Last week, a military judge ruled Army First Lieutenant Ehren Watada cannot present evidence challenging the war’s legality nor explain what motivated him to resist his deployment order. He is the first officer to refuse to go to Iraq. With his court-martial less than two weeks away, Lt. Watada is facing up to six years in prison. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: My first guest suffered a major setback last week in his defense against a court-martial for refusing to serve in the Iraq War. In a pretrial decision, a military judge ruled First Lieutenant Ehren Watada cannot present evidence challenging the war’s legality nor explain what motivated him to resist his deployment order. With his court-martial less than two weeks away, Lt. Watada is facing up to six years in prison. He faces one charge of missing troop movement and four counts of conduct unbecoming an officer. Each of the later four charges relates to his public comments on why he refuses to deploy to Iraq. The military judge also rejected defense arguments Lt. Watada’s remarks are protected by the First Amendment.
Lieutenant Ehren Watada joins us live now from Seattle. We welcome you to Democracy Now!
LT. EHREN WATADA: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. First of all, explain why you have refused deployment and when you refused.
LT. EHREN WATADA: Well, basically, back in January of 2006, even before that, maybe a few months prior to that, in my preparation for deployment to Iraq, in order to better train myself and my soldiers, I began to research the background of Iraq, including the culture, the history, the events going on on the ground and what had led us up into the war in the first place, and what I found was very shocking to me and dismaying, and it really made me question what I was being asked to do, and it caused me to research more and more. And as I found out the answers to the questions I had, I became convinced that the war itself was illegal and immoral, as was the current conduct of American forces and the American government on the ground over in Iraq. And as such, as somebody who has sworn an oath to protect our Constitution, our values and our principles, and to protect the welfare and the safety of the American people, I said to myself that’s something that I cannot be a part of, the war. I cannot enable or condone those who have established this illegal and immoral policy. And so, I simply requested that I have my commission resigned and I separate completely from the military, because of those reasons, and I was denied several times, and I was basically given the ultimatum, "Either you deploy to Iraq, or you will face a court-martial."
AMY GOODMAN: And so, now you are facing a court-martial.
LT. EHREN WATADA: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And you’re the first officer who has refused deployment to Iraq.
LT. EHREN WATADA: That I know of, correct.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about the judge’s ruling last week.
LT. EHREN WATADA: Well, the judge’s ruling is very unfortunate. You know, during the Article 32, which is a pretrial hearing, the prosecution asked some of the witnesses we brought, including Denis Halliday, Ann Wright and Francis Boyle, if there had been any congressional representatives or congressional hearings or investigations, any courts of law that had determined the war to be illegal or immoral. And, of course, at this point, the answer would be no. And I think it would have been an excellent opportunity to bring to light in a court of law evidence and witnesses who could testify to the illegality and immorality of the war and its conduct. Unfortunately, just like Vietnam, my judge, just like the judges back then, have refused to bring to light any of the evidence or challenge the policies of the administration.
And I think it’s also very unfortunate that under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is military law, all servicemembers are obligated and have the right to refuse unlawful orders, and in this case, you know, you do so at your own peril, but the judge has simply predetermined that the war is lawful, that the order to go to war is lawful, and that it would not be debated in his court. And they have simply skirted the issue of whether that order was lawful or not.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what is heard in the court, that you just refused to show up?
LT. EHREN WATADA: Correct. It will simply be — it will be a non-trial. It will not be a fair trial or a show of justice, in any sense. I think that they will simply say, "Was he ordered to go? Yes. Did he go? No. Well, he’s guilty." And that also goes for the conduct unbecoming charges: "Did he make those statements? Can we verify that? Yes. OK, he’s guilty." And then it will be pretty much a disciplinary hearing, in terms of how much punishment should we give this lieutenant.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you appeal this, even before the court-martial takes place, the judge’s decision to exclude your reasons?
LT. EHREN WATADA: No. We will have to wait until after the verdict is rendered.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about a press issue that’s come out in your case, and that involves military and press freedom. The U.S. Army subpoenaed two journalists to testify on whether you made some of the antiwar statements that they are charging you for. Earlier this month, we interviewed one of the two journalists, Sarah Olson.
SARAH OLSON: I think it’s my job as a journalist to report the news. It’s not my job to participate, again, in the Army, in the military or government prosecution of political speech. I think when journalists do that, they really risk being turned into kind of the investigative arm of the government, really being seen as the eyes and ears of the military and the government. It really threatens to erode kind of that separation between the press and our government. I think that this is particularly ironic, because the Army is, again, asking me, a journalist, to build the case against military personnel speaking to the press, against dissenting voices in the media.
And I think, you know, kind of the final thing that I find really alarming about that is that it really does threaten to kind of eliminate those voices from the media. What kind of future war resisters would agree to speak with me or with other journalists if they thought that it was reasonable that they would be facing very high prison sentences, four years in prison, for explaining, you know, the reasons for their opposition to the Iraq War?
AMY GOODMAN: Independent journalist Sarah Olson. There’s a petition going around in support of her, as well as Honolulu Star Bulletin reporter Gregg Kakesako, the other journalist who has been subpoenaed in this case. Independent journalist Dahr Jamail and videographer Sari Gelzer have also been added to the prosecution’s witness list. Lieutenant Ehren Watada, can you talk about Sarah Olson and her case?
LT. EHREN WATADA: Sure. I think that when it comes to, if it’s a national security issue and it has to do with public safety that has the possibility of being in danger, I think, of course, you know, reporters will be compelled to testify in that case. But I think, as the prosecutors determined, my speaking out has nothing to do with national security or public safety. They simply said that it’s offensive to the Army. And Miss Olson is right, that once you start using reporters to testify against their sources, what — not just war resisters — what whistleblowers, what minority opinions will be willing to go out there and testify to reporters in order to get the truth out, if they know that the government will use those reporters to testify against them? And I think that becomes very dangerous in our society, and it’s going to have a chilling effect that’s going to stifle free speech. It’s going to stifle people having the courage to bring the truth out. And it’s going to stifle the freedom of the press.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to First Lieutenant Ehren Watada. He has refused deployment to Iraq, the first officer to do so. Next week, he will be court-martialed. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. We’ll be back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to First Lieutenant Ehren Watada, first officer to refuse deployment to Iraq. He faces court-martial next week. Lt. Ehren Watada, you went to Hawaii. You went home. Is that right? Can you talk about your experience there and what other soldiers there, going back to different wars, how they responded to you?
LT. EHREN WATADA: I think that Hawaii, like everywhere else around the United States, there’s tremendous support out there. I think it’s unfortunate that we haven’t been able to get into the national media as much as we wanted to. And therefore, the more east you go, the less people know about the case. And I think, just looking at how much support I’ve received in Washington state and back home in my home state, in Hawaii, there are a lot of people who are coming out, and not just people on one spectrum of the political ideology, but people from the mainstream, they are all coming out — the unions, the interfaith groups, the students, universities — they are all coming out to support. And I think that’s just a testament to how people feel about the war and the policies of this administration.
AMY GOODMAN: We were speaking with your mother here in studio in New York, as she speaks out for you around the country. She went to Congress. She spoke with congressmembers, tried to speak with senators. And she talked about your background and the response of — can you explain who the no-no boys are?
LT. EHREN WATADA: Sure. During World War II, when the Japanese Americans were interned by the United States government, I think over 100,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes, their civil rights were stripped, their property was taken away without any compensation whatsoever, and they were placed in concentration camps. And there were Japanese Americans, young men who were conscripted, or they volunteered to join the United States military and fight over in Europe and the Pacific theater. And many of them volunteered, because they felt that they needed to prove their loyalties to the United States government in any way possible in order to free their families and to prove that they were still Americans.
And there was also a minority of those young Japanese-American men who refused to swear loyalty and who refused to fight in the Army or the military until their civil rights were restored, until their property was given back to them, until their families were released from the concentration camps. And I think there has been a lot of controversy between those two groups ever since then. Certainly, I think that my case has brought up some of those tensions.
But as I talked to them back in Hawaii, I spoke to veterans of the 442nd, the 100th Battalion, those who fought during World War II, and I also spoke to those who refused to fight, and I told them that it doesn’t matter what the other believes the intent of the other was or if one group was right or the other was wrong. It’s that both groups were trying to prove to America that they were — even though they were Japanese Americans, they were still Americans.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, President Bush will be giving his State of the Union address tonight. What do you think he should be telling the American people?
LT. EHREN WATADA: I think that he should be telling the American people that he is going to support the troops, really, and when these troops come back, they will be provided all the healthcare, including psychological care, when they come back, 100 percent, that they will be given jobs, there will be homes for them. Back in 2004, there were over 500,000 vets who were homeless at some point. That is ridiculous, especially in our country and especially when we have an administration that uses the line, "Support the troops." I think it’s just — it’s a travesty. And we need to focus on bringing the troops back home, and we need to focus on supporting those troops for the rest of their lives.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, First Lieutenant Ehren Watada. Again, we will certainly cover your court-martial and also follow what is happening to the reporters who have been interviewing you. Thank you for joining us.