Courtesy of Wikipedia – Lawrence Morris
By Sarah Beretich
Lawrence J. Morris, chief of staff and counselor to Catholic University President John Garvey, was presented with the Mirror of Justice Scholars Award on Thursday, November 7th in the Slowinski courtroom at Columbus Law School. Morris’ role as chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo military commissions during the 9/11 trials was recognized with the award. It was presented by the St. John Paul II Guild of Catholic Lawyers, which advocates the achievement of justice through law.
Subject to almost two decades of humanitarian criticism, the Guantanamo Bay detention camp was established in Cuba at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Enacted by the George Bush administration, the facility was the result of swift action in the war on terrorism following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Twenty men believed to be involved in the attacks were detained on January 11th, 2002 and the prison population expanded to nearly 700 by May of 2003.
Morris was head of the Army’s criminal law branch during the establishment of the prison and was eventually asked to be chief prosecutor of the Guantanamo military commissions.
Morris argued in 2002 for a public trial of the suspected 9/11 terrorists. He wanted to uphold the standards of the American justice system while still laying “bare the scope of al Qaeda’s alleged conspiracy,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Instead, Morris’ proposal was disregarded by the Bush administration which desired more rapid prosecution. Those accused were interrogated clandestinely as the priority of senior officials was prevention of future attacks over standard court proceedings.
The Bush administration’s initial decision to deny public trials led to disarray. Several setbacks occurred and destructive allegations against Guantanamo drew public attention. Rumors of torture and abuse of inmates spread rapidly to civil rights groups and law professionals. The untimely combination of poor public image and internal disarray lead the administration to bring the cases to public trial, which they then asked Morris to conduct. He hoped to reintroduce military commissions, which are, as described by Morris, a “judicial mechanism and what is colloquially known as war-crimes tribunals.” Morris illustrated this with reference to the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in Lockerbie, Scotland, which lead to the deaths of 270 people.
Libyan prime minister Muammar al-Gaddafi produced the Libyan agents accused of the bombing in Lockerbie, who went to trial on the condition that “they would be tried under Scottish law in a Dutch courtroom,” said Morris. “Needless to say, there were no Americans involved.”
Thirteen years after the Lockerbie bombing, only one of the agents was convicted.
“We took from Lockerbie a sense of the limitations of relying on other sovereigns for justice,” says Morris.
In 2001, the young Bush administration spotted the similarities between the Lockerbie case and the 9/11 attacks and was looking to make rapid changes in response to past administrations. The thirteen-year delay of Lockerbie was unacceptable to the Bush administration, leading to their failed and controversial interrogation techniques which ultimately turned them to Morris’ appointment as the conductor of the public trials.
Morris turned to military commissions last used after World War II and “began drafting trial regulations and debating points of law with architects of the administration’s broad vision of presidential power,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
Morris believed in the provision of due process to those being tried, allowing them similar court proceedings as those of U.S. civilian court cases. However, the administration was steadfast in its view of the accused, one which saw the terrorists as below the fairness for which Morris advocated and which saw itself as above standard court practices. Morris and his team were presented once again with the issue of the disconnect between the meaning of justice to the White House and that to military lawyers, after the previous rejection of Morris’ proposal for public trials.
“Using conventional courts was insufficient [and] unable to bring these killers to justice in any matter that would be timely and just,” said Morris. “There was a need to make a point through the courts… that this was an unlawful attack by unlawful combatants and therefore to resurrect a dormant mechanism for justice that has not been used in years.”
In 2006, the existing Chief Prosecutor of the Guantanamo military commissions resigned amidst continued internal issues. Fourteen high-value detainees were moved to Guantanamo Bay and, in late 2007, Morris was appointed as new chief prosecutor for the commissions.
In 2008, Morris announced the filing of new charges against al-Qaeda agent Mohammed al Qahtani. According to the New York Times, Morris declared that Al Qahtani’s “conduct is significant enough that he falls into the category of people who ought to be held accountable by being brought to trial.” Al Qahtani confessed to the 9/11 hijackings and to his involvement with the al-Qaeda terrorist group but has since recanted, now claiming his confessions were the product of severe interrogation methods in 2002.
Morris officially retired as chief prosecutor in September of 2009 and was ultimately appointed as general counsel by Garvey in 2011. In early 2018, he became chief of staff and counselor to Garvey where he works in an advisory position, though the specifics of this role are unknown.