Eye of the Storm

As the Pentagon's chief policy advisor on detainee affairs, attorney Charles "Cully" Stimson '86 wrestles with some of law's toughest questions

Charles Stimson '86 leaves his house every day for a job fraught with pressure. "This is the hardest thing I've ever done," he says, "and it takes a huge toll on my family."

As the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, Stimson spends fourteen-hour work days wrestling with the full spectrum of issues affecting approximately 460 detainees at the American military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, along with some 500 imprisoned in Afghanistan and another roughly 15,000 in Iraq, although he says that the vast majority of the Iraqis are security detainees, not enemy prisoners of war.

"As the primary policy advisor, I am the focal point in the department of defense for all things related to detainees," says Stimson. "I want to make sure we are treating detainees everywhere in Department of Defense custody humanely, consistent with our values, and our domestic and international legal obligations as a country. I have an enormous weight on my shoulders. I have to choose my words carefully because I am a public figure on a very, very controversial topic."

Indeed, Stimson can't divulge many details. But he does say that his work covers everything from prison conditions to the treatment of the detainees, their legal status, and investigations into allegations of wrongdoing by guards. He monitors but is not responsible for interrogations. Appointed to the job in January, he has been tracking twelve major investigations and reviews in the Department of Defense, including those conducted in the wake of the infamous photos and stories of mistreatment from Abu Ghraib.

"You can't defend those photos. They are disgusting. They are un-American and the people who did that were held accountable and punished," Stimson says. "I want to make sure that the mistakes that were made won't be made again."

Stimson hasn't met President Bush, but on any given day he may brief Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, or officials from the State Department, the Department of Justice, the National Security Council, or Congress. He meets regularly with officials of the International Red Cross.

He also leads members of Congress and foreign delegations on visits of Guantanamo. Most recently he took a group from Belgium. They were impressed with conditions, a big story in Europe that got little attention here, he says.

Visitors "watch interrogations, talk to interrogators, sit in the cells, and watch detainees play soccer and basketball," says Stimson, but they do not talk to detainees. Only the International Committee of the Red Cross has regular contact with detainees.

Stimson, who goes by "Cully," a generations-old family nickname, grew up on a cattle farm in Maryland and fell in love with Kenyon during his first visit. Walking through Sunset Cottage, he met Professor Philip Church and ended up chatting about Spenser, Chaucer, and Dostoevsky.

"It was extraordinary that this tenured professor would talk for over an hour to a kid he didn't even know," Stimson recalls. "He didn't say, 'Hope you come here.' He wanted to know what I thought."

At Kenyon, Stimson majored in English but also took a good deal of political science. He was an all-conference soccer player and captained the team during his senior year.

He spent a formative junior year in the Kenyon-Exeter Program, supervised by English professor and mentor Frederick Turner. Stimson still recalls how Turner savored the line from Love's Labors Lost, "Behold the window of my heart, mine eye." Says Stimson, "I've used that line as a prosecutor during trials."

After graduation, Stimson worked at two private schools--the Culver Academies in Indiana and the Saint James School, his own alma mater, in Maryland--before earning his law degree from the George Mason University School of Law in 1992.

After law school, he was commissioned as an officer in the United States Naval Judge Advocate General's Corps, for which he worked as an attorney from 1992 to 1997. The service took him to San Diego, California, where he prosecuted crimes ranging from petty theft to attempted murder, and then to Great Britain, where he worked as a senior defense attorney at the Naval headquarters for Europe.

He and his wife, Laura, also a lawyer, returned to San Diego, where they both worked as prosecutors. They moved east when Stimson took a post as a prosecutor for Frederick County, Maryland, specializing in homicide cases. He and Laura, both of whom were adopted, have two adopted children from Russia.

Stimson was working as a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., specializing in felony domestic violence and child abuse cases, when a friend submitted his resume for the defense post.

Stimson regards his duty as a privilege and an honor. "We give extraordinary care and treatment to the detainees," he says. "We are trying to do the right thing."

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