Scarier than Halloween ghost stories

By Jane Chastain

This month, I spent the better part two weeks in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour, covering the trial of Lt. Cmdr. Jack Daly vs. FESCO, the Far Eastern Shipping Company. From time to time, however, I had to go outside just for a reality check.

After a few hours in the courtroom, I would get the feeling that I had been transported back in time to the old USSR. On one side of the courtroom were the attorneys representing the Russian owners of the Kapitan Man, the ship that was accused of lasing Daly and Canadian pilot Capt. Pat Barns, along with various representatives from the government – our government. On the other side of the room, there were Daly and his lawyers from Judicial Watch, a government watchdog group, who were going it alone. Something was seriously wrong with this picture!

On April 4, 1997, the eyes of Daly and Barnes were injured while on a joint Canadian-U.S. photo reconnaissance mission over the Straight of Juan de Fuca, the little bottleneck of a waterway that separates our two countries and opens into Puget Sound, which is home to all of the Pacific Fleet’s nuclear-powered, ballistic-missile submarines. In 1992, in a foolish move, our country decided to open up the commercial ports of Seattle and Tacoma to Russian ships as a “gesture of friendship,” thereby leaving these subs exposed to listening devices that easily can be deployed by any spy ship in this strategic choke-point.

These subs are essential to the defense of this country. More importantly, presently they serve as the only real deterrent we have against a missile attack from another nuclear power or rogue state.

Daly was handpicked to head the surveillance operation that was set up to keep the waters in Puget Sound free of any spy ship operating under the cover of a commercial vessel. Our government had many reasons to suspect that the Kapitan Man was in the spy business. Daly had observed the ship loitering just off the coastline and timing its arrival into the narrow egress to coincide with the departure of our subs.

During the trial, Capt. Barnes testified that this particular ship had an unusual and plentiful array of antennas, about four times that of a “normal” commercial vessel.

The ship’s captain testified that he really hadn’t noticed that the USS Ohio was passing off his port side as Daly was taking his photographs, even though the two were virtually rubbing noses. Wasn’t paying any attention to the sub in this narrow waterway? Really!

There were other odd things about that vessel: Three days after the incident, when a Coast Guard boarding party conducted a search, it could not get into the ship’s locked library. Rare books were given as the reason. Only our larger libraries have a “rare books” section. However, the jury was asked to believe that this average Russian freighter was hauling rare books along with all that freight. Amazing! One more thing: There was a female “English teacher” aboard. Sure.

Meanwhile, Judge Coughenour was playing host to a group of judges from Vladivostok, the home of FESCO, who were in his chambers during the trial. Their preplanned visit just happened to coincide with the trial. At one point, Judge Coughenour gave the Russian lawyers advice from the bench on how to improve their case. Surely this was not happening in the United States of America! There must be some mistake.

Out on the street, I would look around to get my bearings. The familiar sounds and smells of Seattle greeted me. Across the street from the courthouse, there was the doorman at his post in front of Madison Renaissance Hotel. Down the hill was the pier for the ferry. The familiar little laundry was one block over. Outside, everything was at it should be but, back in that courtroom, the scales of justice seemed decidedly unbalanced.

FESCO’s defense was built upon what appears to have been a faulty, highly flawed Office of Naval Intelligence investigation of the incident, which cleared FESCO of any wrongdoing but smacked of a Clinton administration-led cover-up.

There was little doubt that the eyes of Daly and Barnes had been irreparably damaged during their brief 60-minute flight over that vessel, but was the Kapitan Man responsible? The official ONI report said, “No.”

Much of the testimony that called that report into question was highly technical and clearly over the heads of those present in the courtroom. It was a case of dueling experts. However, Judicial Watch was denied the opportunity to call the two key witnesses for Daly, who had the standing in our government to challenge the credibility of FESCO’s key witnesses and the ONI report.

The members of the jury decided to put their trust in their government. What the jury did not know before it turned in its “not guilty” verdict was that Rear Adm. Michael Cramer, who was head of the ONI at the time of the incident, was prepared to testify for Daly.

Also, on the final day of the trial, Sen. Robert Smith, R-N.H., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, flew 3,000 miles to be one of Daly’s rebuttal witnesses. Smith was left standing outside the courtroom as the trial ended. The judge ruled the testimony of both of these men “irrelevant.”

Thankfully, Judicial Watch will appeal, but this trial was scary! Even scarier is the possibility that there are trials going on in other American courtrooms where the scales of justice are equally out of balance.