The court martial of Lt. Ehren Watada ended unexpectedly today with the judge declaring a mistrial due to his misgivings about a pretrial agreement.
In that agreement, Watada admitted that he missed his brigade's deployment to Iraq, an admission the judge said is enough to find him guilty.
But Watada, in tense questioning by the judge, Lt. Col. John Head, said he believed he still had a defense, that the war is illegal and would cause him to participate in war crimes.
He said he did not see the agreement as evidence of his guilt.
"I'm not seeing we have a meeting of the minds, here,," said the judge. " And if there is not a meeting of the minds, there's not a contract. Tell me where I'm missing something?"
Prosecutors attempted to allay Head's concerns, saying that they, too, did not view the agreement as an admission of guilt.
But the judge was not satisfied and told prosecutors that there was now a misunderstanding over the agreement.
Head said the prosecutors could move to reopen their case which had already been completed on Tuesday. However, they declined to reopen the case, which would have been complicated by the jury already seeing the agreement that now had problems.
Instead, the prosecution moved for a mistrial which the judge then granted and tentatively scheduled a trial for mid-March.
In a new trial, Watada, 28, could face up to six years in prison if convicted of all the charges against himIn January last year, as an able young lieutenant, Watada submitted a letter to his commanders with a startling declaration: He believed the war in Iraq was illegal and he would not serve there.
In meetings and counseling sessions, brigade commanders tried -- and failed -- to turn around the Watada's thinking. They argued that he should not make the emotional mistakes of youth and throw away his career.
The commanders never thought they had turned Watada away from his decision not to serve in Iraq. They did believe they had struck an agreement with Watada to keep his opposition to the war within the Army.
"In my eyes, I thought it was a mutual understanding between two officers that it not be made public," said Lt. Col. Bruce Antonia in testimony Tuesday during the court-martial trial. "I told him I was concerned. I did not want this to turn into a big media event."
It did. And Antonia said he felt betrayed by Watada's decision to announce his decision at a June news conference just weeks before the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division was to leave for Iraq.
Tuesday's testimony by Antonia and another Fort Lewis commander offers a window into the Army's internal struggle to respond to the transformation of a trusted officer into a harsh, high-profile critic of the U.S. war effort in Iraq.
As they were trying to get their troops prepared for a difficult mission in Iraq, they said they faced the unwelcome distraction of a rebellious officer becoming a national news story.
In opening arguments and testimony, the prosecution built its case that officers cannot pick and choose their wars, nor launch oral assaults on the commander in chief.
"He bought shame and disgrace upon himself," said Capt. Jeff Van Sweringen, an Army prosecutor. "The underlying facts to these grave charges are ... unassailable."
Watada's attorney, in opening arguments, said his client acted and spoke out of deeply held beliefs. The Army, said defense attorney Eric Seitz, had ample opportunity to respect Watada's beliefs and reassign him to alternative duty, including serving in Afghanistan.
"We will argue at the end of the trial that he conducted himself as an ethical officer in accordance with any standards that you may hear about," Seitz said.
But Antonia and Lt. Col. William James, another officer who counseled Watada, said the first lieutenant lost the respect of his soldiers and was no longer fit to serve as their officer.
"He gave his word; he broke his word," James said.
James also said he found Watada's offer to serve in Afghanistan in "direct conflict" with Watada's written statement that he did not want to deploy as a "tool" of the Bush administration.
James turned down that request.
"We don't dictate the terms of service," he said.
James said Watada's statements were deeply offensive to those who served in Iraq and were the subject of much chow-hall discussion. But he said those actions did not have a significant effect on troop morale, and no other soldiers followed his lead.
Richard Swain, a retired officer who teaches officer ethics at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, also testified Tuesday. Swain said officers are under no obligation to follow an order they deem illegal, "but if they make that determination, they have to be right. And if they're not right, they will be held accountable."
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org