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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Navy lawyer who successfully challenged the Bush administration's military tribunal system at Guantanamo Bay is retiring. Lieutenant Commander Charlie Swift is being forced to leave the service after being passed over for a promotion.

As NPR's Nina Totenberg reports, Swift does not think he is the victim of retaliation.

NINA TOTENBERG: In May of 2003, Charlie Swift was assigned to represent a Yemeni citizen named Salim Hamdan who had been Osama bin Laden's driver. Swift was told that his task was to plead Hamdan guilty to war crimes charges. Instead, he decided that was unethical and went to court to challenge the system.

For three years, Swift has been the public face of the opposition to the tribunal system. Wearing his military dress uniform, he has testified before Congress, argued in court and plead his case to banks of media microphones.

Lieutenant Commander CHARLIE SWIFT (U.S. Navy Attorney): I brought this suit because I had a client who was sitting in solitary confinement, going slowly insane, and every request I had made for relief had fallen on deaf ears.

TOTENBERG: In June, Swift and the appellate team he helped assemble won in the U.S. Supreme Court. Two weeks later, he was notified that he had been passed over for promotion, and under the Navy's up or out policy, he would have to retire when he reached 20 years of service, which will be next spring. In an interview today, I asked him about his forced retirement.

Do you think that was retribution?

Commander SWIFT: No. In taking the Hamdan case, I took myself out of the normal progression path.

TOTENBERG: Experts agree the Navy makes promotions with a bias towards war fighting skills. In short, the Navy wants generals, even in its lawyers, people who can serve as legal advisors to battle groups and base commands. And Charlie Swift is a litigator.

He is not the first highly regarded trial specialist to be forced out for this reason. The first prosecutor in the Hamdan case also was denied promotion and forced into retirement, as was another key member of the Guantanamo defense team, a lawyer with 16 years of service.

Georgetown law professor Neal Katyal is the civilian lawyer who argued the Hamdan case in the Supreme Court.

Professor NEAL KATYAL (Georgetown University): They're rare. They're extremely rare to find lawyers who are that good and that capable. And any system that doesn't promote them is one that I think deserves a really close look by the political branches. Not on retaliation grounds, but on simple grounds of is this the right way to operate a system that lets these amazingly talented lawyers go?

TOTENBERG: The Navy brass says the promotion system is run by the military itself, and is not subject to outside political influence. But former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig says the system is so rigid that it tends to discourage creative people.

Former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora adds you hate to see a guy like this go, it sends a mixed message.

Charlie Swift, now 44, graduated from the Naval Academy in 1984, then spent seven years aboard a variety of ships, eventually captaining a frigate. He left the service to go to Seattle University law school, and later decided to come back into the service as a military lawyer, acting both as a prosecutor and a defense lawyer.

But he admits that it is the defense work he loves most. He says he knew it might be a career ender when he took the Hamdan case instead of seeking an assignment outside the courtroom, though he had hoped this case would present special circumstances that might have allowed a promotion.

I asked him what his reaction was when he got word that he had, in fact, not been promoted.

Commander SWIFT: Sad, because it meant that I was finishing my career. On another level, when I went to the Naval Academy, when I thought about what do you want for your career? An opportunity to make a difference. And I'd had that opportunity, an opportunity few people would get, certainly as a lawyer. And I wouldn't trade that opportunity for any number of promotions.

TOTENBERG: And during those years when he was publicly castigating the system set up by the president and the secretary of defense, was he worried about retaliation?

Commander SWIFT: What I worried about was my boss. And ultimately, my boss was a detainee in Guantanamo Bay.

TOTEMBERG: Swift says he hopes to be able to continue to represent Salim Hamdan even after he has left the service.

With Congress having given the president almost everything he wanted in reestablishing the tribunals, Swift knows he will have to re-fight old battles.

Commander SWIFT: Having done, you know, climbed the mountain, and then go well, when we got to this peak, seems the mountain keeps going up. And we thought it would be over.

TOTENBERG: And what will Charlie Swift do to earn a living? He is contemplating working for a human rights organization or perhaps working as a defense lawyer in civilian life. I'd love to have represented Martha Stewart, he says. She was railroaded.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News. Washington.

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