An Army officer who refused to go to Iraq can be prosecuted not only for
missing a troop movement but also for conduct unbecoming an officer because he
publicly criticized President Bush and questioned the war's legality, a
military judge has ruled.
Such a challenge to the war could "prevent the orderly accomplishment of
the mission or present a clear danger to loyalty, discipline, mission or morale
of the troops,'' Army Lt. Col. John Head said Tuesday in refusing to dismiss
charges against 1st Lt. Ehren Watada.
1st Lt. Ehren Watada joined the Army in 2003 but refused to go to Iraq, saying the war is illegal. Associated Press photo by Peter Haley
Head noted that "contemptuous speech by an officer directed at the
president'' is grounds for prosecution under military law. He said it would be
up to the jury at Watada's court-martial to decide whether his statements fell
into those categories.
Head also said Watada was not entitled to a hearing on the legality of the
Iraq war and had no right to defend his actions by arguing that they were
motivated by his opposition to an illegal war. Those are political questions
that a military court has no authority to consider, he said.
"What he's saying is that people in the military are not allowed to
criticize their leaders, not allowed to criticize policy,'' Watada's lawyer,
Eric Seitz, said Wednesday. He said the ruling was much more restrictive than
past military court decisions on troops' right to voice dissent during wartime.
Watada's court-martial, with Head presiding, is scheduled to start Feb. 5
at Fort Lewis, Wash., where Watada is based. Seitz said the ruling guaranteed a
conviction on the charge of missing a troop movement and would make it hard to
defend Watada against four charges of conduct unbecoming an officer, based on
the officer's public statements. Watada faces up to six years in prison if
convicted of all charges.
"I don't want my client sitting in jail while we litigate in civilian
courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court, but that may be what we have to
do,'' Seitz said.
In a statement released Wednesday by organizers of a "citizens' tribunal''
on the legality of the war, scheduled for this weekend in Tacoma, Wash., Watada
said he stood by his belief that "this war is illegal and immoral. Everything
I've done since I announced publicly why I'm refusing to go to this war is an
attempt to appeal to the American people to fulfill their civic obligations.''
The Army did not comment on the ruling, issuing only a general statement
that the military justice system "affords soldiers extensive rights to ensure
fair and impartial investigations and trials, just as in the civil system.''
Watada, 28, a Hawaiian who enlisted in the Army in 2003, refused to
accompany his armored infantry unit to Iraq in June. He was the first
commissioned U.S. officer to take such a stance.
The Army rejected his offers to fight in Afghanistan instead or resign his
commission, and has also turned down an offer of a six-month sentence and a
dishonorable discharge for missing a troop movement, Seitz said.
The charges of conduct unbecoming an officer are based on Watada's public
statements and press interviews.
In an interview with Oakland reporter Sarah Olson, published by the Web
site truthout.org in June, Watada spoke of the "deception the Bush
administration used to initiate and process this war,'' which he said made him
"ashamed of wearing the uniform.''
The Army has subpoenaed Olson and another reporter, Gregg Kakesako of the
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, to testify at the court-martial that they had quoted
Watada accurately. Olson has said she is reluctant to testify against someone
she interviewed, particularly in a case involving freedom of speech.
But Head's refusal to dismiss the speech-related charges means the
reporters may have to decide whether to comply with the subpoenas or face
©2007 San Francisco Chronicle