Week of 9.4.09
Duty vs. Conscience at GitmoA prosecutor set on convicting an alleged 9/11 conspirator makes a surprising decision.
It appears that your computer does not have the Flash Player required to view NOW videos. Visit Adobe to download and install the latest version of the Flash Player.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.
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
Commenter: John M.
Commenter: Hollis Hufstetler
Commenter: Anton Grambihler
Commenter: Joseph Piette
Commenter: Gary Petz
Commenter: Larry Thelen
Commenter: Mark Winshel
Commenter: Jarko Prokki
Commenter: Betty Hahn
Commenter: Edrea Jeffs
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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