SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Struggling with orders to prosecute a young detainee at Guantanamo Bay, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld went online and consulted a well-known Jesuit priest for help with his concerns about the fairness of the military tribunals.
Vandeveld described a crisis of conscience over the prisoners' treatment and the ethical handling of cases that led him to quit last month as prosecutor.
"I am beginning to have grave misgivings about what I am doing, and what we are doing as a country," he wrote in the Aug. 5 e-mail, which the priest shared with The Associated Press on Monday night. "I no longer want to participate in the system, but I lack the courage to quit. I am married, with four children, and not only will they suffer, I'll lose a lot of friends."
Vandeveld's claims that the government withheld evidence from detainees has sparked criticism of the tribunals. But his correspondence with the priest and other statements suggest his defection was driven also by discomfort with the unforgiving treatment of detainees at the isolated U.S. Navy base in Cuba.
A 48-year-old veteran of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Vandeveld has testified he went to Guantanamo in 2007 as a "true believer" in the Pentagon's specially designed system for prosecuting terror suspects.
He was assigned to lead the case against Mohammed Jawad, an Afghan accused of throwing a grenade that injured two American soldiers and their interpreter in Kabul in 2002. But he said the evidence he saw — some of which was withheld from defense attorneys — suggested the defendant was under 18 and may have been drugged before the attack. He saw other documents indicating Jawad was subjected to sleep-deprivation at Guantanamo.
Priest: Gitmo 'a sham'
In his e-mail to the priest, which was first reported Sunday by the Los Angeles Times, the Catholic said that while the detainees may be guilty, minimal thought was being given to their rehabilitation. He said he believed teaching tolerance would "end the hatred" of the Guantanamo prisoners.
The Rev. John Dear, a Jesuit priest and social activist, encouraged Vandeveld to quit, telling him the U.S. operation at Guantanamo is "a sham."
"God does not want you to participate in any injustice, and GITMO is so bad, I hope and pray you will quietly, peacefully, prayerfully, just resign, and start your life over," Dear wrote in his e-mail.
Dear has written several books on nonviolence and has been arrested dozens of times in protests. He was nominated for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The chief prosecutor at Guantanamo, Army Col. Lawrence Morris, said Vandeveld never raised any concerns with him. Morris also denied that the government withholds evidence, saying his office goes beyond what the rules require in turning over material to defense lawyers.
Vandeveld quit in September, but he did not go quietly. Instead he reached out to his opponent in the Jawad case, defense attorney Air Force Maj. David Frakt, and provided a declaration and sworn testimony describing breakdowns in the system for providing evidence to detainees.
He is at least the fourth prosecutor to resign from the tribunals. Others have accused superiors of political meddling or deliberately misleading senior civilian Pentagon officials about the quality of evidence against defendants.
In his Sept. 26 testimony, Vandeveld said his change of heart was influenced by details of Jawad's story and his own evolving view of justice.
"I seek more restorative or reparative justice, rather than the rote application of the law," said Vandeveld, who resigned after his superiors rejected his recommendation to pursue a plea deal with a light sentence for Jawad.
Jawad, now about 23, instead faces a life sentence if convicted of war crimes charges, including murder, at trial in January.
Vandeveld also testified that defense attorneys are unlikely to receive all the possible evidence in their cases because of disorganization in the prosecutors' office and the difficulty in obtaining documents from the military, the CIA, the FBI and other agencies.
"They have an impossible task of attempting to reconstruct six years after the fact all the evidence that has been collected in these cases," he testified.
Vandeveld did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.