WASHINGTON — Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a military intelligence officer, spent six months at the Department of Defense working in the office that reviews the government's cases against detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
His experience — as recounted in a sworn affidavit — is credited with helping to persuade the Supreme Court to take a second look at the Bush administration's war-on-terror powers.
On Thursday, he became the first military insider to urge Congress to scrap the military-run reviews conducted on the island and give detainees access to U.S. courts. He described the reviews, known as Combatant Status Review Tribunals, as "designed not to ascertain the truth, but to legitimize the detentions."
"What we were handed were diluted, watered-down summaries, and it was the best they had," Abraham, who participated in a detainee review as part of his assignment, told members of the House Armed Services committee. "We said it was not good enough to justify holding someone for the rest of their life. ... It's a game of spin the wheel."
Abraham's testimony came as the committee considers legislation that would give those held captive at Guantanamo the right to challenge their detentions in civil court. The Senate Judiciary Committee last month approved a bill that would restore the rights of so-called enemy combatants to challenge their detentions through traditional habeas corpus petitions in U.S. District Court.
Abraham described a system of sham trials, "an effort to lend a veneer of legitimacy to the detentions, to launder decisions already made." He said the reviewers were provided with "vague, generalized data" from unknown sources that made it impossible to decide whether a detainee should be classified as an enemy combatant. The reviewers also were constantly prodded to speed up the process, he said.
Abraham said the three-officer panel he served on agreed that there was no credible evidence that one detainee, Abdullah al Ghazawy, was a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, as the government alleged. But the panel was ordered not to close the case to allow for further evidence to be introduced, he said. No new evidence arrived, and Abraham said the panel stuck to its guns.
Abraham said he later learned that a second panel was convened two months later to hear al Ghazawy's case. It "reached a different result," Abraham said, and he was never assigned to another case. He said the second panel also reconsidered and overturned the finding of another panel that a detainee wasn't an enemy combatant.
"The process ensured that panels would rubber-stamp decisions already made," he said.
Rear Adm. James McGarrah, one of the officers singled out by Abraham as interested in speedy determinations, defended the process as "robust" and suggested that Abraham hadn't been barred from participating but had asked not be assigned to another panel. He also suggested that Abraham didn't have a full picture of the system.
"His view was to a very narrow piece of the process," McGarrah said.
Other witnesses, including attorneys with the Defense and Justice departments, defended the system and warned that providing detainees with habeas corpus review could hamper commanders on the battlefield if they were summoned to provide evidence.
"These are not criminal prosecutions — this is fighting a war," said Patrick Philbin, a former associate deputy attorney general.
Several Republicans recounted news reports that a Taliban commander who became a wanted man in Pakistan after his release from Guantanamo Bay killed himself Tuesday before security forces could take him.
"Why don't we just extend bail to these people?" Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., mocked. "It's just a hysterical notion. It doesn't work in reality."
Separately, the Law Council of Australia, a national lawyers' group, concluded in a report this week that the March trial of Australian Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks "was a charade" that produced no benefits but corroded the rule of law.
"The proceedings before the Military Commission on 26 March during which Hicks was arraigned and later entered a guilty plea, were best described as 'shambolic,'" the report said. "Many of the requisite rules and procedures were not in place and the there was a degree of improvisation by the Judge. This led to a situation where there appeared to be a preference for advancing the case and dealing with matters of substance by way of private conferences between the Judge and the parties."
Hicks was arrested in Afghanistan in 2001 and spent five years in American custody before he pleaded guilty to supporting terrorism. He was sent back to Australia to serve the remainder of a nine-month prison sentence.