U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Stuart Couch was faced with what he termed "the toughest decision of his military career" when he was asked to prosecute Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a detainee at Guantanamo Bay linked to 9/11. He spoke about this decision as well as other aspects of his military career Thursday, July 31 at the College of Law Rotunda at Florida State University as the final speaker in the summer session of the Human Rights and National Security in the 21st Century lecture series, sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.
Slahi was identified after the 9/11 attacks as the individual who helped assemble the "Hamburg cell" of al-Qaeda which included the hijacker who piloted United Flight 175 into the south tower of the World Trade Center.
But the decision of whether to prosecute Slahi was not merely an abstract dilemma of justice and morality. For Couch, the issue had a personal dimension. An old Marine friend of Couch's, Michael Horrocks, was co-pilot on United Flight 175.
The case against Slahi should have been open and shut, but Couch said something was amiss.
"When I first got military commissions, one of my buddies picked (Slahi) out and said 'This is probably the most significant guy at Guantanamo, but they're doing special projects on him,'" Couch said. "I asked what special projects were and he said, 'Well, we really don't know, but it doesn't sound good.'"
Mindful of the gravity of the Slahi's case, Couch researched the history of the case thoroughly. He found that Slahi had been fairly tight-lipped about his al-Qaeda involvement until the fall of 2003, when overnight Slahi "started singing like a canary." Slahi divulged a great deal of intelligence about al-Qaeda, particularly its organization in Europe. When Couch inquired what had instigated this sudden pliability in Slahi, he was told he wasn't privy to that information.
With the aid of a criminal investigator with connections in intelligence, Couch began receiving government documents about interrogation tactics used to make Slahi confess. Couch came to suspect that the special projects being performed on Slahi involved enhanced interrogation techniques.
Couch's first exposure to enhanced interrogation techniques came with his first trip to Guantanamo in October 2003. Couch heard heavy metal music cranked up and, assuming mischief on the part of personnel, went to investigate but found the situation was not what he had anticipated.
"There was a strobe light going," he said. "It was the only light in the room and I saw a detainee sitting in the corner of the room wearing orange. He was shackled to the floor and this heavy metal was going, and he was rocking back and forth and praying. Two individuals came out and backed me up and pulled the door behind me. I said, 'What's going on here?' They wouldn't answer my question. The guy that was escorting me around, an air force JAG, goes, 'That's approved.'"
Couch discovered that Slahi had been lied to and subjected to mental and emotional trauma.
"The detainee, Slahi, had been shown a letter on state department letterhead that indicated his mother and brother had been picked up by force and his mother would be brought to Guantanamo. The letter was sort of stressing out loud concerns about what they were going to do, because she was going to be the only female detainee at Guantanamo, they were concerned about her safety."
In the spring of 2004, Couch felt it was time for him to get off the fence and make a decision regarding the Slahi case. After a personal revelation at his church one Sunday, Couch decided that he would not prosecute against Slahi
"By that point, I had seen nough, I had read enough, I had heard enough, and enough was enough," Couch said.
While Couch asserted his primary reason for refusing to prosecute the Slahi case was that the confessions obtained from Slahi by torture were inadmissable under U.S. law, he referred also to the ethical dimension of the dilemma, which he said went against his moral compass.
"The torture of any human being is wrong," Couch said. "It's a violation of our domestic law, it is a violation of our values as Americans, and a violation of international norms and laws. The debatable thing now is whether the cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of a particular detainee falls under the same category. (...) Some of this stuff gets to the point where it really tears at the fabric of what we are as Americans and our American values."
Couch now serves as a judge on the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals after ending his three-year stint as a prosecutor in the Office of Military Commissions in 2006.
Slahi is still being detained at Guantanamo and his case has not yet been brought to trial.
The question with which Couch was confronted is one that is in step with the ongoing debate about human rights versus national security in the post-9/11 United States, according to Mark Schlakman, senior program director of the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.
"It's a tension between the human rights interests and the national security imperatives and how they can be reconciled within the context of the 'U.S.-led war on terror,'" Schlakman said. "It is an extraordinary example of efforts made to respect the Constitution and the principles upon which it was founded, and yet apply them in a real-world environment that is confronting the nation today."