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Unsung Heroes of the Military Commissions: Supervisory Paralegal John Cox

Photo by Army Sgt. Jaccob Hearn of Joint Task Force Guantanamo Public Affairs.

If you’re looking for a military commissions “lifer,” you’ve found one in John Cox, the Supervisory Paralegal for the Office of the Chief Prosecutor and the lead paralegal on the Sept. 11 case. A retired Marine Corps Master Sergeant, Cox embodies the determination and patience required to pursue justice for the worst-ever attacks on U.S. soil through combative and complex pretrial proceedings that have spanned more than a decade. He may have become a civilian paralegal in 2009, but Cox nevertheless refers back to the principle that Marines are trained to finish what they start – a reminder that he and his colleagues on the prosecution side aren’t going anywhere.

Cox joined the commissions in 2003 and has been on the Sept. 11 case since 2008, when the five defendants were first prosecuted under the Bush-era commissions system. The same five were arraigned again in 2012 under the reformed Obama-era commissions, after an aborted attempt to hold the proceedings in federal court in lower Manhattan. All five face the death penalty for their alleged roles in the attacks. As Supervisory Paralegal, Cox oversees a total of 29 paralegals who also include members of the teams prosecuting Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, a separate death penalty case focused on al Nashiri’s alleged planning of the USS Cole bombing in October 2000, and alleged former al Qaeda commander Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, who faces a life sentence. Lawdragon interviewed Cox during the 34th pretrial session in the Sept. 11 case, held in March 2019.

As the largest criminal case in U.S. history, the Sept. 11 case has generated an incalculable amount of classified and unclassified paperwork and huge discovery obligations on the government. Providing discovery to the defense teams has been especially challenging given the different administrations and agencies involved in the Sept. 11 investigation and the defendants’ custodies, which included multiple years in CIA black sites before their transfer to Guantanamo Bay in September 2006. The chief prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, praised Cox’s leadership in the complicated process when presenting him with the office’s “Award for Excellence” in June 2016, noting that the discovery work presented “unprecedented levels of complexity and volume.”

You won’t hear it from the understated Cox, who prefers to credit his colleagues, but the award citation refers to him as “the mainstay” of the team dedicated to pursuing justice for the Sept. 11 attacks.

“His leadership, unrivaled ability to spot and fix issues, and unending support for others has been extraordinary,” the citation read. “Mr. Cox’s performance is in keeping with the highest ideals of the public prosecutor tradition and reflects great credit upon him, the Department of Defense, the military commission process, and the United States of America.”

Lawdragon: Can you talk about your decision to come to the military commissions?

John Cox: When 9/11 happened, I was in Okinawa, which was my second tour there. I got there in June 2001 for a three-year tour. We were on lockdown because a typhoon was blowing through. I remember being stuck in the house, and we couldn’t go out. When all of that was going on at 9 and 10 in the morning here, it was 10 or 11 at night there. We watched it all happen on TV, horrified.

I had actually just put in a package to extend my tour for another three years when the word went out to the services, probably beginning in 2003, requesting paralegals to come to the military commissions. I told my wife, “I want to go do this,” and she said, “Sure, where you go, I’ll go.” I pulled my package for extension back. I applied for this and got it.

LD: I assume if you wanted an extension at first, you must have liked it in Okinawa.

JC: Yes. I loved my first tour there as a young 19-year-old, 20-year-old. I liked it even more when I went back the second time. It had improved a lot, for one. Two, I had my family. We went to the beach and saw and did all kinds of things; we really liked it.

LD: Why did you want to change that up and go to the commissions?

JD:  I wanted to do my part. In Okinawa, we didn’t get pulled to go to Afghanistan, we didn’t go to Iraq; maybe some people here and there. But I wanted to do what I thought my part was to help. I guess you can’t right that wrong, but to help give justice to those people who were killed on 9/11 and to their families.

LD: Why and when did you join the Marine Corps in the first place?

JC: I was a Navy brat growing up, having lived in Sigonella, Sicily; Memphis; and San Diego. I ended up graduating from high school in Chariton, Iowa, where I consider home – a little bitty town in south central Iowa. I joined the Army Reserves in 1987 and went to basic training between my junior year and senior year in high school at Fort Dix, New Jersey. I graduated high school and tried to go active duty in the Army, but was told the Army wasn’t taking anybody from the Reserves to the active duty ranks. I started talking to the other recruiters. The Marines seemed to be the only ones willing to put in a little work to get me out of the Army Reserves and into the Marine Corps. So I did it.

My dad was a Navy corpsman, and served with the Marines in Vietnam. I know that when I told my dad I was going into the Marine Corps his chin hit the floor because of his experience in Vietnam. He was with an artillery unit in Vietnam. He was in combat and saw a lot of bad things. I’m sure that me joining the Marine Corps concerned him a little bit.

LD: What put you on the paralegal path? Had you had any experiences with the profession or with the law?

JC: No good ones. [Laughs.] I came in the Marine Corps on an open contract, meaning they could do whatever they wanted to with me. They chose to make me a paralegal. I don’t even know if I knew what a paralegal was at the time – or that it was even a job, quite honestly. I went to the Legal Services Specialist Course that, at the time, was in Camp Pendleton, California. After that, my first tour of duty was in Okinawa, and I was there for a year. I went right into military justice; that’s the prosecution shop. We were doing a courts martial and I found it really interesting – I was hooked from then on.

LD: What were some of the assignments between that first tour in Okinawa and your second tour there in 2001, right before you came to the commissions?

JC: My next duty station after my first tour in Okinawa was at Naval Air Station, Alameda, California, which at the time was an air station in the Bay Area. It’s since been closed. I was a unit legal clerk. We did everything from nonjudicial punishments, which is when a commanding officer does a correction to somebody’s behavior but it’s not a formal conviction. I did other unit legal tasks that popped up, like chasing, which is taking people to the brig or getting them from the brig to take them to court. I also worked in the unit admin office, where I learned how to do orders, do correspondence, all the administrative tasks that make any unit work. And I learned a lot about the Marine Corps there, where a lot of the people were infantry – folks who have a different outlook on life and the Marine Corps than us legal types do. I also met my wife there.

After that I did one of my tours in Camp Lejeune. There, I was doing court martial review, which is post-conviction review. In the court martial, right after the conviction, the commanding officer – whoever convened the court, what’s called the convening authority – has to approve the sentence or not. In that role, you’re preparing all that material for the convening authority to review. From there, in ’95, I went to Drill Instructor duty where I was a Drill Instructor and Senior Drill Instructor at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. That was without a doubt my most rewarding tour. It was also one of the most, if not the most, difficult tour. I would never want to do it again. A typical day was somewhere between 14 and 18 hours, 7 days a week. It was crazy, but I loved it.

LD: Why was it so rewarding?

JC: Taking these young men, civilians, and turning them into Marines – the process is awe-inspiring. Just the dedication from the drill instructors and all the officers, all the folks involved in recruit training. The recruits, too. Drill instructors would never say a good thing about a recruit; certainly not to their face. But they come in with dedication. If you’re not dedicated to becoming a Marine, you’re not going to make it. And they almost always do. There’s some that don’t, and they’re dealt with appropriately. But the dedication of that whole process of making a Marine was inspiring.

LD: Did you return to paralegal work after that?

JC:  I went to be an instructor at the Legal Services Specialist School. By then, it had been moved from Camp Pendleton to Camp Johnson, North Carolina, which is part of Camp Lejeune. I did that for two-and-a-half years. It’s funny because, when I was there, I was an instructor for a couple of defense paralegals that later worked in the commissions.

That was a good tour. It taught me a lot about getting up and speaking in front of people. I’d obviously done that as a drill instructor, but this was putting together lesson plans and teaching people, which is something I still enjoy doing. Then I went over to Marine Corps Air Station New River, which is also part of Camp Lejeune, for a year. I was in military justice and ended up being, for a short period of time, the senior paralegal in the office. Then in June of 2001, I went back to Okinawa, this time with my pregnant wife and son.

LD: Since you came for the commissions after that, have you done any other assignments?

JC: No, I got here as a Gunnery Sergeant in October of 2003, then I was promoted to Master Sergeant in September of 2006. I retired from the Marine Corps on Jan. 1, 2009, and transferred over to become a civilian paralegal.

LD: Were you on the first version of this case, when the five defendants were charged in the 2008 military commissions under President Bush?

JC: Yes, I’ve been on this since the very beginning. I was there when the charges were sworn, and before.

LD: Was it something that you wanted to do, to be on this massive case in particular?

JC: Absolutely. I’m sure every paralegal wanted to be on this case, and still would like to be on it. But we have more than one case that we have to do. We have to divide our labors, but we do help each other out all the time. I’ve been around here for a while, and I have a couple of other folks that’ve been around here for a really long time, and we always reach out and help the newer folks.

LD: It must be a pretty small group of people, those who have been on this case since that early time.

JC: And our attorneys: Ed Ryan, Clay Trivett, Bob Swann, Jeff Groharing, Nicole Tate – they’ve all been there through both cases. We’ve all been pretty tight. We spend more time together than we spend with our families a lot of the time.  I also remember being in court with David Nevin [lead defense attorney for Khalid Shaikh Mohammad] and Suzanne Lachelier [then a Navy defense attorney for Ramzi bin al Shibh, now a civilian attorney for Mustafa al Hawsawi] during the 2008 iteration of the case.

LD: As a paralegal, what do you spend a lot of your time doing?

JC: Handling discovery is one of the biggest tasks. We’ve provided, at this point, just about a half-a-million pages of discovery. I’m not sure if you ever see that in a military case, and probably not in a lot of regular criminal cases, no matter whether military or civilian. So managing that, the filings, evidence presentations, all that stuff – that takes up most of our time. There is some legal research that we’ll do for the attorneys, though the attorneys do a lot of it themselves. Basically, whatever they think they need in order to make their arguments in court, we make sure it’s there for them.

LD: In court, the terms “Big G” and “Small g” are often used – “small g” referring to the prosecution team as the “government” that is actually in court. But your team represents the entirety of the Government, or “Big G,” which has lots of different agencies tied in some way to the case. The award you received in 2016 mentioned your ability to coordinate between the different agencies that might have discovery or evidence relevant to the proceedings.

JC: It’s no secret that there are lots of different parts of the government. So yes, oftentimes we have to forward discovery requests and talk to folks in other government agencies, which could be other parts of the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, or the Justice Department, as well as other agencies and departments. We deal a lot with all of those different entities. We have an obligation to provide the discovery that we’re supposed to provide; the prosecutors and the general [Gen. Martins] take it very seriously. That means we have to go to lots of different places in the government to do that. They all have their own rules that we have to follow, and that we help them follow, in carrying out this process.

LD: What are some of the other challenges of working on this case, which is regularly referred to as the biggest criminal case in U.S. history?

JC: On the government side, we have five opponents, for lack of a better term. Life can come at you fast when you’re dealing with five different defense teams. I think we do a really good job – actually, a great job – at handling all the requests that come in from them, staying on top of the filings, what they’re doing, and our responses to that. As I said, maintaining the discovery and staying on top of that is probably the biggest challenge. We use the legal industry software Concordance and CaseMap to maintain our discovery database.

Personally, I consider it an honor and a privilege to serve on this case but I have to treat it like it’s just a really big criminal case. We know in the back of our minds what this case is about, the immensity of its scale and how important it is, but you just have to go to work every day. You handle it like you would any other case and keep charging through. We will get through this. I think we’re a lot closer to trial now than some on the other side might think. Everybody on our team is committed. We’ve said this, and I think the General even said it in court one time, “We’re not going anywhere.” We will be here if it takes another 25 or 50 years – well, 50 years from now, I’ll probably be dead [laughs]. But it doesn’t matter how much longer it takes, we’re going to be here and we’re going to get this done. So, you just keep charging forward.

LD: What keeps you going? When it’s such a huge effort and moves slow at times – what keeps you after it?

JC: I think, in the Marine Corps, you’re trained to finish what you start. That’s part of it. It’s not the biggest part, but that’s part. More than that, the victim family members deserve justice. The people responsible need to be held accountable, and I was chosen to be one of the people to help make that happen. That’s what keeps me going.

LD: In addition to working on this case, you’re also a supervisor with managerial responsibilities. What do you like about that and what are the challenges?

JC:  Well, I am the supervisory paralegal for the entire office. But I have Rudy Gibbs, who arrived at the Office of the Chief Prosecutor in 2005, on the team, too. He’s running day-to-day things a lot. The Nashiri team has an Air Force Master Sergeant that runs that team. The Hadi team has an Army Sergeant First Class that runs that team. They do a great job. So, I’m not managing the day-to-day work of any particular one paralegal.

Staffing is part of a lot of the challenges. Trying to get the teams the resources they need. Resourcing is not only a defense problem; it’s an everybody problem. I find myself having to advise the general on these issues. And technology; I’ve taken upon myself, over the years, to being the office expert on using Concordance and CaseMap. I do a lot of teaching attorneys and paralegals how to use that software.

LD: What makes for a good paralegal?

JC: I think in any situation, not just in in this office, adaptability and flexibility are key. In the 21st century, a solid knowledge of computers ranging from the obvious – like the whole Microsoft Office suite – to having experience with and knowledge of the discovery trial presentation  software. Being able to do legal research can be important, depending on what it is you’re going be doing.  Good communication is also key. You’ve got to be able to explain yourself, explain your ideas. With lawyers, you’re dealing with people that are very smart. You’ve got to be able to communicate with them and understand what they’re communicating to you. Whether your client is the government or it’s somebody sitting in that chair as a defendant – or if it’s somebody you’re writing a will for – they need you to be all of those things. And they need you to see the job through.

LD: How would you describe the office’s team of paralegals?

JC:  I’m just one of the 29 paralegals we have; 23 are military and six are civilian. Every single one of them works their butt off every single day, no matter who it is or what the job is. Whether it’s the operations folks that get us down here and do all of the things that they do to make our trips successful. We have paralegals working on motions and appeals that do a bang-up job. It’s something that a lot of prosecution shops don’t really tend to think about – the appeals aspect – but our folks are already there, they’re working on it. The paralegals on the other prosecution teams also do the thankless jobs a lot of times that paralegals have to do. They are typical, hard-charging, military folks. All of our civilians, except for one, are either retired military or reservists. Our one civilian, our one just plain civilian, had he wanted to, I’m sure he could’ve joined the military and been great at it, too. All of our folks, they just work their butt off every day.

LD: How has Guantanamo changed since you first started coming here?

JC: My first trip to Guantanamo was December 4, 2003. None of this was really here. This hangar [an old air hangar that houses the media center] was here, but the ELC wasn’t here. [The Expeditionary Legal Complex, which houses the courtroom for the current cases, was built in 2007.] We were staying in a house over in Windward Loop [a residential neighborhood on the Naval Base]. The house we first stayed in there had bunk beds in a three-bedroom house, and they were cramming as many people into the houses as they could. Obviously, the restaurants have changed, some of the MWR [the Navy’s Morale, Welfare, Recreation programs], are new. All sports fields weren’t there. It’s changed quite a bit

One big thing that’s changed is the fiber optic cable to the island. Before, we were on satellite. That was a major challenge back in the early days, bringing our data down here because it was not the same network. We had a network up in D.C., and when we came down here we had to bring all of our stuff because we were on a completely different network, with a completely different email address. We’d bring down a stack of CDs because we didn’t have hard drives. Then, they got us hard drives, so we’d bring down one of those with all our data so that we could work. Since 2012 they actually made the network down here the same network as up north, so we didn’t have to haul stuff back and forth.

LD: What do you do here to unwind or have fun?

JC: When I get the chance I like to hike and workout. I haven’t really got a chance to go to the beach much lately. I am a certified scuba diver. I was certified during my first tour in Okinawa. I’ve been scuba diving a couple of times here. Not nearly as much as I’d like to, but you occasionally have the chance to go out on a boat and hang out. This is, quite frankly, a light week, but there’s lots of weeks where it’s been day on, stay on. Get here on Saturday and it doesn’t stop until you leave the next Saturday. We’re in the office until 9:30, 10, 11 at night. And back in the office the next morning at 7 to go to court, get ready to go to court.

LD: So you have two kids? Are they considering the military?

JC: I have two boys, they are 25 and 17.  One is talking about it, the older one – I don’t know what he’ll do. The younger one is Marine Corps JROTC in high school. But he has sworn up and down that he is not joining the military which is fine. I’m all about keeping it a volunteer role thing [laughs]. If he doesn’t want to go then you certainly shouldn’t be forced to go.

LD: I know you’ve said you’ll stay with this case, but have you thought about life after? What you might do next?

JC: I’ve wondered about it. I turn 50 this year. There’s going to be something that I’ll need to go do before I finally retire for good. I’ve thought that I’d probably look to the Department of Justice or maybe stay in the Department of Defense. Having been in the military pretty much my entire life, or involved with the military, these are my kind of people.

Editor’s Note: You can also read our “Unsung Heroes” profile of defense paralegal Krystal Baker. 

About the author: John Ryan (john@lawdragon.com) is a co-founder and the Editor-in-Chief of Lawdragon Inc., where he oversees all web and magazine content and provides regular coverage of the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay. When he’s not at GTMO, John is based in Brooklyn. He has covered complex legal issues for 20 years and has won multiple awards for his journalism. View our staff page