the unit. He also testified that he has never questioned his integrity. When asked why he thought Watada could be an asset to the unit while expressing his moral objections to the war, the Lt. Colonel said that because Watada was a high caliber officer, he felt he could overcome his moral questions and perform in the field.

The strongest argument Antonia made for the prosecution was that he didn't want a distraction for the other troops deploying. While he said he didn't recall ordering Watada to not go public, he told him he wanted to avoid a media circus. During cross-examination Antonia testified that Lt. Watada's statements didn't decrease the morale or the effectiveness of the unit.

Following the testimony of Dr. Swain, the prosecutor, Capt. Van Sweringen, was overheard to have said to one of his aides in the courtroom that "Dr. Swain was a disaster."

Professor Richard Swain, the military ethics expert, was barred by the judge from making the argument that Lt. Watada's public statements were inconsistent with his oath to defend the Constitution. The net result was that his testimony reinforced Antonia's statement that officers had no obligation to follow orders they think are illegal. Swain added that "if they make that determination, they have to be right. If they're not right, they have to expect to be held accountable."

The prosecution rested its case at 3:40 p.m. Pacific.

Eric Seitz released the following statement after the day 2 proceedings:

The prosecution presented three witnesses today; Lt. Colonel Bruce Antonia, Professor Richard Swain and Lt. Colonel William James.

Through our questions, the witnesses continued to describe a young officer who made every possible attempt to avoid conflict in a respectful, orderly manner in an effort to resolve a dispute between his own conscience and the orders that he was given to deploy to Iraq. The witnesses never delved into the reasons why Lt. Watada refused deployment to Iraq, but all of them conceded that Lt. Watada was a "quality officer" and a person of integrity.

Tomorrow, we expect to two witnesses to testify - Lt. Watada and Captain Scott Hulin, who returned from Iraq in order to testify as a character witness. These are the only two witnesses this court has allowed us to call. The judge has continued to deny us the opportunity to bring any expert witnesses in order to fully explain Lt. Watada's motivations and reasons for refusing deployment to Iraq.

Based upon the first two days of trial, we are continuing to be optimistic about the outcome, and our hope is that Lt. Watada will be treated with respect for the position he's taken and the views that he's articulated and that any disposition will take into account that he is taking a position of conscience. We expect the findings portion of the case to conclude tomorrow, and any punishment proceedings will probably conclude on Thursday.


Special Coverage: Watada Court-Martial Trial

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