Vandeveld’s endorsement

VANDEVELD’S ENDORSEMENT…. One of the more contentious decisions of the Obama administration of late was the reintroduction of military commissions. The president has expanded the rights of the accused within the commissions process, but there are only so many ways to make a fundamentally suspect system look better.

In tomorrow’s Washington Post, however, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld offers some encouraging words about the new process, suggesting Obama is, at a minimum, on the right track.

Military commissions have a long history in the United States, not all of it commendable. (One wonders what Samuel Mudd, the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after Lincoln’s assassination and who received a life sentence from a military commission for his Hippocratic efforts, might make of the Military Commissions Act of 2006; Mudd escaped capital punishment by one vote.)

Nonetheless, the Bush-Cheney administration left President Obama with a limited number of alternatives, all of them bad, and he has made rational decisions, devoid of hysteria or false emotion. The worst aspects of the commissions appear to be on their way to correction. It is impossible to criticize or condemn the president for acting decisively and quickly to restore America’s role — always an aspiration, imperfectly realized — as an exemplar of transparency and fairness. As someone who has risked his life on the battlefield in Iraq, I can only express support for the commander in chief as he undertakes these enormously complex — and costly — decisions.

Vandeveld’s perspective is pretty relevant here, given his background.

When Army Lt. Col. Darrell Vandeveld began his work in May 2007 as a prosecutor at the Guantánamo Bay military commissions, the Iraq war veteran was one of the most enthusiastic and tenacious lawyers working on behalf of the Bush administration. He took on seven cases. In court hearings he dismissed claims of prisoner abuse as “embellishment” and “exaggeration.” Once, when a detainee asked for legal representation only for the purpose of challenging the legitimacy of the military commissions, Vandeveld ridiculed the request as “idiotic.”

So it came as a shock in mid-September when Vandeveld announced that he was resigning as a prosecutor because he had grave doubts about the integrity of the system he had so vigorously defended.

In the days following his resignation — now testifying, remarkably, for the defense counsel in one of his own cases — Vandeveld said that he went from being a “true believer” in the military commissions to feeling “truly deceived” about them. His deep ethical qualms hinged foremost on the fact that potentially critical evidence had been withheld from the defense by the government.

If Vandeveld believes the improvements mandated by the Obama administration are a step in the right direction, that seems like a significant endorsement — and further evidence of the mistakes embraced by the Bush administration.