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Washington Post

May 14, 1995

Author: Bradley Graham; Washington Post Staff Writer 

An army court martial panel today found Capt. Lawrence Rockwood guilty of disobedience.   In a controversial case that pitted the Army’s insistence on orders and discipline against Rockwood’s assertions of a higher moral duty to investigate possible rights abuses, a five-member panel of officers ruled tonight, after nearly six hours of deliberations, that the captain lacked sufficient cause to abandon his post on the evening of Sept. 30 despite his concerns that inmates’ lives at the National Penitentiary were at risk.

Rockwood faces a maximum jail term of six years and three months, with sentencing expected Sunday. He also could be fined and discharged from the Army.   While the Army had sought to focus the case narrowly on Rockwood’s insubordinate actions, the defense team, led by former attorney general Ramsey Clark, cast the trial as a broader indictment of the performance of American forces after they intervened in Haiti last autumn to usher in the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

“I can’t think of anything sadder for the people to think than the U.S. Army felt everything was fine in those prisons,” said veteran rights activist Clark, dressed in a rumpled tan suit, before the panel of green-uniformed officers. “There was a duty to go to those prisons as quickly as possible.”

The Army’s lead counsel in the case, Capt. Charles Pede, countered that U.S. forces had not been insensitive to the plight of imprisoned Haitians but lacked evidence of inmates facing imminent death or serious injury and were taxed just trying to control street violence. He acknowledged, however, that Rockwood’s efforts to don “the coat of human rights” complicated what the Army initially had hoped could be handled as a simple case of disobedience.

“When someone wraps himself in that coat, how do you criticize?” said Pede, as an audience dominated by reporters and human rights activists packed the eight wooden benches in the small courtroom on the grounds of the 10th Mountain Division. “The Army looks uncaring. But it was not. There were just as many human rights being violated in the streets, and that’s where our priority was.”

Rockwood, a 36-year-old counterintelligence officer and practicing Tibetan Buddhist, had fretted over the plight of inmates in Haiti’s prison, fearing their lives were endangered unless U.S. forces acted quickly to account for their condition. Recounting how he had tried unsuccessfully to draw the attention of more than a half-dozen superior officers from different branches to the issue, he testified acidly this week that U.S. forces had been more concerned about hunkering down in Port-au-Prince to avoid casualties than fulfilling the mission “to stop brutal atrocities” announced in a televised speech by President Clinton shortly before the intervention.

Defense attorneys framed the case as an example of the dictates of morality and conscience taking precedence over military orders. They invoked the Nuremberg principles, the Hague and Geneva conventions and the lessons of the Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre to argue that a soldier has an obligation to disobey orders when he thinks lives are in danger. Rockwood’s superiors, they suggested, should be the ones held criminally negligent for not moving more quickly to check on prison conditions.

Among the witnesses to testify on Rockwood’s behalf was Hugh C. Thompson Jr., a former Army helicopter pilot who violated commands in order to save the lives of some Vietnamese civilians during the 1968 My Lai massacre and was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions. Rockwood kept a picture of Thompson by his workplace in Haiti, next to photos of Claus von Stauffenberg, the German officer who placed the suitcase bomb near Hitler in the 1944 assassination attempt, and Georges Picquart, the French officer court-martialed for disclosing the truth in the Dreyfus Affair.

Army officials, upset that negative publicity about the case was shading the image of an operation in Haiti they considered largely successful, found themselves on the defensive. They tried to avoid a trial by offering a nonjudicial reprimand, meaning the case could have been handled quietly as a minor disciplinary matter.

But Rockwood rejected that, preferring a full-fledged court-martial to air his grievances. That left Maj. Gen. David Meade, commander of the 10th Mountain Division, with what he regarded as little choice but to file an array of charges.

In his summation today, Pede described Rockwood as arrogant and self-righteous, purporting to know more than his superiors about what to do after just seven days in Haiti.

“He’s an unreasonable person who thinks he knows everything and acts on it,” Pede told the two colonels and three majors on the panel, all fellow 10th Mountain officers.

Contending that discipline and teamwork were particularly important given the tense, fragile circumstances that existed during the dismantling of the military-led regime, Pede said Rockwood’s “desire to be a one-man human rights squad” had no place in the “operational environment.”

In calm, cutting tones, the military prosecutor said Rockwood’s attempt “to be responsible for everyone else’s behavior” was “pretty heady stuff for a captain taking Prozac for depression.” He suggested that Rockwood had been trying lamely to emulate von Stauffenberg, Thompson or Rockwood’s own father, a retired Air Force intelligence officer who helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia at the end of World War II.

Just how precarious the situation was in Port-au-Prince’s main prison remained a subject of considerable dispute in the six-day trial. Government witnesses contended that no specific evidence had come to the attention of U.S. forces indicating imminent killings or torture in the facility.

But Rockwood said there was strong reason to believe human rights were being violated in the National Penitentiary, based on an earlier State Department report and U.S. forces’ Sept. 27 discovery of a jail containing emaciated inmates in the Haitian town of Les Cayes. One prisoner had been left lying manacled so long that the skin on his back had rotted away.

On Sept. 30, Rockwood filed an official complaint with his division’s inspector general, suggesting his superiors were “indifferent to probable ongoing human rights violations in the penitentiary.”

Later in the day, armed with an M-16 rifle and in full uniform, Rockwood scaled the wall of the headquarters compound where he lived and paid a Haitian man $40 to drive him to the penitentiary, the country’s largest prison, for an unauthorized inspection. In doing so, he violated standing orders for service members not to leave the compound in a convoy of fewer than two vehicles, with a minimum of two soldiers in each vehicle.

At the prison, Rockwood asked for an inspection and demanded from the warden a list of all the prisoners. The warden notified U.S. authorities at Rockwood’s request, but when an Army major arrived from the U.S. Embassy, it was to remove Rockwood.

Maj. Roland S. Lane testified that Rockwood was clutching his loaded M-16 tightly and used vulgarity in denouncing both Clinton and the military chain of command for failing to act against human rights violations. Lane worried that Rockwood, in an excited state, could trigger an incident that might jeopardize U.S. relations with Haiti’s transitional military authorities.

After leaving the prison, Rockwood was taken to a military hospital, where a psychiatric exam revealed no mental disorders. He left the hospital the next day against orders and, returning to his unit, exchanged angry words with Lt. Col. Frank Bragg, his immediate superior, who had decided to send Rockwood back to the United States.

Rockwood, a 15-year veteran, was distraught that if he left Haiti, no one would follow up on his human rights concerns. But Bragg appeared unwilling to listen to Rockwood, who, when Bragg tried to quiet him, snapped, “I’m an American military officer, not a Nazi military officer.”

Bragg testified that his top intelligence priority at the time was identifying threats against U.S. forces. An anonymous grenade attack in Port-au-Prince on Sept. 29 had killed 16 Haitians in the street, and American troops were bracing for demonstrations planned for Sept. 30.

Within 12 hours after Rockwood’s visit to the penitentiary, a military police commander looking for a facility to house prisoners of war toured the prison. Col. Michael Sullivan reported that he had seen filthy and deplorable conditions there, including a dying man, who was being treated for a buttocks wound, lying in what appeared to be a puddle of his own urine. But Sullivan testified he saw no signs of killings or tortures and heard no complaints of such from prisoners.

The issue of just what obligations an American soldier has under international law and military regulations to attend to human rights concerns was hotly debated during the trial by witnesses for both the defense and prosecution.

Francis A. Boyle, a University of Illinois law professor, contended that because U.S. forces effectively were occupying Haiti and the military-led regime was disintegrating, American troops had a legal obligation to secure the penitentiary and attend to the welfare of inmates within days after arriving in the country. Moreover, he said, the Nuremberg principles “make clear that a soldier is a moral agent and, in a situation like this, you must make a moral choice.”

Taking exception was William Parks, the Army’s senior expert on the laws of war. Parks told the court that neither Rockwood nor other U.S. officers would have been criminally liable for staying away from the penitentiary since no hostilities existed between Haiti and the United States nor were U.S. troops in Haiti as an occupying army.

In mid-December, American forces made their first visit to the penitentiary since the Rockwood incident and began improving conditions

Copyright 1995 The Washington Post
Record Number:  650047