WASHINGTON -- A military lawyer representing the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is resigning from the U.S. Army, which was trying to force him off Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's defense team on the grounds that he needed to attend a graduate course this year.
As it stands, Maj. Jason Wright will become Mr. Jason Wright and stop receiving a military paycheck on Aug. 26. At that point, he will likely also be removed from KSM's defense team, but his decision to resign from the Army will have delayed his departure by roughly a month.
KSM is one of five accused Sept. 11 co-conspirators now in pretrial proceedings before a military commission at the Guantanamo Bay naval base, where they are also being held. The case is arguably one of the most important in U.S. history, and the defendants could face the death penalty.
The military, however, decided that it was more important for Wright to attend a graduate course in Virginia than to fulfill his duties to his client.
Wright, who has worked to build rapport with KSM during the three years he's been on the case, was granted a deferral from the course last year. This year, the Judge Advocate General of the Army denied his request without explanation. Faced with either leaving the case to attend the course or leaving the military, Wright chose the latter. He submitted his resignation on March 26.
"I had to make a legal and ethical decision as to what I was going to do in the best interest of my client, and I chose the option which 100 percent of all defense lawyers would chose," Wright told The Huffington Post. "It's one of these law school scenarios; it's just being played out in real life."
Wright, who explained his situation to Judge James Pohl during a pretrial hearing last week, said he hasn't been told why he wasn't granted another deferral from taking the course, which Army officers serving as military lawyers have to take at some point after they are promoted to major.
"I asked for an explanation, and under established case law, whenever there's an adverse agency determination, you're entitled to know what the reason is," Wright said. "I certainly haven't been told why."
The Army would not comment specifically on why the Judge Advocate General put Wright in this position, citing the Privacy Act and Army regulations despite the fact that Wright's situation was discussed in open court. The military commissions are run by a separate entity within the military, and it is highly unlikely that the prosecutors in the Sept. 11 case played any role in the decision to deny Wright's deferral request. It is hard to imagine, however, that the anticipated length of Wright's service in the troubled trial -- which one defense lawyer predicted might not even start before President Barack Obama leaves office -- didn't play a role in the denial of his deferral request.
An Army spokesperson said that the JAG Corps would identify and assign a "new qualified and certified military counsel" if there needed to be a reassignment in a case like this.
Wright said there might be some way to keep him on the defense team in a civilian role, if the prosecution cooperates. But right now, he's out of a job as of August and is actively looking for employment.
Advocates who want to see the Sept. 11 case returned to federal court pointed to Wright's situation as yet another example of how the military commissions process is broken.
"I wish the government would care as much about the rules and fundamental principles of a fair trial as it does about a bureaucratic process for determining when a military defense attorney assigned to one of the most important cases in U.S. history -- a death penalty case at that -- should take a class," Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International told HuffPost.
"The government's actions will further erode the attorney-client relationship, a fundamental aspect of a fair trial, and further delay the proceedings -- already dragging at a snail's pace," Johnson continued. "It's more evidence, as if any were needed, that the Guantanamo experiment is a failure. The 9/11 case should be moved to federal court, where it would be faster and fairer."
Wright himself has been critical of the way the military commissions have been run as well as the way that the military dealt with last year's detainee hunger strike, even appearing at a press conference with anti-war activists from Code Pink.
UPDATE: Lt. Col. Sunset Belinsky, an Army spokesperson, said in a statement later on Monday that this type of situation could happen in "cases of protracted litigation" and in cases in which the military lawyer being reassigned isn't the only lawyer on the case.
"Withdrawal of counsel due to reassignment or resignation may occur in cases of protracted litigation. This may also occur when detailed counsel are not the lead or sole counsel (e.g. US v. Hassan)," Belinsky said. "In the case of KSM, future detailed counsel could remain as detailed counsel for more than two years. Reserve judge advocates assigned to the Office of Military Commissions (OMC) can remain as a detailed counsel for many years -- an option still available to MAJ Wright."