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Sept. 11 trial judge orders Mattis to explain firing of war court overseer

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis during a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on Nov. 6, 2017. (Matti Matikainen/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)
February 26, 2018

The judge in the Sept. 11 terror case said in court Monday that he would order Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to explain in writing why he suddenly fired the top official overseeing the war court.

Defense attorneys in the case are calling the dismissal foul play, in part because some had been hopeful of negotiating a deal in the death penalty case with Harvey Rishikof, a Mattis appointee who until Feb. 5 served as Convening Authority for Military Commissions. The judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, quoted a prosecution filing that has not been made public as characterizing as “innocuous” the reasons for the firings of Rishikof and his legal adviser, Gary Brown.

“We simply need to know why they were terminated,” Pohl said.

Pohl is presiding in the case of the five men accused of directing or helping the 19 hijackers who crashed four commercial airliners in New York, at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001, killing 2,976 people. Four lawyers have held the title of Convening Authority or Acting Convening Authority since the alleged plot mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four accused co-conspirators were arraigned in May 2012. Only Rishikof was fired.

Pohl announced that he would issue the order in writing this week and set a March 17 deadline for a written declaration by Mattis and another by Acting Department of Defense General Counsel William S. Castle explaining their “reasons” and the circumstances of the firings.

On Sunday, defense attorney Jay Connell called the firings a “coordinated decapitation of the leadership of the Office of Military Commissions.” He represents Ammar al-Baluchi, the nephew of Mohammed.

Connell filed a pleading on Feb. 23, asking Pohl to dismiss the case over the firings on grounds of “unlawful influence,” an expression that means government or political interference. Prosecutors apparently argued that the issue should not go forward because of insufficient evidence to make that allegation; defense lawyers asked prosecutors to get them some.

Instead, Pohl decided he would get the issue started by ordering the two senior leaders to submit declarations.

Pohl noted that there is no public explanation for the firings. A Pentagon spokesman said Feb. 6 that the Department of Defense “does not discuss personnel actions.” However, spokesman Tom Crosson added, “I can confirm that the Department has not initiated nor is it aware of any investigation involving Mr. Rishikof or Mr. Brown.”

Mattis appointed Rishikof and had the unique authority to fire him. Brown, as legal adviser for military commissions, was fired by the top lawyer at the Pentagon because the Office of the General Counsel handled his hiring. Neither man has responded to repeated requests by the Miami Herald to explain what happened.

Separately, the judge noted that now that Rishikof and Brown are “private citizens,” he was inviting, not ordering, them to submit their own declarations, explaining their versions of events.

Pohl has demonstrated his willingness to confront senior leaders. In 2004, for example, when President George W. Bush proposed razing Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, Pohl declared it a crime scene and forbade its demolition. Pohl was handling the court-martial cases of U.S. soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib.

He said he considered the declarations a “first step” toward sorting out the question of why the men were fired. He said he may need to get more evidence, including calling witnesses.

Mattis appointed a 37-year career Department of Defense lawyer, retired Army Col. Jim Coyne, as acting convening authority while handling his full-time job as general counsel of the Defense Logistics Agency.

Pohl disclosed at the opening of this week’s hearing that he and Coyne were “essentially peers” years ago, as they both served as Army Judge Advocates General about 13 years ago.

Pohl said it is possible that they both attended a common colleague’s retirement ceremony in the intervening years but they have never discussed the Sept. 11 case. “We don’t exchange Christmas cards,” the judge said, trying to characterize the distant nature of their past relationship.

Brown’s role has been replaced by two lawyers who served on his staff, also on an acting basis.


© 2018 Miami Herald

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