U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Susan McGarvey LL.M.’ 11 was in the courthouse when Saddam Hussein was on trial for the Anfal Campaign, the genocide of Kurds that he ordered in the late 1980s. A glass wall separated the direct participants in the trial—Hussein, the judges, defense counsel, witnesses and others—from the observers, including McGarvey, who was there as the Navy’s legal representative at the trial. On Nov. 5, 2006, Hussein was found guilty of charges in a prior proceeding, the Dujail trial, and hanged on Dec. 30, 2006.
Observing the Hussein trial was just one extraordinary experience in McGarvey’s legal career, and one that she hasn’t shared widely. The youngest in a large Irish-Catholic family from Buffalo, New York, McGarvey isn’t one to talk about herself, and her family doesn’t delve into details of her duties as a JAG officer in the U.S. Navy. So it came as a surprise to McGarvey’s brother a few years back when her high school prom date called from a Buffalo bar to say, “Hey, your sister is on the nightly news talking about Guantanamo Bay! What’s going on?”
With the legality of detaining accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay under intense scrutiny in 2004, McGarvey was official spokesperson for the Office of Military Commissions, while also serving as a legal adviser to retired U.S. Army Major General John Altenburg, appointing authority for military commissions. During her time as spokesperson, the constitutionality of military commissions was in question and the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq had come to light.
“There definitely was a lot of attention on detainee policies and practices, and how we could say they were treated at Guantanamo,” recalls McGarvey, who commissioned in the Navy after graduating from Notre Dame Law School in 1998. “It was really an interesting time, and a really professional office run in a way of, ‘What is the best way we can make this work and improve as a system?’”
A year later, in 2006, McGarvey found herself in an equally intense situation, in Iraq as, serving as Navy JAG officer in the Regime Crimes Liaison Office under the U.S. Department of State. Her role was to assist the investigative judge in Iraq’s inquisitorial legal system to build a case against Hussein for war crimes related to the slaughter of primarily Shia Iraqis in southern Iraq in 1991. She interviewed people on the Iranian border who’d lost family members, while the U.S.’s mass grave unit unearthed bodies of the slain.
She describes the fact-gathering as “pretty awesome work,” and says of her experience; “I think it’s incredibly meaningful both on a personal scale and a broader scale. I find great personal satisfaction in advancing the rule of law.”
For the two years prior to coming to HLS, McGarvey advised the admiral in charge of Carrier Strike Group Three aboard the USS Stennis on such issues as ethics, law of armed conflict, rules of engagement, and law of the sea. Her service has also taken her to Puerto Rico; Naples, Italy, where she prosecuted a hashish ring at the U.S. navy base; and Kosovo, where she worked in NATO command on the politically complex prosecution of Kosovar Albanians on charges of murdering collaborators of Slobodan Milosevic. “It was there that I was able to find the area of law that I work in now and love, which is international humanitarian law,” says McGarvey, who is concentrating in that area in the LL.M. program.
McGarvey never planned to stay in the Navy past her initial three-year commitment, but loves it so much she can’t see retiring until she’s put in 20 years. Recently, McGarvey found out her next assignment is Central Command, based out of Tampa, Fla., where she will advise General Mattis’s joint staff on maritime law, rules of engagement, and information operations matters. For now, she’s enjoying her studies, including Constitutional Norms in Times of Emergency with Visiting Professor Sanford Levinson, and Prosecuting Transnational Criminal Organizations with Philip Heymann ’60. “We’re going to figure out how to dismantle the Mexican drug cartels,” she says.
“The climate here is almost overwhelmingly welcoming,” says McGarvey of HLS. “There’s a lot of interest in and applications to the JAG corps, which is great to hear.”