WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has appointed a group of civilians and retired officers to review how military justice has been applied in cases that resulted in the death, injury or abuse of civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan, to determine if there are ways to improve the system, defense officials said Friday.
“We know that, over the last 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, bad things have happened involving combat excesses and innocent civilians in deployed areas,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wrote in a memo about the group, a subcommittee of the newly created Defense Legal Policy Board.
“The abuses have been rare among our professional fighting force, 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. Thus, for offenses that take place in a country in which we operate alongside the civilian population, it is critical that our system of military justice be efficient, fair, dependable and credible,”
The 11-member group will not review allegations of detainee abuse or incidents of friendly fire or civilian deaths related to lawful military operations, Defense General Counsel Jeh Johnson said. It also will not pass judgment on the results of particular cases or any ongoing cases or investigations.
Panetta created the group as part of his “ongoing interest in accountability, particularly in deployed areas,” Johnson said. “There was no one case which motivates this. We just think it’s worth looking into.”
The subcommittee will not re-litigate old cases, Pentagon press secretary George Little added.
“This is about a strategic look at the military justice system and looking forward, and what improvements we may need to make to function even better in the future,” Little said.
The review will include assessing the way offenses are reported and investigated, whether there are ways to improve cooperation with local law enforcement, whether military justice in deployed settings protects the rights of the accused and the rights and needs of victims and witnesses, and whether military justice in deployed areas should be handled jointly rather than within individual services.
“I am prepared to be told by this group that, for the most part, the application of military justice is working well, or, that here are some improvements that could be made, perhaps drawing from the civilian criminal justice system,” Johnson said.
The Defense Legal Policy Board was established at the end of April and appointed at the end of July. The subcommittee is the board’s first assignment, Johnson said.
The subcommittee has 210 days — about seven months — for the review.