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He became a SEAL to fight terrorists. Now he's a Navy lawyer defending an accused one

Carol Rosenberg, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- After suicide bombers attacked the USS Cole 17 years ago, this young Navy SEAL from Wisconsin would have gladly risked his life on a mission to snatch someone suspected of plotting the attack that killed 17 U.S. sailors.

Now, the former SEAL sits in the war court with the man accused of orchestrating the bombing that killed his shipmates. And Navy Lt. Alaric Piette, 39, is navigating a different kind of treacherous assignment.

Piette, a lawyer for just five years, is the lone attorney in court representing Saudi captive Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, whose long-serving death penalty defender and two other civilian lawyers quit the case over a clandestine ethical conflict. So across two weeks of court hearings, Piette has answered the trial judge's instruction to litigate by arguing that until a new capital defender is found, the case cannot go on.

"When military attorneys are assigned to these cases, people just expect us to go along and roll over. And I'm not going to," Piette said in an interview at the end of a week in which the judge sentenced the Marine general overseeing the defense teams to 21 days confinement for letting al-Nashiri's civilian lawyers quit.

Piette was one of the last military attorneys hired on the team led by Rick Kammen, the 71-year-old capital defense attorney from Indiana who for years led a constantly changing cast of military lawyers with a kangaroo pin on his lapel to express his contempt for the war court system.

Their courtroom style is a study in contrast.

Where Kammen wore a kangaroo pin, Piette wears the coveted trident of a SEAL, the elite Navy unit whose slogan is "the only easy day was yesterday."

Where Kammen was confrontational in both words and attire, Piette has been nothing but courteous, even as he has explained again and again that he must sit mute alongside al-Nashiri, litigate no motions and question no witnesses until a qualified death penalty defense attorney arrives in court.

Al-Nashiri, 52, is accused of orchestrating al-Qaida's Oct. 12, 2000, bombing of the Cole while it was on a resupply mission off Aden, Yemen. Two men pulled alongside in an explosives-laden skiff, ostensibly to collect the ship's garbage, then blew themselves up.

Al-Nashiri was captured in Dubai in 2002 and held for four years in the CIA's black sites, where he was waterboarded, rectally abused and subjected to other torture techniques. He was first charged at Guantanamo in 2011, five years after his arrival. All those circumstances have caused delays in getting him to trial.


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