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News | Dec. 21, 2017

Military Commissions Defense Organization

By Cmdr. Darren S. Wall

In July 2016, I volunteered for a three year recall to active duty to serve at the Military Commissions Defense Organization (MCDO). When I volunteered I had very little understanding of exactly what MCDO did other than it represented detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba accused of offenses related to 9/11, the bombing of the USS Cole, and other alleged acts of terrorism being tried by the Military Commissions.

Brig. Gen. John Baker, US Marine Corps, is the Chief Defense Counsel. The Organization’s mission statement reads: MCDO provides ethical, zealous and independent client-based defense services under the Military Commission Act in order to defend the Rule of Law and maintain public confidence in the nation’s commitment to equal justice under the law. Navy JAG Leadership fully supports the mission of MCDO.

Earlier this year, Vice Adm. James W. Crawford III and Rear Adm. Carol Lynch visited the Organization. Six of the defendants represented by attorneys from the MCDO are facing capital charges. Each capital defendant is represented by a team of attorneys with a support staff composed of mitigation specialists, paralegals, analysts, investigators, various other expert consultants and translators. 

The lead attorney for each team is called “learned counsel” and is an attorney who has specialized training and extensive experience in capital defense. In addition, each defendant has at least one detailed military counsel.  I was assigned to the team representing Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, the alleged planner of the 9/11 attacks and was appointed the Administrative Team Lead. I have been a lawyer for 22 years and this is the most fascinating job I have ever had. The learning curve is steep.  As a student of history and law, I am amazed by what I did not know.  I am learning about litigation of capital cases, the history of Islam, world history from before the fall of the Ottoman Empire to post-War World II geopolitics, to the Iraq embargo, and all the events that led to 9/11. 

In addition, the actions of the United States’ post-9/11 including the “black site” torture program.  There are many books on each of these topics and I am reading as many as possible to get a better understanding of the case. The 9/11 case is arguably the most complex capital case in United States History. Due to the nature of the event, feelings run high.  There are days when you feel the world is against you.  People frequently asked me how I can work on the team representing someone accused of such a horrific offense. First, we are a country that respects the rule of law.  The law must be followed regardless of the allegations.  Second, the United States is supposed to be the beacon of freedom and hope for the world.  We stand as the role model for the world.  As a nation, we do not support or allow the use of torture, and although we have ratified the U.N. Convention Against Torture, but we engaged in it nonetheless.  This position gives me the opportunity to address a wrong committed by our government on our behalf.  Third, as a lawyer, you could not ask for a greater challenge.  Working on a case of historic significance is a dream for most attorneys.  Finally, I am working with some of the best criminal defense attorneys in the country, from our learned counsel to ACLU attorneys to military attorneys from each Branch of Service.  Every single day, I learn something new. The MCDO is located near the Pentagon, but the duty requires travel all over the globe.

The Commissions currently hold hearings approximately every other month at the U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay Expeditionary Legal Complex (ELC) at Camp Justice.  Typically, we fly from Andrews Air Force Base to Guantanamo Bay on a government contracted flight.  When we arrive, we take a ferry across the Bay to where the ELC is located.  We are berthed in temporary trailers on an old air field.  It is hard to imagine that this tropical location is the venue for the Commissions.  It is mountainous with clear Caribbean waters.  Guantanamo Bay is known for its iguanas, which are everywhere. On a daily basis, we review massive amounts of discovery regarding the allegations against our client as well as about the torture he endured. This was the largest criminal investigation in the history of the FBI.  The evidence collected is of unimaginable volume.  We draft and file motions related to every aspect of the case. 

Many of the unclassified filings can be viewed here: You can also view other filings in the non-capital cases reviewed by the Commissions at Guantanamo at the site. The filings and rulings present a wide variety of important issues of fact, law and procedure. If you are looking for a challenge as lawyer, this is the place to be.  
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