« Don’t Be a Slave to the Curve | Main | PDF of October 9, 2007 Issue »

September 25, 2007

Rear Admiral Houck ‘85 Speaks at Law School

By Eric Reed

Students and faculty had a rare opportunity to question the military Tuesday afternoon, when the International Law Society (ILS) hosted Rear Admiral James Houck on campus. Rear Admiral Houck graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1985 and has served in the Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG) since. He currently holds the position of Deputy Judge Advocate General of the Navy, and Commander, Naval Legal Services Command. The admiral’s visit began as a talk on the JAG Corps yet quickly shifted to an hour-long question-and-answer session as students peppered the officer about issues ranging from Guantanamo Bay to Iraq to how the Navy runs one of the world’s largest law firms.

“The Navy JAG is quite literally a global law firm,” Houck said during his introduction. With 1,300 lawyers in service and another 900 members of the support staff, the Navy JAG Corps is “quite literally everywhere in the world,” and handles legal issues ranging from soldiers’ credit questions to target selection in combat to cabinet level policy issues, noted the admiral.

Today, Houck explained, the role of the JAG program is undergoing significant changes. “Our practice definitely got bigger and more interesting, unfortunately, after September 11,” he said. “The Navy and Air Force are having to do things that we never imagined in a million years that we’d be doing. As we sit here talking we have about ninety Navy JAG officers in theater, in Iraq.”

“Lawyer’s are so integrated now in the battlefield, in the battle space,” Houck explained, that officers of the JAG corps frequently accompany Naval commanders and give advice regarding the legality of target selections and firing orders.
After his initial comments, Houck began to answer questions from the audience, which immediately focused on the two topics that would come to dominate the afternoon’s discussion: Iraq and American activities at Guantanamo Bay.

“It’s quite an impromptu, seat of the pants party that’s been put together down there,” Houck said, responding to a question on United States policy at the naval base in Cuba. While he indicated that conditions at the base began as little more than “some old, exposed outdoor cages,” the prison has been updated with “three large, state of the art facilities” to handle new demands and to treat prisoners as well as possible. “The way the detainees are being treated, the way the staff are conducting themselves, is I think something that most people would be accepting of,” Houck said.

This answer did not, of course, address the legality of American detention policies at Guantanamo, nor White House efforts to block habeas corpus rights to prisoners, an issue which both Houck and his audience addressed several times during the afternoon.

“I think we’ve come to the point where several senior people in the administration … have said that if we could close Gitmo we would do it,” Houck said. However with prisoners that nobody wants, and which the government cannot simply release, Houck indicated that “there’s a good chance that [the prison at Guantanamo] is going to be there for some time.”

Students repeatedly asked the Admiral about his personal opinions regarding American detention policies, but Houck refused to comment, indicating that as an active officer it would inappropriate for him to give either his personal or legal opinion to anyone outside of the military. “If the elected officials … feel that any conversation they have with us [military officers] will soon end up in the newspaper, then that’s easy, they’ll just shut us out,” Houck said in response to repeated student questions regarding his opinion on American activities at Guantanamo Bay. Houck’s recalcitrance on this issue clearly disappointed and frustrated many students, who seemed eager finally to put their questions to a uniformed commander of the United States military.

During the two hours which Rear Admiral Houck spent talking with students, topics ranged from Iraq and Guantanamo to how JAG officers work within the Navy on a daily basis. Yet, despite an expected outcry against a Navy officer visiting the Law School’s campus, one issue remained curiously absent from the Tuesday afternoon event. Contrary to expectations, the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, required by federal law, raised few questions and even less debate during the two hours Houck spoke with students.

ILS Co-President Marta Castaing opened the talk by addressing what many believed would be the elephant in the room, announcing that the ILS intended the event as a forum for discussing issues of international law, and not as an endorsement of the Navy’s hiring policies. The students who did ask Houck about the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy were generally left empty-handed when he indicated that, as with Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and any other sensitive issues, he could only give objective information rather than his personal opinion on topics such as the constitutionality or ethics of the program.

“Our own courts have ruled on the law and have upheld it. … It’s an example of the kind of thing that is not appropriate for an active duty military officer to comment about,” he said, referring to his own opinions, personal or legal, about United States policy. “Were I not wearing this uniform then I would be in a different position. I would be much freer to talk.” Still, he did indicate that while he has no way to know if “don’t ask don’t tell” actually interferes with the military’s ability to accomplish its mission, there is a very good, and much more relevant, question of whether the policy deprives the Navy of qualified, skilled service people. The answer to this question, he said, is one that must be debated by politicians and policy makers, not by the military, which should and must simply follow the orders it is given by the White House and Congress.