Every once in a while you read about or get to meet someone who displays by his or her actions one of those wonderful fundamental lessons in personal integrity, intellectual consistency and common decency that makes you think this species might not be doomed after all. Here's one:
The U.S. Navy lawyer who challenged the Bush administration's efforts to try terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, walked a professional tightrope between fellow officers trying to gain speedy convictions and what he considered a moral imperative to buck the chain of command and vigorously defend his client.
Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift could have taken the easy route of arranging a plea bargain for Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the Yemeni alleged to have worked as a driver and bodyguard for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
But fearful of the dangerous precedent that could be set by denying international standards of justice to those swept up in the war on terrorism, Swift battled to get the rights and protections of the Geneva Convention for his client.
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that President Bush had overstepped his war powers in sending Hamdan and nine others to face military tribunals, America's first since World War II.
"I feel like we all won, that the rule of law won, and that is essentially what we are all about," Swift said of the high court's validation of his three-year campaign on behalf of his 36-year-old client.
Swift was assigned to defend Hamdan by the Pentagon in November 2003 and initially was ordered by a superior officer to secure a plea bargain so there would be a timely conviction.
"I had the unenviable task of going down to this guy from Yemen in the uniform of people who had been treating him badly and saying, 'If you don't make a deal you may never see me again,' " Swift recalled of his first meeting at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo with Hamdan and his decision to fight a process stacked against the defendant.
Swift was allowed a rare phone call to the Guantanamo prison Thursday to give Hamdan the news of their legal victory. He described the prisoner as "humble, not jubilant, and very, very thankful."
"It was gratifying to hear the belief in his voice, the recognition that mighty people don't always get to do what they want," Swift said of Hamdan, who, he added, understands that his case is far from over.
After more than 100 meetings at the remote U.S. naval base in southeastern Cuba, Swift said, he and Hamdan have developed a trusting relationship, and he would gladly represent the Yemeni in any future trial, military or civilian.
Colleagues attributed the high court ruling to what they considered to be Swift's determination to protect the integrity of U.S. jurisprudence against a Pentagon bent on retribution for terrorism attacks on U.S. forces.
"It took exceptional courage. He had to risk himself being alienated from the larger military establishment," said David Scheffer, law professor and director of the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern University. "He must have known when he took this on that he was risking his career, and sadly he may have done that within the U.S. Navy."
Though Swift's successful challenge of the tribunal's legitimacy will probably open doors in the private sector and academia for the Navy lawyer, Scheffer said, Swift has reportedly been passed over for promotion.
"It was a gutsy move, and he did it with complete dedication and devotion to the cause," Benjamin Sharp of the Washington office of Perkins Coie said of Swift, with whom the Seattle-based law firm collaborated in Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld.
Sharp speculated that Swift's military career was probably damaged by his defense of Hamdan, a possibility the naval lawyer also alluded to.
"I love the military. I love my career and I'm proud of it," Swift said, noting he would be eligible for early retirement in nine months and would leave the Navy unless he was promoted. "One thing that has been a great revelation for me is that you may love the military, but it doesn't necessarily love you."
The military has many men and women of great physical courage. That's the point, after all. But it takes a person of exceptional character to be willing to take on the military hierarchy from within in order to preserve our fundamental principles. I'm skeptical that the threat of Islamic terrorism can be properly categorized as a war but if it is, one of the big battles being fought is for the integrity of the American system, and the battle is internal, not external. In that battle, this guy is a hero.
Swift appeared briefly on Hardball yesterday and had to endure an unbearably puerile interview from Chris Matthews, but he said a couple of things that I think are so simple and yet so important that it always boggles my mind that they get lost in the argument:
MATTHEWS: What about the charge made recently, just a couple minutes ago by Kate O‘Beirne of the “National Review,” that people who fight us who are not in uniform, who do not represent countries who are party to the Geneva Convention shouldn‘t be free riders? They shouldn‘t get Geneva Convention treatment. They should be treated like thugs.
SWIFT: Well, you know, if you‘re looking at it from that way, we have a lot of criminals here in this country. And to prejudge anyone that we capture outside the country as a thug, why are we having a trial in the first place? We‘ve already decided they were guilty.
What the Supreme Court said is you have the trial first, you use the procedures that are set up under international law, and then you decide whether they‘re a thug. You don‘t make the thug determination going in.
Why is this so hard to understand? We already know they picked up a whole lot of innocent and low level nobodies in Afghanistan and shipped them off to Gitmo. In the early days, the US was paying the Northern Alliance $5,000 per head and the NA was handing over their tribal rivals and anybody else they wanted to get rid of. I'm sure Kato and her barely repressed racist allies on the right don't think it matters if some poor innocent wog gets tortured and locked up forever, but civilized people have come to recognise that show trials, kangaroo courts and lynching are immoral --- and counterproductive. If you want to stress liberal values, the rule of law and democracy as the way forward in these fundamentalist religious cultures, you can't behave this way. It doesn't make you look tough or strong; it makes you look like you don't believe in your own system --- and that makes you weak.
Bin Laden and his ilk are much more sophisticated than are Cheney and Rummy and the starry eyed neocons. He gets that our soft underbelly is our leadership's cowardly willingness to use him for political purposes. It's lucky for this country that we have people like Lt Commander Swift and many others who didn't buy into the argument that this country was so threatened by this loose band of religious psychopaths that it had to discard everything it believed in. That's the real strength of America and the slim reed we all hang onto: individual citizens who are willing to stand up for principle (and a system that's strong enough (so far) to support them) even as they suffer personally for it.
I thank Lt Commander Swift and all the others in the military justice system who managed to fight off the temptation to give in to the ridiculous GWOT juggernaut to take this all the way to the Supreme Court. It won't solve the numerous problems of this ridiculous "war" or this dangerous administration, but it goes some way in beginning to restore my faith in the institutions of the courts and the military. (Our democratic political institutions, on the other hand, seem on the verge of self-destruction.)