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A Prosecutor Makes The Case For Military Trials
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A Prosecutor Makes The Case For Military Trials

National Security


The chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba will speak at Harvard Law School later today. Brigadier General Mark Martins will be arguing a difficult case. He wants to persuade Americans that military commissions - the courts that try high-profile terror suspects - are fair - so fair, he argues, that they should have a place alongside the civilian criminal justice system.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has this profile.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: In the last few months, General Martins has been on a crusade of sorts. He's seeking to convince people that trial system at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba has been improved.

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK MARTINS: And we've worked hard on reforms, and Congress has been involved.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's General Martins, the chief prosecutor.

MARTINS: And the Supreme Court has ruled upon this. The current system is fair, and yet it's going to require people to withhold judgment and watch to be convinced of that for themselves.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Watching is possible now, and that's one of the things that's changed. Instead of travelling to Guantanamo, the curious can see the trials on closed-circuit television. Court transcripts are available online. General Martins says this new openness could help convince naysayers that the military commissions aren't so different from civilian courts. In fact, Martins says the reformed military courts borrow from the civilian system. Martins himself is no stranger to the Department of Justice. Three years ago, he was the first soldier to have his promotion ceremony held in the great hall there.


TEMPLE-RASTON: In September 2009, the room was filled with Martins' West Point classmates, friends from his days at Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and colleagues from his time at Harvard Law School. The country's top civilian lawyer, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke, as did this top military officer.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, General David Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command.

TEMPLE-RASTON: At the ceremony, General Petraeus praised Martins, someone he's worked with for almost two decades.


GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS: Above all, he's one of those rare individuals who always seems to end up in the toughest assignments and who always performs exceedingly well in them.

TEMPLE-RASTON: General Petraeus was Martins' first boss when Martins was a junior JAG officer with the 101st Airborne. Years later, Martins helped General Petraeus during the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq. Then Martins served in Afghanistan. He was in charge of a field team that was supposed to transform lawless areas in Afghanistan into law-abiding ones. Now he's being asked to transform the military commissions at Guantanamo - no easy task, says Karen Greenberg. She's the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School.

KAREN GREENBERG: One of the biggest problems is that they carry with them the baggage of the military commissions from the Bush era, and there is, in some ways, no way to get around that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's why Greenberg says Martins has a Sisyphean task ahead. In a sense, he has to correct a difficult history. The Bush-era military commissions allowed hearsay evidence and coerced statements. Greenberg says even though that's been changed, there are still problems.

GREENBERG: Defense attorneys and their clients at Guantanamo have their mail read. This might be OK under some sort of military commission, but it carries with it the legacy that was a part of the Bush administration's policy. They treated defense attorneys as if they were collaborating with the enemy.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And, she says, that means even if the system has improved overall, it will be a challenge to overcome its past. Martins acknowledges that past. He says the system in 2001 was flawed. But the system today gives those on trial at Guantanamo a meaningful opportunity to mount a defense.

BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK MARTINS: And I believe that as people watch this system and see that it is sharply adversarial, it has all of the protections that are demanded by our values, that they will see that this is a system that they can have confidence in.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And that's the message General Martins says he'll bring to Harvard Law School later today. The real test may actually begin in the next few weeks. People will be watching when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of taking part in the 9-11 attacks are expected to be arraigned at Guantanamo. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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