Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Military commission underway

Today the first trial under the Bush administration's awkward new military commission rules began at Guantanamo Bay with Salim Ahmed Hamdan facing a commission of 6 U.S. officers. The presiding military judge started with a mixed set of rulings on the admissibility of evidence obtained through coercive means; so far, the judge, Navy Captain Keith J. Allred, has rejected information elicited while Hamdan was interrogated in Afghanistan but admitted data collected in American-run prisons.

The DefenseLink military commission site maintains an extensive collection of filings and scheduling information on the Hamdan trial and the commissions in general. Reviewing the documents posted there suggests how daunting it is to create, sui generis, a brand-new criminal justice system. Dozens of motions and hundreds of exhibits (most heavily redacted) demonstrate the struggle facing prosecutors, defense counsel, judges, and commission members as they try to fit the familiar practice of courts-martial and federal criminal trials into the byzantine rules of the military commissions. Uncertainty persists at every turn, from bureaucratic detail to animating concepts: Were counsel appropriately detailed or inappropriately replaced? Whither expert witnesses? What constitutes "armed conflict"? And of course, the most remarked-upon feature of the trials, the battle over the potential admissibility of evidence obtained via torture. In the World War II Nazi saboteur case, the most frequently cited historical predecessor to the new commissions, there were but a handful of military lawyers and officers who worked for but a few weeks; today, there have already been hundreds of attorneys and military officers involved during the nearly seven years since the President's first military order regarding the trial of detainees.