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American 0fficer's Mission For Haitian Rights Backfires


FORT DRUM, N.Y., May 11 [1996]--An Army officer who took the words of the nation's Commander in Chief to heart and went off on his own in search of human-rights violations among Haitian penitentiary inmates faced a court-martial today with his career and his conscience on the line.

A panel of five fellow officers sat in judgment of the odd, passionate case of Capt. Lawrence P. Rockwood, a fourth-generation military man who talked his way alone into the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince last year during the multinational Haitian incursion in a zealous and unauthorized search for abused political prisoners.

His one-man mission, intercepted before he could complete it, has ruined his 15-year career and left him facing a possible 10 years in prison. But as he took the stand this morning, the captain defended his belief in conscience, a belief that was bolstered, he emphasized, by his soldier-father, who took him as a boy to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany and taught him about the individual soldier's duty to human rights over rote obedience.

"He explained why these things exist in the world," Captain Rockwood told the tribunal here in a simple barracks courthouse.

"What happened there was the result of cynicism and blind obedience," he said, speaking of Dachau. He justified his prison adventure by invoking international law and President Clinton's stated concern for "stopping brutal atrocities" as a main motive for the military intervention in Haiti that began Sept. 19.

Platoons of soldiers jogged past in orderly cadence this morning as the captain faced charges of leaving his assigned post and disobeying orders. In the view of the Army, Captain Rockwood was a military intelligence specialist on the loose in Haiti with a separate agenda and a loaded rifle when he scaled the fence of his base on the night of Sept. 30 and found his way to the national prison announcing that he was there to inspect it for prisoner abuses.

Back at the base, his superiors in the 10th Mountain Division found a note on the captain's bunk. "I can no longer function in the U.S. forces," it read in part. "I'm going to do my job and you can court-martial my dead body."

Captain Rockwood's defense is that he heeded too well the words of Mr. Clinton. The 36-year-old officer said he acted on his own only after he was rebuffed in various attempts at going through the chain of command and found the military too preoccupied with protecting its own invasion force to attend properly to the human-rights abuses in Haiti.

"The chain of command had cowardly failed to carry out the primary objective of the Commander in Chief," the captain firmly insisted, saying he had to act. "I felt it was my duty."

Prosecution witnesses characterized the intense, articulate officer as "misdirected and dangerous" in shouting demands for human-rights investigations at superiors and "thumbing his nose" at the Army, as Capt. Charles Pede, the Army's trial counsel, put it.

"He said he was going to complete Bill Clinton's mission," Capt. John Gorlay, a psychiatric nurse, testified as prosecution witnesses presented a picture of Capt. Rockwood as an obsessed, distraught officer.

The captain countered that he had carefully gathered intelligence information from a number of sources and was convinced that political prisoners faced torture and murder in the Port-au-Prince prison, long a target of criticism by human-rights monitors.

"I felt human life would be lost," he said, arguing that the Army was required to take action under international law. Hours before his prison adventure, the captain had accused his own command of dereliction in a written complaint to the Inspector General of the Army. It was "a career-terminating move," Captain Rockwood said.

The captain edged toward sarcasm in denouncing military officials and he bristled when Capt. Pede asked whether he claimed broad authority to selectively reject or re-interpret orders.

"I am personally responsible for carrying out international law," Capt. Rockwood replied. "That is the Nuremberg principle."

Under the Nuremberg Principles established by the Allies after World War II, a crime against world law can be subject to punishment, heads of state can be held responsible, and obeying orders does not exempt subordinates when there is the possibility of a moral choice.

The prosecution objected repeatedly to the attempts by the captain's lawyer, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, to focus on reports from international monitoring groups that the Port-au-Prince prison was notorious, with up to 85 percent of the inmates incarcerated for political opposition, not crimes.

The captain's certainty that the prison was the scene of torture and murder was not borne out by one defense witness, Col. Michael L. Sullivan, a military police officer who visited the prison on an authorized visit soon after Captain Rockwood. "I saw no signs of physical torture or abuse," the colonel declared while testifying that the living conditions were miserable and subhuman, like those in much of Haiti, and deserved the attention of relief agencies.

Captain Rockwood, insisted that throngs of political prisoners in Port-au-Prince were at heightened risk as Haiti's despotic de facto regime was on the verge of collapse, a point supported by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, a private advocacy group. To superiors' claims that no intelligence reports of prison abuse in Port-au-Prince were ever received, Captain Rockwood insisted that the Army never sought them out in the first place.

"I was aware that you are not allowed to walk on the grass to stop a rape," he said in an interview before he took the stand, referring to the Army's rules for actions soldiers could take against Haitians. He said at the time he rated the court martial risk as negligible in the face of the obligation he sensed by law and family tradition.

The trial presented a crosscurrent of military and human values, with Mr. Clark's laconic, sharp-edged interrogation a counterpoise to all the terseness and crisp uniforms and endless "sirs" of the military wit nesses. The presiding judge, Lieut. Col. Robert Newberry, showed an easy hand and wry demeanor. At one point he gently sought to establish a "vulgarity spectrum" of words rated bad by one witness to see if the defendant, hailed by friends as a dedicated and inoffensive believer in Buddha, could actually have used a traditional Army expletive in denouncing the high command.

The ghosts of old and new armies seemed on trial, too. Prosecution witnesses hailed Operation Uphold Democracy, the military name for the Haitian incursion, as a great success under difficult post-cold-war circumstances. But the defense invoked the history of World War II atrocities and the My Lai massacre in Vietnam as agonizing milestones pointing to the primacy of Captain Rockwood's conscience under the conditions he sensed in Haiti.

Once he was inside the prison, the Haitian authorities summoned help from the United States Embassy. A military attache, Maj. Roland S. Lane, told the court that he arrived to find a self-righteous and antagonistic captain holding a loaded weapon and "trying to take action into his own hands" during a "fragile" period of transition in Haiti.

"I thought, 'This could really turn out nasty,' " the major testified, adding that Captain Rockwood was "unstable" in fluctuating from calmness to shouting rages and demanding the right to check on prisoners' condition. The captain was eventually talked into unloading the weapon and obeying an order to leave the prison.

He was taken to an Army hospital for a psychiatric examination and was cleared as healthy. But was accused of leaving the hospital with out authorization after he went back to his barracks.

"He's a soft person, a gentle person," Mr. Clark said in discussing the captain's excited state when confronting superiors. "He became upset because he knew if he was sent home his work would be severely damaged."

His commander, Lieut. Col. Frank Bragg, testified that Captain Rockwood was shouting and had a contemptuous attitude after he returned from the prison. Colonel Bragg said he repeatedly ordered the officer to be silent and "shut up," but the captain shouted, "I'm an American officer. I'm not a Nazi officer and I want a full accounting of human-rights abuses."

Captain Rockwood told the court what he meant was that, under international law, "there are limitations to military authority and I thought any educated officer realized that."

Contradicting the defense, Colonel Bragg said Army regulations specifically barred counterintelligence specialists like Captain Rockwood and himself from investigating possible prison atrocities. Major Lane said officials from the State Department and the Justice Department, not from the Army, had prison responsibilities in the Haiti operation.

Rather than worrying about human-rights abuses in prison, Colonel Bragg said, the defendant should have been worrying about protecting his fellow soldiers by tracing arms caches and "getting the bad guys off the streets."

Captain Rockwood's main goal lately has been obtaining the fullest possible hearing of his cause, for which he opposed prosecution attempts to drop one charge of conduct unbecoming an officer, a charge that his lawyers say is crucial to his ability to explain his motives and, if necessary, appeal to international forums for relief.

In his hospital examination a day after the prison visit, Captain Rockwood was found healthy by Major Dean Inouye, an Army psychiatrist, who said the captain lightly amended the words of Henry David Thoreau in commenting on his own behavior, "I usually march to the beat of a different drummer but yesterday I was probably a step out of beat."
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