CNN Paula Zahn interviews Ehren Watada with response from Paul Rieckhoff, Amy Goodman and Joshua Casteel
ZAHN: Another “Top Story” in the Iraq war we have picked tonight: The first commissioned officer in the U.S. to face a court- martial for refusing to serve in Iraq, he is Army 1st Lieutenant Ehren Watada, a 28-year-old native of Hawaii. He joined the Army after the 9/11 attacks. In June, he refused orders to deploy to Iraq, saying he believes taking part in the war would make him a party to war crimes. He has also said he would be willing to serve in Afghanistan or resign from the Army, rather than go to Iraq. But the Army, so far, has refused. So, now he faces charges of missing troop movement and conduct unbecoming to an officer. If convicted, he could spend six years in prison.
And Lieutenant Watada joins me now for an exclusive interview from Dupont, Washington, just outside Fort Lewis, where he’s stationed.
Thanks so much for being with us tonight.
1ST LIEUTENANT EHREN WATADA, U.S. ARMY: You’re welcome.
ZAHN: So, when you joined the Army in 2003, you certainly know the — the war was cranking up, and you must have known there was a possibility that you would end up in Iraq. The Army trained you. They invested in you. At what point did you decide you wouldn’t go to Iraq?
WATADA: I think even up to — when I first joined the Army, I believed, like many Americans, when our government told us that there was a necessity for going into Iraq because of the weapons of mass destruction that were there and the ties to 9/11 and the ties to al Qaeda. And I very much joined wanting to protect and serve my country. And I felt those reasons were justified.
Even up until, I believe, September of 2005, I was even willing to volunteer. I talked to the commander and said I would volunteer to go with any unit that was going to Iraq before the unit that I was presently staged with.
ZAHN: What changed then?
WATADA: And then I began finding out some things about how possibly that our government could have misled, not only the Congress, but also the public, and the world as to the reasons why we were going in to Iraq, and there were never any weapons of mass destruction, there were never any ties to al Qaeda or ties to 9/11.
And I just — at that point, I personally felt very betrayed as a soldier, willing to put my life on the line and willing to order soldiers to do the same, that we were sent to go and fight a war where the reasons were falsified.
ZAHN: But wouldn’t you believe that our fighting force would not only be undermined but betrayed if everybody decided to do what you’ve done?
WATADA: I think definitely what I’ve done should not be the norm. It should be done, I think, in extreme circumstances. And I think, as these most recent elections show, that we — that our country has lost its way, that our government has run amuck. We have a government that violates the law at will, that changes the law when it doesn’t suit its purposes, and that basically is unaccountable. And I think those are dangerous times. And that in my mind, it came to the point where I had to refuse to participate in something that I saw was wrong and refuse to condone or enable those who perpetrated this illegal and immoral war.
ZAHN: Lieutenant, as you well know, some of your fellow soldiers say the reason you don’t want to go to Iraq is that you’re afraid of getting killed. What’s your response to them?
WATADA: Well, I’m sure everybody’s afraid of getting killed. Everybody’s — I’m sure everybody doesn’t want to go to prison either. Everybody doesn’t want to do a lot of things.
But we have to go back to what we took an oath to do. And that was to protect and defend our country against all enemies, and that includes those within our country who seek to undermine our laws, who seek to violate the laws and basically hold themselves unaccountable and do whatever they want. And that is not America. That is not democracy.
And up until this point, I think we have seen a government that is — has run itself and has been unaccountable to no one.
ZAHN: all right. Let me ask you this in closing, because we’re going to have a couple of people who will take a great issue coming up in our panel with what you’ve just said. But some of your critics also charge that you’re nothing more than the pawn of the anti-war movement, and that you’re getting used, and you’re being naive about your own fight here.
WATADA: Well, if that was the case, you know, almost every other day since I spoke out publicly, there have been people who have approached me — just ordinary people — nobody with the activists, anti-war movement, people in uniform, many soldiers, active duty of all ranks, have written me, have come up to me and given me their support and their respect for what I’ve done.
ZAHN: Lieutenant, we have to leave it there.
We appreciate your joining us, Lieutenant Watada.
We’re going turn to our top story panel now to react to what you’ve said.
Paul Rieckhoff a former platoon leader in Iraq, member of the Army National Guard and founder of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He’s also author of “Chasing Ghosts”.
Also with me, the host of “Democracy now,” on TV and radio, Amy Goodman. She’s the author of “Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders and the People who Fight Back.”
And Joshua Casteel, a former Army specialist who served in Iraq at Abu Ghraib and was discharged as a conscientious objector. He’s now a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Good to see all of you. You have heard what Lieutenant Watada has argued. He was more than willing to go into Iraq when he first joined the Army, but when it became clear that the intelligence was flawed, and he believed the government misled the American people, he no longer was on board.
What’s your reaction to that?
PAUL RIECKHOFF, AUTHOR, ”CHASING GHOSTS”: Well, I think he’s in a very tough spot, and I respect the courage of his convictions. But I also think that he’s violating a direct order. And when you take your commission as an officer in the military, you are obliged to take the orders handed down to you by your superiors. You don’t pick and choose which wars you get to fight. And I think, most likely, he will go to jail for violating the UCMJ, the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Again, I respect the courage of his convictions here, but you don’t get to pick and choose what war you go to. You can exercise your political opinions, you can vote, you can write your Congressman. But when you get deployment order, and it’s handed down, you’ve got to follow that order.
ZAHN: You say you respect the conviction of his courage. Do you, though, as some suggest, think he’s a coward?
RIECKHOFF: No. I think he’s obviously willing to face prison for his beliefs and I think that shows that he does have some courage. You know, I don’t know if I would make the same decision myself. He’s not running to Canada. He’s willing to stand up and take the punishment for what he thinks is the right thing to do. And I respect that.
But it’s also interesting to note, he not filing for conscientious objector status here. He’s refusing to take a direct order which would deploy him to Iraq. And he’s also being accused of conduct unbecoming, which can be a lot of different things.
But ultimately, I think he’s going to have a very hard legal fight here, and I think he’s in a very tough spot.
ZAHN: And Joshua, what message does he send to other soldiers out there about the potential picking and choosing what wars they fight in?
JOSHUA CASTEEL, IRAQ WAR VETERAN: Well, Paula, Paul Rieckhoff, Lieutenant Watada and myself, we all took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
And the Uniform Code of Military Justice tells us two things. One is that we have an obligation to obey all lawful orders, but we also have an obligation to disobey all unlawful orders, and — which includes disobeying orders that are unlawful, even if they come from the President of the United States. Article Six, Paragraph Two of the United States Constitution dictates that treaties that the United States signs on to are to be considered the laws of the land, including among them, the Hague Convention on Land Warfare of 1899, the Nuremberg Principles, which in 1953, the Department of Defense declared to be official policy. And Justice Jackson, who’s the chief…
ZAHN: All right.
But fast forward to today. So you’re saying he’s justified, based on these precedents?
CASTEEL: Absolutely. He is one of the few examples of moral courage that we have in the midst of plenty of individuals who show physical courage to go to Iraq and sacrifice for their country. But what we need tight now are moral leaders. And Lieutenant Watada is an example of the kind of leadership that reminds us of our better nature and the aspirations of the United States Constitution.
ZAHN: What kind of impact does his case have on the military? I mean, we heard Paul arguing quite forcefully that when you sign these papers and you make this commitment, you don’t get to pick or choose what war you fight in.
AMY GOODMAN, HOST, ”DEMOCRACY NOW”: Well, Paula, this is extremely significant. Thousands of soldiers are saying no. The Pentagon doesn’t like to talk about this, but Lieutenant Erhen Watada being the first officer to refuse to deploy to Iraq is very significant.
I was with him at Seattle at Town Hall. More than a thousand people were there. When he stood up, the applause was thunderous. He had just been hit with the fourth charge of conduct unbecoming an officer. You have to ask, if we lived in a just society, who would be charged with conduct unbecoming?
ZAHN: What about that, Paul?
RIECKHOFF: Well, he’s going to be ultimately charged with it. And I think, you know, the military has to maintain order and discipline. And that’s what the military has to do here. They can’t have every lieutenant picking and choosing where he wants to go to war. And there are a lot of soldiers over there trying to uphold their commitment.
And again, you know, I understand his political situation here and I understand his position, but the military would have a real problem on their hands. And I think that the number of people who have objected…
GOODMAN: What’s wrong…
RIECKHOFF: Hold on, let me finish. Hold on, let me finish.
The number of people who defected or rebelled, I think those numbers are still relatively small. We’re not dealing with the Vietnam military here that was drafted. This is a very highly competent and professional military. And if you’re looking for some kind of insurrection or mutiny from within the military against the war, I just don’t think it’s going to happen.
GOODMAN: I mean, my question is what’s wrong with the military having a serious problem with this? I mean, the military has a very serious problem in Iraq.
RIECKHOFF: It’s not an unlawful order. I mean, it’s not right now an unlawful order until a U.S. Court or the military itself deems that this is an unlawful order, he is in violation of…
GOODMAN: When you’re in the military, that is involved in a situation where even the commander in chief says they got in for the wrong reasons, that there are no weapons of mass destruction, when you have a military that…
RIECKHOFF: So is every soldier in Iraq violating the law right now?
GOODMAN: … when you have a military that serves a democratic society, I think it’s very important that people make up their own minds. There are so many soldiers like — and you know many of them, like Tony Lataranus (ph), who was an Army interrogator, came back and said he’s involved in war crimes, that they’re violating the international Geneva Conventions.
RIECKHOFF: That’s not necessarily blanket coverage for every single person in a combat theater. There are a 145,000 troops there. And every one of them is not breaking the law right now.
GOODMAN: Each individual has to ask the question.
ZAHN: You helped us better understand why there is such a debate about this raging across the country.
Thank you all, Paul Rieckhoff, Amy Goodman, Joshua Casteel.