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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta today set up a review board to look at how the military justice system handled alleged crimes by deployed troops against civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan and make recommendations for improvements in future conflicts.
"We know that over the last 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan bad things have happened involving combat excesses and innocent civilians," Panetta said in a statement announcing the appointment of a new subcommittee within the existing Defense legal Policy Board to examine possible reforms of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
"The abuses have been rare among our professional fighting force," Panetta said, "but they became huge flash points that threatened to undermine our entire mission and the foundation of our relationship with the host government and its people," Panetta said.
The review will not affect ongoing cases, such as the alleged killing of 16 civilians by Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in Afghanistan earlier this year, said Jeh (CQ) Johnson, DOD's general counsel. "This is not about any pending cases nor should it be," said Johnson.
The panel, instead, will be asking "Are there ways to improve military justice? We want to ask ourselves every once in a while is the system working as it should" in cases of alleged crimes by deployed troops, Johnson said.
On area that the panel will study is whether members of courtsmartial (the jury) should come from different services rather than having "sailors judge sailors, Marines judge Marines," Johnson said.
Johnson had no cost estimates for the work of panel or the compensation for the individual members, who will travel to Iraq and Afghanistan as part of their mandate. "But I don't think this will be a particularly expensive review," Johnson said.
Panetta said the review would examine cases back to October 2001 but the subcommittee's mission "should not encompass allegations of detainee abuse or instances of collateral damage or friendly fire" incidents that occurred during a "lawful military operation."
Judith Miller, the former DOD general counsel, and retired Army Maj. Gen. Walter B. Huffmann, former commander of the Army's Judge Advocate General Corps, were named as co-chairmen of the subcommittee.
The subcommittee members also included retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the former Army vice Chief of Staff, retired Lt. Gen. John Sattler, former commander of Marine Forces Central Command, and James B. Comey, Jr., a former deputy attorney general, the second-highest ranking official in the Justice Department in the administration of former President George W. Bush.
For Panetta, the bottom-line question was: "Does the military justice system in deployed areas fully preserve the rights of the accused, while also respecting the rights and needs of victims and witnesses."
Based on their track records, Panetta was likely to get candid answers from Subcommitee members Comey and Roger Parrino, a former NYPD detective and Marine corporal who was named as the panel's chief investigator.
As acting Attorney General in 2004, during the hospitalization of Attorney General John Ashcroft, Comey resisted White House pressure and refused to certify the legality of domestic surveillance programs carried out by the National Security Agency.
Parrino, who investigated numerous headline cases for the NYPD, was removed from his squad command in a dispute with disgraced former NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik, now serving jail time for corruption, but was later honored by Mayor Michael Bloomberg with the Department's Medal of Valor.