Guantanamo prosecutor quits

Davis exit increases prospect of delays in terrorism trials

October 06, 2007|By Carol Williams | Carol Williams,Los Angeles Times

MIAMI -- The chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo military commissions has resigned, raising the prospect of further delays in the Bush administration's six-year effort to bring war-on-terror prisoners to trial.

The Pentagon confirmed yesterday that Air Force Col. Morris Davis, a steadfast supporter of the detention and judicial processes at the U.S. naval base in Cuba, has asked to be relieved of his duties. Defense Department spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said a successor has not been named.

Davis' exit occurred during reported disagreement in the Office of Military Commissions about how to proceed with war-crimes trials amid pending U.S. federal court challenges.

Smith said the Pentagon was "taking measures to ensure a prompt and orderly transition." She declined to say whether the first trial, which had been expected to begin next month, would start on time.

Asked why he was leaving the office, Davis said in an e-mail message that he was "ordered not to communicate with the news media about my resignation or military commissions without the prior approval of the Department of Defense General Counsel and the Department of Defense Public Affairs."

The veteran military lawyer was reported to be resistant to political pressures being brought to bear on his prosecution team to move more quickly against the so-called "high-value" prisoners at Guantanamo. Those 16 terror suspects, including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, were transferred there from secret CIA prisons a year ago.

Davis was also known to have been unhappy with the administration's back-channel intervention in the first and only case the military commissions have undertaken: the March plea bargain that sent Australian prisoner David Hicks home to Adelaide to serve a token nine-month term for terrorism charges.

The commissions' convening authority, Susan J. Crawford, a former top official of Vice President Dick Cheney's Defense Department staff, negotiated the sharply reduced punishment without Davis' knowledge.

Hicks was one of only three of the roughly 330 prisoners at Guantanamo charged with war crimes under the newly reconstituted tribunals after last year's Supreme Court ruling that the original military commissions forum was unconstitutional. Trials had been in the works for 10 detainees when the commissions created by presidential order in November 2001 were quashed by the high court.

The GOP-dominated Congress enacted the Military Commissions Act of 2006 in a bid to restart the prosecutions, only to have fresh legal challenges filed in federal courts to the first U.S. attempt to prosecute war criminals since World War II.

The two remaining cases, against a Canadian who was 15 at the time of his capture and a Yemeni accused of serving as a driver and bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, have been in limbo since two commissions judges ruled in June that they lacked jurisdiction to try the cases at Guantanamo.

A ruling two weeks ago by the newly impaneled Military Commissions Court of Review overturned the jurisdictional decision and instructed the judges to resolve the technicality that led to their rulings.

The review court's decision cleared the way for trials to begin. Davis had reiterated in June that he expected to bring new charges against dozens of terror suspects this autumn.

Carol Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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