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Week of 9.4.09

Duty vs. Conscience at Gitmo

A prosecutor set on convicting an alleged 9/11 conspirator makes a surprising decision.

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Learn how Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch, a government prosecutor set on convicting alleged 9/11 conspirator Mohamedou Ould Slahi, changed his mind after getting access to details of Slahi's treatment at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay. Couch, who was friends with a co-pilot of one of the jets hijacked on September 11, 2001, says Slahi was tortured.

"I felt like what had been done to Slahi just reprehensible," Couch tells David Brancaccio. " For that reason alone, I refused to have any further participation in this case."

In this web-exclusive video, Couch shares what he saw and heard at Guantanamo, and talks about his controversial decision.

Related Links

From The Wall Street Journal: The Conscience of the Colonel

The Wall Street Journal: Transcript of Slahi hearing before a review tribunal at Guantanamo Bay

University of Virginia School of Law: Former Guantanamo Bay Prosecutor Shares Story

NOW: The Prisoner: An Interview with former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg

Viewer Comments

Commenter: John M.
Listening to Mr. Couch helps restore my faith in my country. He is truly standing up for American values against the most craven and venal pressures to just go along with the war-mongers and torture-lovers.

To be by far the most powerful nation on earth and sink to torturing people who in most cases turn out to be innocent--is wretchedly evil and self-defeating.

Torture is never justified. Never.

And only the most cowardly, sociopathic satan-worshipers would claim otherwise.


Commenter: Hollis Hufstetler
It seems strange to me that Colonel Couch would be so concerned about allegedly dehumanizing efforts like forcing one to listen to heavy metal music under strobe lights (some in this country pay money to do this) or concerned about a letter full of lies.

How about hearing the bodies hitting the pavement on 9/11, or the heads cut off with dull knives, or bodies mutilated, burned, and hung on briges?? If we do not seek out, interrogate, and defeat those who have declared war on us, we are setting ourselves up to being attacked again by those sworn to kill us. How dare we treat them as if they have the same rights as American citizens. Would we release Osama bin Ladin as innocent if he were not treated just like an American?

I think our good Colonel is not considering that other cultures do not view dehumanizing the same way we do. Would he consider it dehumanizing if someone who bought an anti-Islam book in Turkey was tied to a chair, had his fingers cut off, and then bled to death, while those responsible were free because the book was anti-Islamic? A difference of cultures. Ever seen children used as human shields like they are in Iraq and Afghanistan? Tell me about your consicience, Colonel!

You sound more like a coward to me.


Commenter: Anton Grambihler
Where in the United States Constitution does it give Congress the power to protect violators of the law retroactively from prosecution under that law?

It seems to me that only a United States Court and a Presidential Pardon is given that authority under the Constitution.

Can Congress pass laws that void International Treaties without a provision within the treaty that allows this?


Commenter: Tara
This man is a true American and I am so proud that he stood up for what is right and just. We need more people like Stuard Couch in this country.


Commenter: Steve
Bill, what part about US terror against the rest of the world, inciting more terror against the US, don't YOU understand?


Commenter: Joseph Piette
The domestic prosecutions by over-zealous prosecutors of innocent Muslims also bears investigating. It involves "preemptive prosecutions", agents provocateurs, secret evidence, sensationalist headlines, incorrect translations, agents in every mosque, entrapment, and "enhanced sentencing". Hundreds of unfair convictions have terrorized Muslim communities across the U.S. These cases, like the Guantanamo cases, stain the whole Justice system here with the stink of unequal treatment, illegality and corruption.


Commenter: Gary Petz
Thank you Sir, you are a true patriot. You stand up for our country what our country stands for, or has stood for, what our country, it's military has fought for. Thank you.


Commenter: Bill
Obama, What part of terror against the Unied State do you not understand?


Commenter: Larry Thelen
It is a relief to see that there are still prosecutors with the conscience of Colonel Stuart Couch. Most especially his insight that if Al Qaeda has driven us to throw aside our very core principles, it has succeeded in undermining America far worse than the acts of 9/11 themselves. I am grateful to him for moving back on course. I am especially pleased that the Wall Street Journal chose to run the story at a time when the political winds were in the opposite direction.


Commenter: Mark Winshel
Virtually all organizations, and including the USA, "know" that they are moral, honest, upright, and the good guys, and that it is only other countries and organizations that are sleazy, corrupt, and composed of bad and evil people.

And members of organizations who "know" that they are the good guys, and of course that their enemies and opponents are the bad guys and the forces of evil, also know that being the "good" guys and the defenders and protectors of all that is good, that they therefore have the special right, although they also "know" that no one else does, to engage in absolutely any activities necessary, and including perjury, fraud, torture, murder, coverups of evidence, and kangaroo courts, so as to prevail and destroy the bad guys, in other words our opponents.

So no matter what lies, garbage, and nonsense our lawyers come up with to "justify" our engaging in torture and ignoring, laughing at, and spitting on the Geneva Convention, the real reason we feel entitled to do it is that we "know:" one, we are the good guys; two, our opponents are the bad guys; and three, that we are special people, and therefore not subject to the rules that other people are.


Commenter: Jarko Prokki
I really enjoy the now program between 10 and 10:30 pm on friday. It was excellent that you had additional material on streaming video on the web.

As airtime on TV is so expensive.

It is good value and I am on low income and like to tithe to local churches however I am watching a lot of PBS and am considering giving you some money.

However I live in Edmonton Canada and have PBS throught your programs in Spokane, Calgary and Edmonton.


Commenter: Betty Hahn
I applaud Colonel Stuart Couch for his brave decision. Our country is better served by people who stand on conscience and the rights of all people under our law.


Commenter: Edrea Jeffs
Thank you Col. Couch for having the correct moral compass to stand up for PRINCIPAL. More and more I see my country retreating from standards that I grew up with, taking for granted that those standards would never change. In today's atmosphere I don't recognize the country I was raised in. My father was a Major in the Air Force and he would be absolutely appalled by the actions of our military today. We should not allow ourselves to adopt the same methods as the terrorists...how can we call ourselves different when we commit he same offenses?!


Commenter: Mark
This interview is the first responsible statement of what I believe it to mean when we say that we are Americans since 9/11!!!

Somehow our government has been able to treat Muslims as "less than human" and has been able to do so with the blessings of too many Americans.

The "War on Terror" is not a war at all, but a publicity campaign and we as a people should never suspend the basic protections of the Geneva Conventions for any reason what so ever! Either they are a "prisoner of war" or they are arrested for violating American law and they get the appropriate protections of that class. This in between status has hurt the reputations of ALL AMERICANS everywhere around the world!

Interview Transcript:

DAVID BRANCACCIO: What is the legacy of 9/11? Lieutenant Colonel Couch still reflects on his experience trying to prosecute one of the Guantanamo detainees. He had a personal reason to re-join the Marine Corps as a lawyer back in 2001. He was looking for justice.

LT. COL. STUART COUCH: You know, I'd been a pilot before I was a lawyer. And—it's a very small community. The word starting going around that—that—that one of our—one of our pilots had been the copilot on United 175.

BRANCACCIO: So, someone you had served with was the copilot on one of the planes that was hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center?

COUCH: Yes. Michael Horrocks. And his call sign was rocks. Was the first officer on—United 175. And it was the second plane into the World Trade Center—that morning.

BRANCACCIO: Must have been awful to get—to—to—to come to that realization?

COUCH: It—words can't describe it.

BRANCACCIO: Couch was assigned to prosecute the case of a Guantanamo detainee named Mohamedou Slahi. He was supposed to be tried in a military tribunal for his role in planning and financing of the attacks on 9/11. As lead prosecutor Couch had access to top secret evidence, but after reviewing it he came to an astonishing conclusion. Slahi couldn't be prosecuted.

Do you remember what your early reactions were when you heard about the case against Slahi?

COUCH: Initially—you know, I was—I was working the different cases involving what we called planners and financiers. Slahi, because of his connection to Ramzi bin al Sheed, was determined to be one of these planners and financiers. I'm also able to review some of the intelligence reports from Slahi to realize that—he's not being that terribly—forthcoming with information.

BRANCACCIO: Slahi's not?

COUCH: Slahi's not. And—so, I—I had a concern about that—as to, okay, well, what are they doing—to make this individual give information.

BRANCACCIO: So, you start poking into that?

COUCH: I did. It wasn't until I started seeing the actual government documents that came under the table from the intel side that—convinced me that, in fact, what had been done to Slahi—constituted—torture. We induced mental suffering on his part. Consciously induced mental suffering to get information.

BRANCACCIO: And then, there was some fake letter that somebody had drawn up that—that was given to this guy?

COUCH: At one point, I saw a letter that was ostensibly on—letterhead of the United States State Department. And it was basically somebody from the State Department indicating that Slahi's mother and brother—had been detained And that—his mother was going to be brought to Guantanamo. o me, that was the implication of, your mom's coming to Guantanamo, and we can't—we can't guarantee her safety around all these other men. That in some ways, she was going to be sexually assaulted. And —and for me, that was just —I've had it. I've—I've seen it all now. We're—we're actually making veiled threats against the family members of a detainee. And that's just over—that's just over the top. For lack of a better term, that's just un-American.

BRANCACCIO: Now, you've been to Guantanamo, right?

COUCH: Yes, I have.

BRANCACCIO: Tell me about the story where you thought you saw something through an open door?

COUCH: I was over in one of the—interview trailers that was right there at Camp Delta there was a door—that was partly—opened. And I could see what appeared to be strobe light flashes from the door. And as I rounded the corner, I looked into the room. And—the room was totally dark, with exception of a strobe light, and this heavy metal music blaring out of the speakers. And I saw in the corner of the room, a detainee in orange, shackled hand to foot, and he was rocking back and forth and praying. I was floored—that—that I was seeing that. And I—I turned to an Air Force—captain—a lawyer that was with me, and I said, "Did you see that." And—and he said, "Well—well, yeah." And he says, "You know, that—that's approved."

BRANCACCIO: And this reminded you of some of the stuff you, yourself, as a Marine had been trained to resist in a special school for this?

COUCH: It did. The school tries as best it can to replicate—how you handle yourself after being—taken captive and how to handle yourself if you're being interrogated by an enemy force. So that day when I saw that glimpse into—into that interrogation room I basically had a flashback to—my own experience and—in a moment realized this—if this is how evidence—if—if—if this—if these techniques are being used to obtain information down here at Guantanamo, then we've got a problem with the evidence in some of our cases.

Slahi was never tried, and he's still being held without charge at Guantanamo Bay. Couch came to believe that trying someone on evidence spoiled by torture violates American values.

COUCH: As a moral component, I felt like what had been done to Slahi was just reprehensible. And—and as I stated to the chief prosecutor —both orally and later on in writing, for that reason alone, I refused to have any further participation in this case.

BRANCACCIO: But it must have been a tough call for you—I mean, here's a guy who maybe—just maybe helped pull the terrorists together in Germany who were later—pulled off the 9/11 plot.

COUCH: It was a tough call. It was a very tough call. And—and my Christian faith is what—is what made it tough—but ultimately is what—what led to what I believe to be the right decision.

BRANCACCIO: Share with me—share with me some of the lessons that we should all take from your experience?

COUCH: Most importantly I would say, the lesson is, "We can not compromise our respect for the dignity of every human being." And that goes to somebody that—that is alleged to have committed heinous crimes against citizens of this country. That doesn't change the immutable characteristic that they're still a human being, and that it's a slippery slope if in the name of national security we decide to compromise that.

If we compromise that, then al Qaeda has been able to—effect much more of an impact on this country then they have by drivin' a couple airplanes in the Word Trade Center, or crashing one into the Pentagon. Because they've torn at the very fabric of who we are as Americans.

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