- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 1, 2009

In the latest absurdity in the war on terrorism, Petty Officers Matthew McCabe, Jonathan Keefe and Julio Huertas face charges related to the apprehension of Ahmed Hashim Abed, alleged mastermind of the murder and mutilation of four American security contractors in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. The “war crime” at issue is a punch in the gut.

Mr. Abed, code named “Objective Amber,” claims he was roughed up when the SEALs nabbed him on Sept. 3, specifically that Petty Officer McCabe punched him in the stomach. Petty Officers Keefe and Huertas are charged with offenses related to the investigation. The facts are as yet unclear - another report was that Petty Officer McCabe gave Mr. Abed a bloody lip - but nothing we have heard yet implies an injury that could not easily have been sustained in the legitimate process of apprehending a known terrorist in wartime conditions.

Mr. Abed is purportedly a dangerous customer who has no problem inflicting gruesome violence. It is painful to recall the security guards’ macabre death scene, during which the blackened, mutilated torsos of Americans were strung up on a box-girder bridge in Fallujah, surrounded by smiling, cheering insurgents. We doubt that the covert mission to apprehend the one responsible for those crimes presented the opportunity for the SEALs to just slap the cuffs on Mr. Abed and read him his rights.

Mr. Abed is reported to have made his charge of abuse to Iraqi security forces before being returned to American custody. That move is consistent with the guidance provided in the al Qaeda manual for detainees to always charge torture whenever possible. The SEALs are set to be arraigned Dec. 7 and are expected to plead not guilty. We are pleased that they have chosen trial by court-martial over nonjudicial punishment, which would have been an admission of guilt. In a court-martial, the SEALs can make their case to the judge and to the world.

The fact that this case has come this far shows an astonishing lack of perspective. While these three patriotic young men stand before a military judge to answer a terrorist complaint about an alleged thrown punch, CIA- and Air Force-operated drone aircraft rain hellfire missiles on terror suspects, killing them and anyone who happens to be nearby, whether or not they have the right target.

Fighting a war is dirty business. As George Orwell is reputed to have said, “we sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”

The war on terrorism in particular requires a special breed of operative, whether military or civilian, to undertake dangerous tasks with skill and professionalism. Judicial procedures like this against the SEALs tell America’s special operatives that the deck is stacked against them, that they should replace initiative with caution, think less of risk-taking and more about covering their own backsides.

It is ironic that had the SEALs simply killed Mr. Abed, they would not be in their current predicament. The lesson learned is that when dead or alive is an option, take the easy way out. We never see drones on trial.