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Rebrander in Chief

The Defense Department’s new man at Gitmo hits the reset button.

Oct 3, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 03 • By WILLY STERN
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"M" sent in James Bond. MacArthur ordered in the 1st Marine Division. Today, when the Department of Defense has a complex crisis requiring brawn and brains, Brigadier General Mark Martins gets the call. His latest job: Hit the reset button at Gitmo. 

Photo of General Mark Martins

Holder of the Gitmo portfolio: General Mark Martins

The actual job title is “chief prosecutor, Office of Military Commissions.” Martins is the legal stud who will oversee the prosecution of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his fellow apparent jihadists. Martins will also sell the world​—​our allies, enemies, even the Washington Post​—​on the legitimacy of these military tribunals.

And why not? Martins’s last two assignments were also reset jobs. 

For years, U.S. military detention and interrogation policy in Afghanistan had been an awful mess. Ugly politics at home. Tensions with allies. And we were losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghans. Then David Petraeus slapped a star on Col. Martins’s chest in 2009 and effectively said, “Now you’re a general: Go fix the darn thing.” And, with help, Martins did just that, instituting new policies based on joint mantras of transparency and accountability. (Actually, with a lot of help. Martins worked under a hard-charging, no-nonsense Navy SEAL named Vice Admiral Robert Harward, leader of the detentions task force.)

When did you last read a New York Times screed detailing abuses in a coalition prison? Harvard Law professor Jack Goldsmith, a terrorism expert, terms the determined effort to overhaul and rebrand detention policy in Afghanistan “an unqualified success.” Detentions were detoxified. 

Then last September, Martins set up his own command, the Rule of Law Field Force-Afghanistan (ROLFF). It’s another reset job. In a vacuum of law and order, the Taliban had put in place a brutal legal system, mostly in southern and southeastern Afghanistan. You know the drill: A hungry shepherd steals a slice of bread to feed his family and, chop, off comes his hand.

Martins’s assignment was to promote the rule of law in these disputed areas where bullets were often still flying. The legal system must be one that the Afghans both used and trusted, a core tenet of Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy. Martins’s ultimate aim was to set up local detainee, judicial, and criminal structures within which the Afghans themselves would do the work.

The jury’s out on whether these rule-of-law initiatives will take and last. Martins lists among accomplishments to date the new national security Justice Center in Parwan Province, where, quite remarkably, 253 trials have been held since May 2010. Martins and colleagues have gone to great lengths to build up Afghan forensic-evidence capacity, including testing for residues of explosives. Martins says, quite proudly, that his team has “assisted the Afghan government in positioning officials in 23 key districts recently cleared of Taliban and in competing with so-called Taliban justice.”

Who is this General Martins who thinks he can go head-to-head with Taliban justice and win? Think 6′4″, 185 lean pounds with an imposing schnoz and even more impressive résumé: valedictorian at West Point, a first at Oxford on his Rhodes Scholarship, magna cum laude graduate of Har-vard Law (a relatively obscure second-year student named Barack Obama joined him on Law Review and was later voted its first black president). Martins married his West Point sweetheart (now a retired Army helicopter pilot); their two kids attend Princeton and​—​where else?​—​the Point. He hasn’t seen much of his family in the last five years, which clearly wears at his soul. He doesn’t complain, at least not much. 

Martins officially started his new gig at Guantánamo on September 15. He is effectively running an 80-attorney law firm. In an interview from Kandahar, he said this of the Military Commissions: “I believe that within the space defined by our values, we must be relentlessly empirical and pragmatic in the means that we use to protect our people and our national security interests. While this new assignment has significant challenges, I am a soldier and will certainly do my best to prosecute these cases in a manner that contributes to the legitimacy of all that we undertake in opposing terror networks of global reach.”

A soldier, indeed. Martins, 51, has humped it as an Army commander and attorney for getting on 25 years now, often working directly under Petraeus. The two are good buddies. In fact, I first met Martins when I was in Iraq in 2007 to go running with Petraeus for a Runner’s World story. Martins came along and is, like Petraeus, a gifted harrier; they finished the 5.7-mile run stride-for-stride in the stifling desert heat at the pace of 6-minutes-per-mile. 

I got in touch with Petraeus the night before he started his own new gig at the CIA to ask about Martins’s assignment at Guantánamo. Was the retired general too anxious about his upcoming nonuniformed life at Langley to discuss his former lawyer? Heck no. Here’s a short excerpt from our top spy’s meaty two-page email, which started by saying he “applauded” the decision to send Martins to Gitmo. “There is no one I know better prepared for this than Mark Martins. His background is uniquely situated to such a critical mission.” Petraeus added that Martins “believes in military commissions being responsible, effective institutions within our larger system of national security institutions. Extraordinary. Truly impressive.” 

Petraeus is not alone in his admiration. The official who pulled the strings behind the scenes to bring Martins into the chief prosecutor’s job was DoD general counsel Jeh Johnson, who says he “wanted somebody who (1) was a fantastic lawyer; (2) brought the right sense of values to Military Commissions reform and process; and (3) was a recognized superstar.” Explains Johnson, “Mark had all three. I didn’t want somebody who was necessarily after the most convictions but rather was focused on making Military Commissions a credible and sustainable process. Martins has instant credibility both at Harvard Law School and with the Washington Post.”

Even so, Martins will no doubt be hammered by those on the left who don’t think we’re at war and see terrorism as a criminal offense better handled by U.S. courts. And some of the 171 detainees at Gitmo have been locked up a very long time. He’ll also take shots from those on the right who​—​more reasonably​—​want to see a kill, capture, convict strategy and aren’t too concerned what squeamish editorial writers or European politicians opine about Gitmo.

This much is clear: Martins will have his hands full at Guantánamo. Republicans harp at the president. Bloomberg harps at Holder. Lefty lawyers harp at the U.S. military. Our allies harp at us. The ACLU harps at everybody. The media are only too happy to churn out stories portraying detainees as victims. Into this mess rides The Rebrander.

Here are a few highlights of what Martins terms the “lesser-known facts” about the military prosecutions. He’s spinning, but he’s got a legitimate yarn. Says Martins:

• The Military Commissions are grounded in positive law, including Congressional Acts in 2006 and 2009.

• They are an important part of the United States commitment to using all instruments of national power and authority to counter terror networks; I believe that we must continue to use all of the military, law enforcement, intelligence, diplomatic, and economic tools at our disposal, selecting in each case the particular method that is most effective under the circumstances, consistent with our laws and values; military commissions and federal courts are both lawful and appropriate forums for trying crimes committed during this long conflict.

• As with federal courts, military commissions procedures incorporate fundamental protections designed to ensure fairness and justice​—​these include the presumption of innocence and the requirement that guilt be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

• Military commissions will feature new measures to ensure transparency, including a venue enabling victims and media to observe proceedings near-real-time in the continental United States (40-second delay to ensure safeguarding of national security information).

So what should these high-profile detainees expect from General Martins the prosecutor? Here’s what Petraeus anticipates: “An exceedingly competent chief prosecutor​—​a true legal expert with total integrity, unparalleled work ethic, broad experience.” 

To be clear, Martins doesn’t walk on water. His rule-of-law command has been accused in some quarters of being a ridiculous nation-building effort that is sorely out of touch with the true nature of the threat and with the financial woes of the United States. But such criticism hasn’t stuck to the Teflon general.

The smooth-tongued Martins has a lovely wit. A couple years back, he and I were bouncing over a dirt road in an up-armored vehicle outside the wire on the outskirts of Kabul. Martins remarked that working with journalists was like dancing with elephants​—​you just didn’t know when you might get squished. 

When his appointment to Gitmo was announced, Martins got some favorable coverage; I kidded him that he must have taken waltzing lessons. Martins responded, “I am not a waltzer (though I did like Just and Unjust Wars as well as Spheres of Justice), and I’d just as soon keep the pachyderms at a distance.” 

The punning general was of course referring to books by social theorist Michael Walzer. This is vintage Martins​—​always the smartest guy in the room.

Willy Stern has written for The Weekly Standard from Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Mali, and other places.

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