Retired Army Lawyer Will Oversee Pentagon’s War Court | Genznews

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has chosen a former career Army lawyer who served in Iraq to oversee the Guantánamo war court, a job that includes approving plea deals and deciding whether prosecutors can seek death sentences.

In a memo signed this week, Mr. Austin said that Susan K. Escallier, the former Army lawyer, would become the convening authority for the Office of Military Commissions on Oct. 8. The current convening authority, Jeffrey D. Wood, will voluntarily leave the job on that date, Mr. Austin’s memo said.

Ms. Escallier will take over as the Pentagon has been reducing detention operations at the base. The prison, which held about 660 prisoners at its peak, now has 30 detainees and 900 guards and support staff members. Eleven of the detainees are charged with war crimes or have already been convicted.

In the meantime, the war court complex, Camp Justice, has been expanding under a program that began during the Trump administration. Contractors have been preparing a second, maximum-security courtroom, so two judges can hear cases simultaneously; new prefabricated administrative buildings; and more housing near the court.

Ms. Escallier retired from the Army in 2021 as a brigadier general after 32 years of service. She provided legal advice on the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and other issues there, and she was the senior lawyer in the subsequent campaign to defeat the Islamic State.

Her last job in uniform was as commander of the U.S. Army Legal Services Agency and as the chief judge of the Army’s Court of Criminal Appeals.

Mr. Wood, a colonel in the Arkansas National Guard, was appointed to the job during the Trump administration, in April 2020.

In March 2022, he empowered prosecutors to negotiate a plea agreement in the Sept. 11 case. Under the proposal, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the attacks, and four other men would serve life in prison rather than risk the possibility of a death sentence at a trial, in exchange for admitting to conspiring in the hijacking attacks that killed 2,976 people. The talks have been stalemated, awaiting a response from the Biden administration.

Mr. Wood has already approved a plea agreement in the case of Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, a former commander of insurgent forces in wartime Afghanistan. Mr. Hadi faces sentencing next year at Guantánamo Bay. Under his agreement, Mr. Hadi, who has a degenerative spinal disease, will be resettled in a nation that can provide security assurances as well as health care for his disabilities.

Also, on the first full day of the Biden administration, Mr. Wood approved the prosecution of three Southeast Asian prisoners at Guantánamo Bay who are accused of conspiring in two deadly terrorist bombings in Indonesia in 2002 and 2003.

The three men have been in U.S. custody since 2003, and the case was dormant throughout the Trump administration. Mr. Wood’s decision came as a surprise because previous holders of his office had declined to approve the case.

Ms. Escallier became an officer in the Army in 1988 after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, and she received her law degree from Ohio State University.

In a speech at Fort Benning, Ga., in 2019 she told fellow legal officers that the job of a judge advocate general, or military lawyer, was “to bring our brains to the fight.”

She urged the lawyers and paralegals in the audience to know “the difference between law and policy.” One might require seeking a change from Congress. The other might allow a lawyer to “go back and say, ‘You know what, we need an exception to policy,’” she said. “That’s what you really bring to the fight, to be able to articulate that.”

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