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If Watada goes to jail, so should Bush lawyers


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POSTED: Sunday, May 10, 2009

In the three years since he announced he wouldn't fight a war he thought was unjust, 1st Lt. Ehren Watada's story has dropped from high-profile news to small-bore issue.

Developments no longer provoke yowls from flag-pinned airwave patriots nor defense from vociferous anti-war camps as had been the routine in 2006.

Watada's situation seems almost quaint, an anachronism shrunk by the end of a toxic presidency, overtaken by an untidy heap of economic troubles.

It seems almost pointless to continue the drive to punish the man who had come to symbolize the piercing division that tore through the nation over a war the Bush administration so ardently sought that it pressured interrogators to use abusive techniques — call them torture — in an attempt to find a rationale for an invasion of Iraq.

But the Army doesn't seem ready to cut Watada loose.

After his court-martial on charges of refusing to deploy to Iraq ended in a mistrial, a federal judge ruled that the Kalani High School grad could not be prosecuted again. The Justice Department, in the last days of the Bush administration, filed a notice of appeal, but after a more lengthy review under the Obama administration, the department withdrew the appeal. Still, the Army has yet to decide whether to prosecute Watada on two remaining charges of conduct unbecoming an officer.

For the military, these aren't small matters. A spokesman at the Washington state base where Watada has been stationed said the issue "has always been and will forever be about a soldier — in this case, a lieutenant, a commissioned officer — who refused orders to deploy."

Army leadership wants accountability and Watada, when he refused to go to Iraq, knew full well he would suffer the consequences.

In legal limbo, his discharge delayed for years, he has been assigned a desk job, his life on hold. He has been called a traitor, a coward, an embarrassment and a disgrace. If lifelong notoriety isn't enough for those who believe he has gotten off easy, they may get their pound of flesh should he be sentenced to jail on the outstanding charges.

If Watada is to be held responsible for not obeying orders, so, too, should the men who, in a contortion of law, did bow to their bosses.

As secret memos and investigative reports are disclosed, it has become clear that the former president's lawyers — eager to please the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency — concocted spurious legal justification for the use of brutal interrogation techniques.

The harsh methods were necessary, in part, to come up with evidence linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaida as grounds for attacking Iraq. None was ever found.

Though an internal Justice Department investigation recommends no criminal prosecution — despite serious lapses of judgment by the lawyers — there ought to be a measure of accountability, a recognition that there was an abuse of law, that it was wrong to distort and ignore law to reach a desired outcome.

Just as the Army would hold Lt. Watada accountable, not doing the same with the lawyers would invite further immoral misconduct.

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Cynthia Oi can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)