P-I reporter Paul ShukovskyGitmo win likely cost Navy lawyer his careerSun Jul 2, 2006 02:00
Saturday, July 1, 2006
Gitmo win likely cost Navy lawyer his career
'Fearless' defense of detainee a stinging loss for Bush
By PAUL SHUKOVSKY
Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift -- the Navy lawyer who beat the president of the United States in a pivotal Supreme Court battle over trying alleged terrorists -- figures he'll probably have to find a new job.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift first represented Hamdan two years ago in U.S. District Court in Seattle.
Of course, it's always risky to compare your boss to King George III.
Swift made the analogy to the court, saying President Bush had overstepped his authority when he bypassed Congress and set up illegal military tribunals to try Guantanamo detainees such as Swift's alleged al-Qaida client, Salim Ahmed Hamdan.
The justices agreed, ruling 5-3 Thursday in favor of dismantling the current tribunal system.
Despite his spectacular success, with the assistance of attorneys from the Seattle firm Perkins Coie, Swift thinks his military career is coming to an end. The 44-year-old Judge Advocate General officer, who was recently named one of the 100 most influential lawyers in the country by The National Law Journal, was passed over for promotion last year as the high-profile case was making headlines around the world.
"I may be one of the most influential lawyers in America," the Seattle University Law School graduate said, "but I won't be in the military much longer. That irony did strike me."
Swift's future in the Navy now rests with another promotion board that is expected to render its decision in the next couple of weeks. Under the military's system, officers need to be promoted at regularly scheduled intervals or their service careers are essentially over.
"The way it works, the die was cast some months ago," he said. "The decision has been made. I don't know what it is yet." But he thinks his chances are slim.
Asked if he believes he was passed over for promotion last year for political reasons, Swift would not speculate.
"I don't know," he said. "I'm not going to worry about it. I didn't volunteer for this. I got nominated for it. When I got it, I just decided to do the best I could."
Swift has worked under two officers as a member of the small team of lawyers defending "enemy combatants" being held at Guantanamo Bay. Both of them spoke highly of Swift Friday and said they gave him very high ratings on his annual review, called a fitness report.
"He's doing a fantastic job," said Swift's current boss at the Office of Military Commissions (tribunals), Marine Col. Dwight Sullivan.
Sullivan spoke of the crucial importance of the case decided Thursday by the Supreme Court. "It's a fundamental constitutional question about the powers of the president," Sullivan said. Asked about Swift's aggressive legal challenge of the commander in chief, Sullivan saluted Swift's "moral courage."
"He has been absolutely fearless is pursuing his client's interests. And also he has exhibited an extraordinary level of legal skill. His legal strategy has been brilliant.
"We all take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and he has certainly done that, literally."
Swift spoke Friday about his "immense pride" in the military justice system. "I don't feel that because you join the military you should lose rights. If there is anyone who deserves the protection of those rights, it's the people who are willing to lay down their lives for it."
So the question is will Swift lay down his career because of his vigorous defense of a Yemeni tribesman who was Osama bin Laden's driver in Afghanistan.
Swift's first supervisor at the Office of Commissions was Col. Will Gunn, who said Friday that he gave Swift two annual fitness reports and "I gave him very high ratings overall."
Asked whether he thought politics might have played a role in Swift being bypassed for promotion, Gunn focused on Swift's atypical career as a military lawyer. "Charlie has spent a lot of time as a litigator, a trial advocate. That's really unusual in the JAG. You find that people in the more senior ranks have moved around and proved themselves in a variety of settings."
Most of Swift's career has been spent in the courtroom.
"While Charlie is a brilliant guy, a tenacious litigator, he does not have all the blocks checked like some other folks have," Gunn said. He called it a "breadth-of-experience" issue.
Swift clearly believes that his vigorous defense of Hamdan was, in a very real way, a vigorous defense of military justice and the Constitution.
"If they are calling the commissions (tribunals) military justice, it's got to live up to what military justice is. It means something. It's about the law, not what the leaders want. The greatest thing about the JAG Corps is ... I had the opportunity to work every day in a system I believe in."
Swift figures he'll hear around the second week of the month whether he's been passed over for promotion again. If so, he says, it will be time to dust off the resume.
He doesn't know what might be next, but when asked if he might move back to the Puget Sound area, he said: "I lived in Seattle for 6 1/2 years. I love Seattle."
He proceeded to reminisce fondly about sitting in the Kingdome's outfield bleachers watching the Mariners play. "And my wife is an airplane pilot. She could live anywhere."
P-I reporter Paul Shukovsky can be reached at 206-448-8072 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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