By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - John Altenburg has always been in charge of something.
He was a camp counselor at Fort Scott Camps in Crosby Township. He supervised teenage boys when he taught English at Elder High School in Price Hill. After graduating from University of Cincinnati Law School in 1973, he began a military career that ended with his directing 1,800 military and civilian lawyers.
Now he will be in charge of something that no one has been in charge of before: military tribunals that will determine the fate of more than 600 alleged terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The job will have a direct effect on international law and the future safety of Americans in an age of terrorism. Altenburg was in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
The tribunals are controversial, denounced by human rights advocates and questioned by the American Bar Association. Critics say not enough safeguards are built into the system for the defendants and that impartial civilian judges ought to have more review.
But Altenburg, 59, says his goal is simple: "To ensure we get this right."
"I want to make sure things are run consistent with the laws that exist today while at the same time protecting the future, the future of the development of the law," he said.
Military commissions are hundreds of years old, but he said, "This is different from anything that's happened before."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld named Altenburg to the post in December. Altenburg said he expects to start in February. His official title is appointing authority for the military commissions, a misleading name for what is actually the top position. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had been doing the job.
"It's huge. It really is huge," said Joseph P. Tomain, dean of the University of Cincinnati Law School and a friend of Altenburg's. "He's got responsibility for overseeing this whole shebang at this point."
Said Human Rights Watch's Wendy Patten, an opponent of the tribunals: "He has a lot of power."
According to the Pentagon, Altenburg will approve charges against alleged terrorists; appoint members of the commissions, the judges; approve plea agreements; determine when to open or close cases to the media; and ultimately determine whether a case will be eligible for the death penalty. The cases receive no outside review. They do not go to the Supreme Court.
"The appointing authority is the person who supervises the military commission process," a senior defense official said in a Dec. 30 briefing on the appointment. "He makes sure the process runs properly."
President Bush determines who is sent through the tribunal process. Altenburg will determine whether he sees probable cause to go ahead with a trial against an alleged terrorist. He picks the three to seven commission members who serve as judge and jury. Conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, just as in a regular criminal jury trial. Altenburg reports directly to Rumsfeld.
Tomain likened it to overseeing the startup of the Nuremberg Commission that meted out justice to top-level Nazis after World War II.
"It's a whole legal regime for something we never encountered before," he said.
Altenburg is a civilian, for the moment still working for Greenberg Traurig, a corporate law firm two blocks from the White House.
He is a 6-foot-1, beefy guy who wears his hair in a buzz cut. He doesn't like to talk about himself, his philosophies or his emotions.
He was in the Pentagon the morning of Sept. 11 for a meeting with fellow Pentagon lawyers. He didn't even know the building had been hit because he was behind three sets of closed doors.
"I heard people yelling and screaming and running down the hallway," he said. When he went to the parking lot, "There were airplane parts around the car. I didn't know at the time what they were."
Altenburg insists his presence at the Pentagon that day will have no effect on how he runs the tribunals. He won't talk about anyone he knew who was killed in the attacks.
If Osama bin Laden ends up at Guantanamo Bay, "I'll treat it like any other case," he said.
In November 2001, President Bush authorized use of military tribunals, or commissions as the Defense Department calls them, for trials of suspected terrorists. The tribunals are controversial because defendants will have fewer rights than in civilian courts.
Patten, the U.S. advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said Altenburg can do virtually nothing to ensure fairness. The tribunal itself is too heavily weighted in favor of the prosecution.
But he can help make it fairer by ensuring that military officials don't listen in on attorney-client conversations, which is allowed, she said. And he should let civilian lawyers attend trials.
"Our concern is that the government has an obligation to ensure that these commissions meet international due-process standards. They do not," she said.
She doesn't consider that Altenburg's fault. But Patten said it means he really can't make them fair.
How many of the 660 detainees will face trial by tribunal is unclear. In July, Bush declared six detainees eligible for such trials. But no one has been charged. The Pentagon also has resisted saying where trials will be even though the base is preparing to play host to tribunals.
In the fall, workers applied a primer coat of paint to a World War II-era structure that everyone at Guantanamo Bay calls the Commissions Building. It is on a hill above the bay and has a new courtroom with cherry wood and red carpet.
Altenburg doesn't know how long the tribunals will last, whether he will live in Guantanamo, or even how much he'll be paid. He's taking a leave of absence from his job.
A former Green Beret trained to be part of Special Forces, Altenburg served as a judge advocate general in recent wars, including the Persian Gulf War, Haiti and Kosovo. He retired from the military in 2002 as a major general.
In 2000, he gave a motivational speech at Elder.
"He said, 'My name is John Altenburg, and I'm a soldier.' That's how he introduced himself," said Toby Heile, Elder's development director and Altenburg's friend from the days they taught together in the 1967-68 school year.
"He's just a real humble guy. I don't think the kids knew how big of a guy he was in the military," Heile said.
Altenburg grew up mostly in Dayton, attending Chaminade High School, before his parents moved to Detroit for his senior year. He was counselor at the Catholic Church's Fort Scott Camps from 1960 to 1965. He returned to Cincinnati to teach at Elder.
After serving in Vietnam as an enlisted soldier, he enrolled at the University of Cincinnati Law School. Altenburg said he stayed out of politics.
For starters, he had just married the former Diane Sedler in 1970, whom he met while teaching at Elder. Between law school and a new family, he was pretty busy, recalled law school chum Joseph Trauth, now a partner with Keating, Muething and Klekamp.
"We could kind of share the hardships of beginning a family and trying to start a law career and put up with the law school professors and that type of thing," Trauth said.
Trauth said even then he was impressed with Altenburg's sense of fairness and his low-key leadership.
"A lot of students would be very judgmental about professors. John would always try to see both sides of the issue. He'd say, 'Maybe this guy isn't all bad. I learned this from him,' " Trauth said.
On running the tribunals, Trauth said, "He'll have a tough job. But it couldn't be handled by a better man."
Cincinnati Law School's Tomain agrees.
"He's thoughtful. He's a published scholar. He is a real lawyer-soldier-statesman," Tomain said. "And I mean that quite seriously."
If he were a terrorist awaiting tribunal, Tomain said, "I would feel I was going to be treated with utmost professionalism and fairness."
Contributing: Toni Locy, USA Today.
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