Cliff May

What can Navy brass be thinking? On Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, a Navy SEAL - one of an elite band of highly skilled and extraordinarily brave American warriors - faced arraignment. The charge: He punched a terrorist.

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To be precise, he punched a terrorist suspect - Ahmed Hashim Abed, the alleged ringleader behind the killing, burning and mutilating of four American contractors in Fallujah, Iraq, in March 2004. Abed's followers then strung up two of the corpses on a bridge over the Euphrates River.

Abed was run down by the SEALs in September 2009. Exactly, what happened after that is a bit hazy. He spent time in U.S. custody, then in Iraqi custody, and eventually was returned to U.S. custody. At some point, he claimed one of the Americans who apprehended him punched in the stomach, or maybe the mouth. Three SEALs are now in trouble. Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew McCabe stands accused of "assault, dereliction of performance of duty for willfully failing to safeguard a detainee, and making a false official statement." Petty Officers Julio Heurtas and Jonathan Keefe are being charged with "impeding the investigation and dereliction of duty in failing to safeguard a detainee."

The three refused the offer of a "captain's mast," which is a non-judicial, disciplinary hearing, because that would leave it to a commanding officer to determine what happened. They are saying they did not harm Abed and they want to be fully cleared of all charges. They want to continue their careers with no blemish, no asterisk, no record of the case in their files. They're willing to risk prison to achieve that.

The court-martial is scheduled to begin in January. It is not clear whether Abed will be flown in from Iraq, where he is being detained, to Virginia to face them in the courtroom.

Surely, these SEALs - like all American citizens -- deserve the presumption of innocence. It's also worth recalling that the al-Qaeda manual recommends that all detainees complain of torture and abuse.

But what if it turns out that one of the SEALs did give the guy shot? What if Abed was uncooperative, or spit at them, or bragged about how he slaughtered the Americans (one of whom was a retired SEAL) and how they begged for their lives and squealed like pigs as they died? I can imagine how a normal guy - even one as disciplined as a SEAL -- might lose his temper for a moment.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.