Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Loses Job for Criticizing Military Commissions
So much for the First Amendment. Morris Davis, the retired Air Force Colonel who served as the Chief Prosecutor of the Military Commissions at Guantánamo from September 2005 until his resignation in October 2007, has just lost his job at the Congressional Research Service (a branch of the Library of Congress) for writing, in his personal capacity, an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, in which he drew on his wealth of experience of the Commissions to criticize the Obama administration for its decision to prosecute some Guantánamo prisoners in federal courts, and others in Military Commissions, and a letter to the Washington Post, in which he criticized former Attorney General Michael Mukasey for scaremongering about the administration’s decision to try Guantánamo prisoners in federal courts.
In a letter dated November 20, Daniel P. Mulhollan, the director of CRS, told Col. Davis that he had not shown “awareness that your poor judgment could do serious harm to the trust and confidence Congress reposes in CRS,” and notified him that he would not be kept on after his one-year probationary period at CRS ends on December 21.
The ACLU immediately stepped in, sending a letter on Friday to Dr. Jim Billington, the Librarian of Congress, arguing that “CRS violated the First Amendment when it fired Davis for speaking as a private citizen about matters having nothing to do with his job there, and that CRS must reinstate Davis to his position in order to avoid litigation.”
Aden Fine, staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group, said, “The First Amendment protects Col. Davis’s right to speak and write as a private citizen about issues on which he has personal knowledge. Col. Davis didn’t give up his right to express his opinions and first-hand knowledge about a matter of such public importance when he left the military commissions system and went to work at CRS.”
In correspondence over the weekend, Col. Davis reinforced the ACLU’s views, explaining:
I am the head of the Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division at the Congressional Research Service (one of five CRS research divisions) at the Library of Congress. My division does not now nor has it ever had responsibility for providing Congress with advice on military commissions; that responsibility resides with the American Law Division … The Library of Congress has a regulation on outside activities for staff and it “encourages” outside writing and speaking on topics outside the staff member’s area of responsibility and the Congressional Research Service has a similar policy … In short, it was clear that I was prohibited from expressing my opinions publicly on matters within my area of responsibility, but I believe I retained the same right as all citizens to express opinions on matter outside the scope of my official duties.
The First Amendment guarantees the right of free speech and the Supreme Court has long recognized that public employment does not override that right (although regulation of speech is permissible when related to an employee’s official duty … and as noted, I have absolutely no official duty connected to military commissions). It is ironic that our offices are located in the James Madison Building, which is named for the “Father of the Constitution” and the primary architect of the Bill of Rights who led the effort to secure the right of free speech. I suspect Mr. Madison would be surprised to learn that the right he cherished is denied those working in the building that bears his name.
Morris Davis and the ACLU are right, of course, and I hope that Davis is reinstated. Even aside from the fact that he should be entitled to express his personal opinions under his First Amendment rights, it is difficult to see how his published comments could possibly be construed as demonstrating “poor judgment” that “could do serious harm to the trust and confidence Congress reposes in CRS.”
In his Wall Street Journal article on November 10, for example, Col. Davis stated only that the administration’s decision to try some prisoners in federal court and others in Military Commissions was “a mistake.” As he explained, “It will establish a dangerous legal double standard that gives some detainees superior rights and protections, and relegates others to the inferior rights and protections of military commissions. This will only perpetuate the perception that Guantánamo and justice are mutually exclusive.”
And in his letter to the Washington Post, he chided former AG Mukasey for claiming that the decision to try prisoners in federal courts “comes down to a choice between protecting the American people and showcasing American justice,” and also for implying that the Commissions were “essential to keep detainees from returning to terrorism.” As he added, “The Geneva Conventions permit detaining the enemy during armed conflicts to prevent them from causing future harm. Criminal trials punish past misconduct. Suggesting that the choice is either criminal prosecution or freedom is false.”
Ironically (given his subsequent treatment), Col. Davis’s comments about the Commissions were actually rather constructive, as he pointed out that the administration “could legitimately choose to prosecute detainees in either forum — federal courts or military commissions — and satisfy its legal obligations,” noting only that “The problem is trying to have it both ways.” He also explained, “It is not as if double-standard justice is required to keep suspected terrorists off our streets. Those detainees who cannot be prosecuted can still be detained under rules the administration approves — likely in the next several months — for the indefinite detention of those who pose a threat to us during this ongoing armed conflict.”
Jut as ironic is the fact that Davis’s dismissal follows nearly a year at CRS in which he has, in fact, been the soul of discretion regarding his former role as the Chief Prosecutor of the Commissions, the politicization that drove him to resign, and the comments he made in February 2008 that led to the immediate resignation of William J. Haynes II, the Pentagon’s Legal Counsel, even though countless journalists (myself included) would dearly love to talk to him about these matters.
Arguably, no one knew more — or, at least, felt more keenly — the politicization of the Commission process in 2007, after the system was revived by Congress in the fall of 2006 (following a Supreme Court ruling in June 2006, which found that it violated both the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice).
Detailed accounts of Davis’ resignation — and his subsequent explanations of his reasons for doing so, which strike at the heart of the Bush administration’s torture regime, and its attempts to prosecute the victims of torture over Davis’s objections — can be found, in particular, in my article, “The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials,” but to conclude this account with a concise explanation, it is worth noting the following passages taken from that article:
[I]n a blistering op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, two months after his resignation, Col. Davis stated, “I was the chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, until Oct. 4, the day I concluded that full, fair and open trials were not possible under the current system. I resigned on that day because I felt that the system had become deeply politicized and that I could no longer do my job effectively or responsibly.”
[Col. Davis] explained that the particular trigger for his decision was [a] memo … informing him that he had been placed in a chain of command under Haynes. Stating that he resigned “a few hours after” being informed of this, he mentioned that “Haynes was a controversial nominee for a lifetime appointment to the US 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, but his nomination died in January 2007, in part because of his role in authorizing the use of the aggressive interrogation techniques some call torture.” He added, “I had instructed the prosecutors in September 2005 [shortly after taking the job] that we would not offer any evidence derived by waterboarding, one of the aggressive interrogation techniques the administration has sanctioned.”
In February 2008, Col. Davis told Ross Tuttle of the Nation about a conversation he had with Haynes in August 2005:
“[Haynes] said these trials will be the Nuremberg of our time,” recalled Davis, referring to the Nazi tribunals in 1945, considered the model of procedural rights in the prosecution of war crimes. In response, Davis said he noted that at Nuremberg there had been some acquittals, which had lent great credibility to the proceedings.
“I said to him that if we come up short and there are some acquittals in our cases, it will at least validate the process,” Davis continued. “At which point, [Haynes's] eyes got wide and he said, ‘Wait a minute, we can’t have acquittals. If we’ve been holding these guys for so long, how can we explain letting them get off? We can’t have acquittals. We’ve got to have convictions.’”
This, I’m sure you’ll agree, is far more explosive than Col. Davis’s op-ed and letter regarding the Military Commissions, but even had he chosen to talk about these matters, he should have been free to do so. The fact that he has not is a loss for those of us who wish to see the Bush administration held accountable for its crimes (and who are keen to follow the chain of command from Haynes, via Susan Crawford, the Commissions’ Convening Authority, to Dick Cheney and David Addington), but it also provides another demonstration that, when it came to exercising his freedom of speech whilst employed by the CRS, Col. Davis had no intention of demonstrating “poor judgment” at all.