Sunday, February 4, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fort Lewis officer's words, deeds focus of court-martial

Seattle Times staff reporter

Court-martial of 1st Lt. Ehren Watada

The charges:

Missing a June troop movement to Iraq; maximum sentence two years in prison

Conduct unbecoming an officer; two counts, each carrying a maximum penalty of one year in prison.

One count results from statements Watada made at a June 7 Tacoma press conference, when he said, in part, the war was a "horrible breach of American law," and that his participation in the "wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of Iraqis" would make him a party to war crimes.

The other count results from an Aug. 12 speech Watada gave at Seattle convention of Veterans for Peace, when he said, in part, "We must show open-minded solders a choice, and we must give them the courage to act. ... I tell this to you because you must know that to stop this war, for the soldiers to stop fighting it, they must have the unconditional support of the people. ... Never again will we allow those who threaten our way of life to reign free — be they terrorists or elected officials."

Last June, 1st. Lt. Ehren Watada split with the Fort Lewis officer corps by refusing an order to deploy to Iraq.

At a court-martial that begins Monday, his fate will be placed in the hands of at least five of those officers, leaders at an Army base that has sent thousands to fight in the war.

The officers will form a "panel of peers," the military equivalent of a jury, and determine whether Watada spends up to four years in prison in one of the most high-profile cases to be tried at Fort Lewis.

It unfolds at a time when the Bush administration is under attack in Congress for its conduct of the Iraq war. Peace activists have rallied around Watada, planning demonstrations outside Fort Lewis and smaller vigils elsewhere to mark the start of the court-martial.

This will be a general court-martial, reserved by the Army for the most serious offenses. It emerged as the Army's option after Watada coupled his refusal to deploy with appearances and interviews during which he denounced the administration for conducting an "illegal war" founded on "lies," and he blasted the Army for committing war crimes in Iraq.

Watada had hoped to try to prove his case against the war in court, but in a pretrial ruling, a judge said the legality of the war could not be determined in his court — it could be determined only by Congress. In his decision, Lt. Col. John Head cited previous federal court rulings.

This week in the courtroom, Head is expected to keep a tight lid on defense efforts to attack the war. There will be no serious dispute about what Watada did or said; the central questions will be whether his conduct represents crimes.

The Army's decision to charge Watada for his public comments on the war brings an additional element to the trial. Defense attorneys are prepared to argue that Watada's words were protected free speech under the U.S. Constitution.

Prosecution arguments

Prosecutors will argue that the military has limits on that speech, and that Watada violated those limits. Penalties for those charges comprise up to two of the four years in prison he is facing.

If he is found guilty of any crimes, the panel must determine how long he should serve in prison.

In the months leading up to the trial, Watada has maintained a kind of dual existence.

During duty hours, he has worked a desk job at Fort Lewis while the brigade he served with faces combat — and takes casualties — in Baghdad. At the base, he is an unpopular figure, reviled by some.

During off-duty hours, Watada gets a hero's welcome from peace activists. Time and time again, he has spoken against the war at rallies and conferences.

In an interview last week, Watada said he had hoped to avoid a military tribunal. His military superiors offered him a role in Iraq where he would not have to bear arms, but he said no because it would still be in support of the war effort. He had hoped to serve alternate duty in Afghanistan, but his request was turned down.

Last spring, as a collision with the military-justice system appeared more likely, Watada said he never tried to calculate the odds of acquittal before deciding not to deploy. His decision reflected his conviction that the war is illegal and that he is duty-bound by his officer's oath — and his conscience — to refuse an order to deploy.

"I felt that what I was being asked to do — participate in this war — was in total contradiction from what I was swearing to do in that oath," he said.

In pretrial hearings, military prosecutors said that same oath compels Watada to deploy. Charging documents allege that his comments about the war have been disgraceful and dishonor the armed forces.

Not the first to refuse

Though Watada appears to be the first officer to publicly refuse to deploy, he is not the first to refuse to assist in the war effort.

Harvey Tharp was an active-duty Navy lieutenant who served in Kirkuk, Iraq, and finished his tour of duty dismayed about a rash of civilian deaths. At a conference sponsored last month by peace activists, Tharp said he subsequently turned down an assignment to a National Security Agency job that would have supported a U.S. military offensive in Fallujah. He told his superiors that such service could make him a party to war crimes. After citing those concerns, he was allowed to resign and was honorably discharged in 2005.

Among enlisted soldiers, a small number have emerged as public voices of protest against the war; the peace group Courage to Resist lists eight who have faced a range of disciplinary actions.

Darrell Anderson, an Army enlistee who did one tour of duty and then deserted, was able to turn himself in and walk away with an other-than-honorable discharge and no prison time.

Augustine Aguayo, an Army medic who served one tour of duty, risks more than seven years in prison at a March court-martial in Germany, where he will face charges of desertion and troop movement.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581

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