He was supposed to arrange a plea bargain. Instead, Navy Lieutenant Commander Charles Swift ended up fighting his commander in chief at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Swift, the military lawyer for Guantanamo Bay inmate Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s former driver, is asking the high court to block President George W. Bush’s plan to use tribunals to try terrorism suspects. The case, which raises questions about presidential wartime powers, might never have made it into court at all without Swift, 44, a 12-year veteran of the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Swift not only refused to enter a guilty plea, he filed a groundbreaking suit to challenge the tribunals, told a congressional panel that Hamdan had been abused and spent almost a month in Yemen developing his case.
“As a military officer, I deeply respect the president,” Swift said in an interview at his northern Virginia office. “But I also believe it’s my duty as a military officer to point out when he is wrong.”
In 2004, working with Georgetown law professor Neal Katyal and the Seattle-based law firm Perkins Coie, Swift and other tribunal defense lawyers filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a Supreme Court detainee case — even though they lacked explicit authorization to take that step.
The sandy-haired, blue-eyed Swift is a Naval Academy graduate who served as a surface warfare officer for seven years before law school. He returned to the military only because a hiring freeze thwarted his goal of being a Justice Department attorney.
Twelve years later, he calls himself one of the military legal system’s biggest fans, saying it does a far better job than the civilian courts of ensuring high-quality representation for impoverished criminal defendants.