Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Matt Diaz Receives Truth-Teller Award

Today Scott Horton writes about Lt. Cmdr. Matt Diaz, who last Thursday received the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling at the National Press Club. I've written about Diaz several times previously and have exchanged several emails with him as he searches for jobs and adjusts to life as a civilian lawyer.

It's great to see that he's finally getting some badly needed recognition. Hopefully he's also found a job along the way.

I got interested in Diaz' courageous act and subsequent plight after finding this article in the New York Times. The article described the events leading up to Diaz' release of the Gitmo names:

Now, Diaz knew he was crossing a line. For nearly two weeks after printing the list, he kept it locked inside the safe in his office. On another late night, he carefully trimmed the pages down to the size of large index cards. Then, on Jan. 14, the last night of his tour, he went back to the office one more time. While his colleagues were getting ready for his farewell dinner, he slipped the stack of paper inside a Valentine’s Day card he had bought at the base exchange. It was an odd touch. The card showed a cartoon puppy with long ears and bubble eyes and the greeting, “Hope Valentine’s Day is just your style.” Diaz would later say that he chose it because it was big enough to hold the list. He also hoped the lipstick-red envelope might pass unscrutinized through the Guantánamo post office."

What I found most fascinating and tragic, however, was the article's description of Diaz' past. When he was about 16, his father was arrested and charged with capital murder. As I wrote previously, while quoting the Times article, "his father, who worked as a nurse that the time :

"...had never been in trouble with the law. No one had seen him inject the patients with lidocaine. Nor, despite the high levels of unmetabolised lidocaine in their bodies, was it certain they had been murdered. But Robert Diaz was the only nurse who was on duty when all of them died, and he sometimes carried preloaded syringes of lidocaine in his pocket. Two vials of the drug were found in the search of his home. (Robert said he had simply forgotten to empty his pockets before leaving work.) Prosecutors never offered a motive for the killings, but Diaz was arrested in November 1981 and charged with the murders of 12 patients.

“That’s when things started falling apart,” Matthew Diaz told me. At 16, he was left to fend for himself. He drifted back to Indiana, where his mother lived, but returned to California the next summer as his father’s trial approached. He soon dropped out of high school, found a job washing dishes and moved into a San Bernadino motel with a 28-year-old woman who had become his girlfriend.

Diaz stood by his father, but Robert Diaz’s legal defense was a debacle. Because he could not afford a private attorney, his case fell to a public defender’s office that was beset with dissension and budget problems. Robert’s attorneys persuaded him to forgo a jury trial and take his case before a judge — a move that was almost unheard of in a capital murder case."

Nice. Waive the jury in a capital murder case. Guess what? His father was convicted and still sits on California's death row.

My last post covered MLK's "Letter from a Birmingham jail," and contained the quotes "an unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law" as well as "we can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.”"

Describing Diaz' "lawbreaking" and contrasting it with the lawbreaking he was witnessing every day, Scott Horton writes:

Matthew Diaz served his country as a staff judge advocate at Guantánamo. He watched a shameless assault on America’s Constitution and commitment to the rule of law carried out by the Bush Administration. He watched the introduction of a system of cruel torture and abuse. He watched the shaming of the nation’s uniformed services, with their proud traditions that formed the very basis of the standards of humanitarian law, now torn asunder through the lawless acts of the Executive. Matthew Diaz found himself in a precarious position—as a uniformed officer, he was bound to follow his command. As a licensed and qualified attorney, he was bound to uphold the law. And these things were indubitably at odds.

Diaz resolved to do something about it. He knew the Supreme Court twice ruled the Guantánamo regime, which he was under orders to uphold, was unlawful. In the Hamdan decision, the Court went a step further. In powerful and extraordinary words, Justice Kennedy reminded the Administration that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions was binding upon them, and that a violation could constitute a criminal act...

One of the crimes the Administration committed was withholding from the Red Cross a list of the detainees at Guantánamo, effectively making them into secret detainees. Before the arrival of the Bush Administration, the United States had taken the axiomatic position that holding persons in secret detention for prolonged periods outside the rule of law (a practice known as “disappearing”) was not merely unlawful, but in fact a rarified “crime against humanity.” Now the United States was engaged in the active practice of this crime.

The decision to withhold the information had been taken, in defiance of law, by senior political figures in the Bush Administration. Diaz was aware of it, and he knew it was unlawful. He printed out a copy of the names and sent them to a civil rights lawyer who had requested them in federal court proceedings.

Diaz was aware when he did this that he was violating regulations and that he could and would, if caught, be subjected to severe sanction. What he did was a violation of law, even as it was an effort to cure a more severe act of lawlessness by the Government. Diaz violated the law in precisely the same sense as Martin Luther King reminds us, in the Letter from Birmingham Jail, that his arrest was based on a violation of law. That everything the Nazis did in Germany was lawful. And that every act of the Hungarian freedom fighters was a crime. In terms of the moral law, however, Diaz was on the side of right, and the Bush Administration and the Pentagon had, by engaging in the conduct that the Supreme Court condemned, placed themselves on the side of lawlessness, corruption and dishonor.

The last time I heard from Mr. Diaz he seemed concerned not with awards but with finding a good job to take care of his family. I tried to help by contacting a former teacher, now Hollywood writer, who I hoped might have some leads in New York. But I didn't hear back from him. I should have done more, but at least he's back in the news where hopefully someone will now help him out if he needs it.

Hopefully he's either found a job or the publicity that accompanies this award will prompt someone to offer him one. After what he's been through, he certainly deserves it, just as he deserves the award and more.


The people at Trial Lawyers College have also very generously offered to give Matt a scholarship to attend the three-week summer session at Thunderhead Ranch, as soon as he's eligible. I hope he takes advantage of this as I can think of no one more accurately described as a Warrior.

UPDATE: Diaz' remarks can be found here. Joe Conason also wrote about the award here.

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