Two years ago, when Darrel Vandeveld flew to Guantánamo Bay to work as a prosecutor, no one else believed more in the detention camps and all they stood for in the War on Terror.
"I was totally gung ho," Vandeveld tells Riptide. "I was convinced that we actually had the 'worst of the worst,' and I was prepared to do whatever it took to get them convicted."
But for Vandeveld, a Navy JAG lawyer who had served in Bosnia, Africa, Afghanistan, and Iraq, a young Afghan named Mohammed Jawad changed everything. As he prosecuted Jawad, Vadevelde viciously called claims that Jawad was only 16 when captured and that he'd been brutally mistreated at Bagram Air Base "idiotic" and suggested his defense attorney supported terrorism.
Then he realized Jawad was telling the truth. Worse, he realized the entire military tribunal system at Gitmo was jerry-rigged to ensure that Jawad would never receive a fair hearing. After weeks of soul searching -- and a meeting with a Catholic priest who advised Vandeveld that he was "serving evil" -- he resigned in September 2008.
Read Riptide's interview with the former prosecutor, after the jump. And next week, look for New Times' full feature about our visit to Guantánamo Bay and the tremendous dilemma facing President Obama as he seeks to close the camps.
Riptide: Can you take us through the process that led you to resign as a prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay?
Vandeveld: Once I began to examine the manner in which evidence was kept, I started having doubts about professionalism of the investigators assinged to the prosecution office ...
As I got deeper and deeper into the case I ultimatly charged, US vs. Jawad, I found that most of the evidence was not only not available, no one knew where it was.
In December '07, I traveled to Afghanistan to interview police who I thought would be part of the prosecution because they'd taken Jawad into custody and interrogated him and extracted a confession ... What I found was that Jawad had been mistreated at the time he was held at Bagram. This was a kid of 16 or 17. Unlike any U.S. jail where juvilines were segregated, he was thrown in with everyone else.
The Afghans, I took their statements by videotape deposition. To a person, they each denied that Jawad had suffered any mistreatment. One said, with some inidgation, 'We are the police. We do not torture.' Later it devleoped that their definnition of torture was not consistent with our own. We had photographs of Jawad that didn't show any physical marks. But the judge in the case found after I resigned that they'd held a gun to his head and threatened to kill his family.
At that point the case disintegrated, because we had no physical evidence and lacking any confession, there was nothing. At the same time, we discovered that Jawad, who'd always claimed he'd been lured to join an insurgent group through promises that his work would be clearing land mines, that this was true and a standard recruiting tactic of this group.
I concluded that Jawad, if he was guilty, would never be convicted. And as a juvenile and given the fact that he'd served six years already, that he should be released. He poses no potential harm to U.S. interests and still today, I have no doubt if I encountered him on the street he'd pose no harm to me.
Riptide: And how did you decide the only option was to quit in protest?
Vandeveld: The decisive point came for me while I was sitting in a colleague's office, looking over a binder detailing some of the abuses at Bagram just out of idle curiosity. I came across a statement taken from Jawad by Army investigators that I knew nothing about. It detailed his abuse at the hands of the guards at Bagram and it was a document I should have turned over to defense long before this point in the trial.
At that point I became convinced there was no way, given the state of the disorganization of evidence, that I could certify to the court that I'd provided all the evidence that our rules of responsibility and the commissions required me to turn over. I decded I couldn't be a part of something so fundamentally flawed that justice couldn't be achieved.
Still, as I said, I lacked the moral courage to resign right away. I didn't want to make a hasty decision, so I consulted with a Catholic priest. Other articles have described me as 'devout,' but I'm more resolute than devout. In any event, I contacted a priest and couldn't divulge any classified info, but I described my moral dillemma.
The Catholics have a long history of 'justified war,' and I expected the priest would urge me to do my duty as ethically as I could and try to change the system from within. Instead, very quickly and simply, he said that I should quit, that I was cooperating with evil, that the whole world knew that Gitmo is farce. That gave me significant pause and caused me a crisis of a sort I'd never encountered. I took a few days, went to monastery in DC, thought and prayed over the decision, analyzed it as intelligently as I could, and decided the priest was right and I should ask to be released.
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Riptide: What is your take on Obama's order to close the detention camps in Guantanamo Bay within the year?
Vandeveld: Clearly, it's the right decision and it will be the first step in restoring a measure of credibility to the U.S. Already, we're beginning to see a favorable reaction on the part of the allies in the EU who had resisted any idea of resettlement for detainees no longer deemed to be threats.
Riptide: Do you think Obama should try the worst detainees in federal court, in military tribunals or in some other way that doesn't exist yet?
Vandeveld: The 9-11 defendants, including Kalhid Sheikh Mohammed (the accused 9-11 mastermind) should be prosecuted in U.S. federal courts, no question.