Attorney John Henry Browne isn't happy the Army wants him to undergo a background check in order to see any classified documents related to the case of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. Browne is representing Bales, who has been accused of massacring 17 Afghan villagers in March.

Share story

The lead civilian lawyer for a U.S. soldier accused of massacring 17 Afghan villagers in March doesn’t want to undergo a background check.

Seattle attorney John Henry Browne wrote in emails to The Associated Press on Thursday that the Army has requested that he and all civilian members of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ defense team undergo the check to obtain security clearances for reviewing any classified evidence.

That’s standard when classified evidence may be at issue in a case, said Lt. Col Gary Dangerfield, a spokesman at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where Bales is based. But Browne said it is troubling that to protect his client’s legal rights, he and his associates would be subject to intrusive vetting by the government.

Bales also has assigned military lawyers who already have security clearances.

“This is an example of how much we have lost civil liberties, the prosecution gets to ‘clear’ the defense lawyer,” he wrote. “Can we ask the prosecutors personal questions, check with their neighbors, and ask about mental health, alcohol or drug problems?”

Browne noted he’d need extra space on the form to write about all seven of his marriages.

“Most offensive are personal facts about mental health, alcohol and drug use, voluntary counseling and in and out patient treatment EVER,” he wrote. “For God’s sake I did live in and through the ’60s, ’70s an ’80s!!!!”

Browne, who played bass for a rock band in college, said he had nothing to hide — “My skeletons are not in the closet, they are on the front lawn!” But on principle, he did not think he would submit to the background check.

“They say they WILL contact neighbors now and in the past, as well as friends (they want details) and family members,” he wrote. “One of my family members is seriously mentally ill, why do I have to violate her privacy?”

Bales, 38, a father of two from Lake Tapps, is accused of walking off the base where he was deployed in southern Afghanistan with a 9mm pistol and M-4 rifle outfitted with a grenade launcher. Officials say he walked to two local villages, where he killed four men, four women, two boys and seven girls, and then burned some of their bodies.

Dan Conway, a civilian lawyer and former Marine who has handled several prominent military cases, said he understood some of Browne’s objections to undergoing a background check. He said he typically trusts his military co-counsel to review classified evidence to determine whether it’s worth pushing the government to declassify it. As a last resort, he said, he will go through the background check and obtain a clearance.

“The biggest concern is this: You don’t want to have to censor yourself with the media because the government has unnecessarily exposed you to classified information,” Conway said. “If I can do anything to avoid looking like I’ve disclosed classified information, which can be a crime, I’m going to do that.”

But another civilian attorney who specializes in military cases, Colby Vokey, said he believed Browne had a duty to undergo the background check, even though it’s a “royal pain.” Vokey said he wouldn’t feel comfortable relying on military co-counsel to evaluate classified evidence.

“I think he has a duty to review anything that’s relevant,” Vokey said. “If you’re the lead counsel in a case with national-security implications, like Bales, you’ve got a duty to get that clearance.”