Senator trades suit for uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in uniform.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in uniform. Office of Lindsey Graham / MCT

WASHINGTON — In Afghanistan a few weeks ago, a U.S. fighter pilot asked visiting Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack Rives which of the Washington dignitaries was Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Rives, the Air Force’s top lawyer, nodded toward a man in military camouflage near the pilot.

The man was Col. Lindsey Graham, an Air Force Reserve attorney and the only member of Congress who's served on active duty in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

"He just about jumped," Rives recalled Friday of the startled major. "He had heard that Senator Graham was going to be there. Colonel Graham was standing five feet away. He was expecting a guy in a dark suit."

A month earlier, the assistant dean of the Baghdad University Law School, who was visiting the United States at the South Carolina Republican's initiative, sat in rapt attention in a Columbia, S.C., courtroom.

The Iraqi academic watched and listened closely as a U.S. district judge gave detailed instructions to a jury.

"We had always wondered how in America you could put the life of (an accused) man in the hands of 12 people who maybe know nothing about the law," Salah Hadi Salih, the Baghdad law school's assistant dean, said Friday by phone from the Iraqi capital. "After I saw the judge's instructions, I understood better."

Salah and Ali al Rufaie, the school's dean, spent four days in Columbia, mostly at the University of South Carolina Law School, in late October and early November.

The two men then spent nine days in Washington and Boston, visiting the law schools at Georgetown, American and Harvard universities.

"The whole idea was from Senator Graham," Salah said. "We are very grateful to him."

Graham had met the dean in Baghdad, but he missed both men in Columbia and Washington because he was campaigning with Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee who lost to former Sen. Barack Obama in the Nov. 4 election.

"It was just a marvelous opportunity for them," said William Pratt, the dean of the USC Law School. "It gave them all sorts of opportunities to learn about the American legal system."

With the federal courts picking apart U.S. detention laws and President-elect Obama vowing to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, Graham's unheralded labors in uniform might prove to be more enduring than his high-profile anti-terrorism work as a senator.

Graham's central role in determining how the United States detains, interrogates and tries terror suspects has been widely acknowledged and widely criticized.

Graham, 53, has earned praise for insisting that detainees have the right to see the evidence used against them in military commission trials, and for opposing water-boarding, which is widely considered a form of torture, and other aggressive interrogation techniques.

However, civil liberties advocates have criticized Graham for denying the Guantanamo Bay prisoners habeas rights to challenge their detentions in federal court.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June restored the detainees' access to U.S. civilian courts in a 5-4 ruling that Graham branded "dangerous and irresponsible."

Less well known are Graham's efforts, in large measure as an Air Force JAG, or judge advocate general, to help establish Western-style legal systems in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During five active-duty tours totaling six weeks since August 2006, Graham has advised military lawyers from the United States and allied forces, and from the Iraqi and Afghan armed services.

Graham, an expert marksman who carries a weapon during his overseas service, has guided Iraqi and Afghan judges, worked at prisons and sat in courtrooms in the two war-torn nations.

As he observed an April 2007 trial in Baghdad, a car bomb exploded across the street from the court.

"Democracy is based on the rule of law," Graham said in a recent interview. "How you jail people and how you try them — these are essential ingredients in winning the war on terror."

On separate congressional trips, most of them with his pal McCain, Graham has visited Iraq 10 times since the U.S. invasion in March 2003. He's made a half-dozen such trips to Afghanistan.

Graham's service stints in the two counties, which have lasted as long as 10 days apiece, have given him a deeper understanding of the wars than other lawmakers, Rives said.

"He’s able to learn things in a way he never could on a quick congressional visit," Rives said.

Graham is careful to separate his congressional duties from his military ones. While on active duty, he never volunteers that he's a senator and he shares standard housing with other officers, according to Rives.

Yet his two roles sometimes converge.

While he was serving in Afghanistan in August 2006, Graham encountered the dilapidated courtroom of the Afghan national army near Kabul.

As a senator, he procured $1.5 million to renovate that courtroom and four other regional ones in Afghanistan; as Col. Graham, he attended the dedication of the courtroom outside Kabul in early December.

For all his senatorial advocacy of military force in Iraq and Afghanistan, Graham believes that the legal systems he's helping to create as a JAG are more important.

"Getting honest judges, honest prison guards and honest police are worth battalions of soldiers," Graham said. "They can do more good to turn a country around than all the military power in the world."