THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Military lawyers stay unbridled

White House drops veto bid on promotions

Email|Print| Text size + By Charlie Savage
Globe Staff / December 19, 2007

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is dropping a plan to take control over the promotions of military lawyers, following an outpouring of alarm over the independence of uniformed attorneys who have repeatedly objected to the White House's policies toward prisoners in the war on terrorism.

Under the proposal, first reported by the Globe on Saturday, politically appointed lawyers in the Pentagon would have gained the power to veto the appointment or promotion of any member of the Judge Advocate General's Corps, the military's 4,000-member uniformed legal officers group.

Retired JAGs loudly objected to the proposal, which they characterized as an attempt to politicize the corps of military lawyers by allowing the administration to block the advancement of officers considered likely to speak up if they thought the White House had issued an illegal order to the military.

Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary, said William "Jim" Haynes, the Defense Department's general counsel, decided on Monday to shelve the idea. Morrell said the military services' legal departments had also expressed concern about the proposal in internal Pentagon reviews.

"In light of the feedback that [Haynes] received, he thought that it was wiser to try a different approach," Morrell said.

Haynes has been the Bush administration's point man in its conflicts with the JAGs over detentions and interrogations in the war on terrorism. The administration's legal team has asserted that the president has a right to bypass the Geneva Conventions and other legal protections for wartime prisoners - a theory the JAGs reject.

Under Haynes's proposal, the military officers on JAG promotion boards would have been required to coordinate with Haynes and the services' general counsels before making final decisions about whom to promote. Retired JAGs said the proposal would have sent the message that any JAG who voices disagreement with the administration's legal theories will never be promoted.

But Morrell said Haynes, who was traveling and unavailable for an interview, disputed the contention that his plan would have politicized the JAG corps. He said Haynes's goal was merely to improve the "quality control" of the JAG promotions process.

Haynes, Morrell said, pointed to a recent instance in which it was discovered that a JAG promotion board had advanced an officer several times even though his law license was not valid.

But retired Rear Admiral Donald Guter, who was the Navy's top JAG from 2000 to 2002, said the quality-control argument was a red herring. He said the case Haynes pointed to was a rare mistake easily prevented in the future simply by requiring JAGs to show up-to-date legal licenses once a year.

And retired Major General Thomas Romig, who was the Army's top JAG from 2001 to 2005, said Haynes's proposal made sense only as an effort to silence dissent by members of the JAG corps.

"Why would they need to have civilian involvement in selecting JAGs, but not infantry officers or pilots or all those other equally important jobs?" Romig said. "Clearly the reason is that they want to control the legal advice that JAGs give. This was an attempt to politicize the advice of the JAG attorneys and to ensure that it is consistent with what the political appointees say."

Haynes has long pushed for greater control over the JAG corps, dating back to his tenure as the Army's general counsel during the Bush-Quayle administration. In the past, he has argued that making the general counsels the direct bosses of the JAGs would serve the principle of civilian control of the military.

But retired Air Force Brigadier General Ed Rodriguez, a past president of the Judge Advocates Association, said the uniformed lawyers' ability to provide military leaders with a source of "independent, impartial, apolitical advice" helps protect the rule of law.

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