Court Order Highlights U.S. Legal Distortions

Last week, U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. released a forceful 36-page opinion in the case of a Guantanamo detainee that would ordinarily be shocking. Sadly, such opinions are now so common that, except for one news story and a few particularly alert bloggers, they get barely a mention in the news.

In his opinion, issued in May but publicly released just last Thursday, the Judge found that a young man from Yemen, seized at the age of 17, has been imprisoned in the United States detention center in Cuba for the past eight years without cause. Although five different times since his arrest officials reviewing his case said Odaini should be released, Obama administration lawyers argued against his petition for habeas corpus, insisting that because the Yemeni student had spent one night at the guest house of a fellow student’s family, and because he had a medical visa rather than a student visa (he said his father had gotten him a medical visa because it was cheaper), the U.S. government can lawfully continue to imprison him.

If that sounds bizarre, it’s not, really. Pursuant to the Obama administration’s interpretation of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, it says it has the authority to detain indefinitely anyone, anywhere in the world who it suspects is affiliated with the Taliban, al Qaeda or associated forces. And if its position in the case of Mohamed Hassan Odaini is any guide, then it interprets that right very very broadly.

Odaini is one of many young men seized in the weeks and months after September 11, 2001 during raids on guesthouses in Pakistan. He has consistently claimed that he was a student at Salafia University who was invited for dinner at a fellow student’s home and spent the night there. But that home was also a guest house, and some al Qaeda fighters stayed there. Although none ever named Odaini as being connected to their cause, the United States insisted it can infer based on his overnight stay that Odaini was an al Qaeda fighter.

The other men seized in the raid corroborated Odaini’s story that he was a student with no ties to al Qaeda or terrorism. As Judge Kennedy notes in his opinion, U.S. government interrogators and officials, too, quickly came to believe Odaini’s consistent claim. Indeed, five different times, government interrogators or task forces independently determined that Odaini should be released. Each time, that recommendation was ignored.

Then in January, President Obama suspended the transfer of any detainees to Yemen, Odaini’s home country, after the attempted Christmas day bombing by a Yemeni national. At that point Odaini’s lawyer, who had until then assumed his client would be released, as recommended, resumed his petition for habeas corpus to the federal court.

In ruling on that petition, Judge Kennedy said that the evidence presented to the court “overwhelmingly supports Odaini’s contention that he is unlawfully detained.” Reviewing the evidence in painstaking detail, including Odaini’s and other detainees’ statements, plus summaries of interrogation and intelligence reports produced by the government, the judge himself seems shocked that the government would be arguing the lawfulness of Odaini’s detention based on the paucity of proof.

The government repeatedly “distort[s] the evidence,” writes Judge Kennedy, concluding that the only way to believe the government’s position is “if one begins with the view that Odaini is a part of Al Qaeda and searches for a way to believe that allegation regardless of its inconsistency with an objective view of the evidence.”

The judge concludes:

Respondents have kept a young man from Yemen in detention in Cuba from age eighteen to age twenty-six. They have prevented him from seeing his family and denied him the opportunity to complete his studies and embark on a career. The evidence before the Court shows that holding Odaini in custody at such great cost to him has done nothing to make the United States more secure. There is no evidence that Odaini has any connection to al Qaeda. Consequently, his detention is not authorized by the AUMF [Authorization of the Use of Military Force]. The Court therefore emphatically concludes that Odaini’s motion must be granted.

In concluding that Odaini’s detention “has done nothing to make the United States more secure,” Judge Kennedy may as well have been talking not only about this one case, but about the much broader problems caused by the government’s interpretation of the AUMF and international law. After all, indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay and Bagram, the continued authorization of abusive interrogation techniques under Appendix M of the Army Field Manual, the prosecution of a handful of terror suspects by military commission, and the controversial drone attacks or “targeted killings” outside declared zones of conflict have all served to foment anger at the United States and been used to justify insurgent attacks. Meanwhile, none of those policies have been shown to have made the United States any more secure.

The administration appears not to be learning from past mistakes, however. Just as it refused to concede the case of Mohamed Odaini, it’s insisting that it maintains the authority to continue to detain indefinitely without trial some 48 more Guantanamo detainees who it has said cannot be tried yet are too dangerous too release – based on evidence that it acknowledges would not hold up in court.

Even more troubling is the administration’s continued detention of some 800 prisoners at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, since the courts have ruled that those prisoners are not even entitled to habeas corpus review, as Odaini finally obtained here – eight years after his capture.

Last week, 15 former federal court judges urged Congress not to write a new detention law to authorize indefinite detention of suspected terrorists, because independent federal judges are best equipped to decide who’s detainable under the law.

The case of Mohamed Odaini is yet another reason to listen to them.

Update: I was thrilled to see this editorial in the Washington Post this morning pointing out that Odaini's case puts the lie to the still widely-held assumption that Guantanamo remains populated with "the worst of the worst" and urging Odaini's repatriation. Unfortunately, as the Post notes, the Obama administration's ban on transferring any Gitmo detainees to Yemen means Odaini is likely to stay stuck in prison even longer, despite Judge Kennedy's scathing criticism and determination that his detention is unlawful.

 

Holder Reiterates Support for Miranda Rule -- But Still Wants to Change It

Testifying to the House Judiciary Committee today, Attorney General Eric Holder reiterated his support for civilian trials for suspected terrorists and emphasized that Miranda warnings do not prevent suspects from talking. But he also repeated his statement, first made last Sunday, that the "public safety exception" to the Miranda rule should be "modernized" and "clarified" - although he never explained what's wrong with the Supreme Court rule as it stands now.

"I can point to the facts and history which has shown that giving Miranda warnings has not had a negative impact on our ability to obtain information from terrorism suspects," Holder testified this afternoon in a hearing that lasted most of the day. "There is a misconception that people have that a giving of Miranda warnings necessarily means that people will stop talking." But "whether or not people will talk is not determined solely by Miranda warnings" but is based more on the rapport developed by the interrogator with the suspect and any advantage the suspect thinks he'll get from cooperating, Holder explained. He added that Miranda warnings often actually help investigations because if a suspect decides he wants a lawyer, "the defense attorney frequently convinces that person to cooperate in the hope that a sentence would be lessened. So even if it has the initial impact of stopping the information flow, that does not mean that it permanently stops it."

Some Republicans have been hammering Holder lately for allowing law enforcement authorities to read the failed Times Square and Christmas Day bombing suspects their Constitutional rights, and lawmakers such as Dan Lungren (R-Cal.) and Lamar Smith (R-Tx.) continued that line of attack at today's hearing.

But even as he insisted that Miranda rights and civilian trials have been highly effective tools for fighting and prosecuting terrorism in both the Bush and Obama administrations, Holder repeated his recent statement that he wants to work with Congress to "clarify" and "modernize" the public safety exception to the Miranda rule.

In New York v. Quarles, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984 carved out an exception to the requirement that a suspect must be read his rights prior to interrogation for his statements to be admissible in court. The Supreme Court said that law enforcement authorities may delay informing a suspect of his rights when there is an imminent threat to public safety.

That exception has been commonly applied in terrorism cases. In the questioning of the two recent attempted bombing suspects, Faisal Shahzad and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for example, both were initially questioned by investigators pursuant to that exception before being read their rights. Both provided information, and continued to do so even after they were told they had a right to remain silent and to representation by a lawyer.

In a letter sent today to President Obama, three prominent former FBI interrogators urged the president not to mess with the current Supreme Court rule.

"Legislating on this subject could very well result in rules that unnecessarily constrain law enforcement officials and hinder their ability to adapt to unforeseen situations," wrote former FBI agents Jack Cloonan, Joe Navarro and Jim Clement. They added: "In our decades of working in law enforcement, including the years following 9/11, Miranda rights never interfered with our ability to obtain useful information or make prosecutable cases."

Judging from his statements at today's hearing, Eric Holder believes that as well. It remains unclear, then, why he'd even consider amending this decades-old Supreme Court rule - placing future terrorist convictions in jeopardy for years to come.

Holder also reiterated that the location of the alleged 9/11 co-conspirators' trial is still under consideration by the Department of Justice. Holder said he's taking into account the reactions of political leaders and residents in the areas where it might be held.

Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York, where Holder originally said the trial would be held in a federal court, today announced that he supports having the trial in New York so long as the federal government restores some $50 million in funding that Homeland Security officials recently said would be cut from New York's anti-terrorism budget.

That funding could be easily restored by closing Guantanamo Bay. As Human Rights First pointed out in a recent video, it costs up to $125 million a year simply to operate the Guantanamo Baydetention camp. And that's not including the hundreds of millions of dollars the federal government spent to build it.

Congressional Sparring Ignores Practical Reasons For Miranda

As lawmakers in Congress duke it out over whether the Times Square bombing suspect ought to have been read his Miranda rights, it's worth considering the real-life impact of reading a suspect his rights - and of withholding them. The consequences of not reading rights to terrorist suspects that we later want to prosecute are now on display at the military commissions in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And it's not looking good for the government.

Omar Khadr, whose pre-trial hearing continues, was not read his rights, pursuant to Bush administration policy. Of course, Khadr was captured in Afghanistan, following a deadly shootout with U.S. forces. The Obama administration isn't reading Miranda rights to battlefield captures either.

Withholding Miranda rights makes sense in the heat of a battle, because we don't usually prosecute warriors; instead, we try to defeat their forces, and send prisoners home when the war is over. But once the government decides it may want to prosecute someone and bring him to justice - whether he's captured in an Afghan desert or at JFK airport in New York - there are very practical reasons for informing him of his rights.

In the case of the Times Square suspect, Faisal Shahzad, U.S. officials initially questioned him without reading him Miranda rights, under what's known as the "public safety exception" to the Miranda rule. Statements made in that initial period when the FBI is collecting information about any imminent threats are still admissible in court later. But once investigators determine that the imminent threat is over, they must deliver those Miranda warnings if they want to use any of the evidence they gather from the suspect later in a prosecution. In Shahzad's case, they did - and hereportedly kept right on talking.

That's typical - as Human Rights First's report "In Pursuit of Justice" notes, empirical studies from both supporters and opponents of the Miranda rule have found that giving the warnings has little real effect on whether a suspect speaks to police without a lawyer.

Still, to some, the idea of telling a suspected criminal that he has the right to remain silent sounds kind of silly. After all, why would you want to encourage him not to talk?

But the Miranda rule developed for a very good reason, and has withstood several legal challenges. The Constitution (and the Uniform Code of Military Justice) provides suspects the right against self-incrimination, and the right to the assistance of an attorney. By informing a suspect of those rights, the FBI basically immunizes itself - anything the suspect says afterwards can then lawfully be used against him.

The Miranda rule means the government doesn't later have to spend months arguing in court over whether a suspect's statements were voluntary or coerced, as it's now forced to do in the Khadr case. Because even military commissions forbid reliance on involuntary confessions, except those made at the point of capture or during active combat - a rule that's similar to the federal court's public safety exception.

The Khadr case is a perfect example of how hard it is for the government to show that a suspect confessed voluntarily if he was never told of his right not to.

Khadr, who was 15 when he was captured, claims he was mistreated in custody and coerced into saying things that weren't true. His hearing is ongoing, and although some evidence has emerged to support his claims, it's impossible to know yet what really happened. (As I've explained before, themilitary commission rules make finding the truth in such cases particularly difficult.) But if Khadr can show that he was coerced into confessing, his statements have to be thrown out even under the military commission's rules. That's because coerced statements are considered inherently unreliable - in any U.S. court of law.

To argue that Shahzad shouldn't have been read his Miranda rights, as Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) did yesterday, makes even less sense than in a case like Khadr's, because Shahzad is a U.S. citizen who cannot legally be tried in a military commission. (Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who reportedly said Shahzad should be tried in a military commission, apparently didn't understand that.) So the result of not reading him his rights after the public safety threat has subsided would be to undermine his subsequent prosecution - and to risk having to let him go free.

Surely Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence committed, didn't mean to suggest we should free terrorists when he said yesterday that the U.S. has "got to be far less interested in protecting the privacy rights of these terrorists than in collecting information. . . ." But that could be the logical result of the current campaign to deny terror suspects basic rights.

Even Glenn Beck, the conservative Fox News commentator, defended the Obama administration's handling of the case yesterday, saying that "we uphold the laws and the Constitution on citizens....We don't shred the Constitution when it's popular."

Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman's response to that, of course, was that Shahzad, who hasn't yet been convicted of anything, should be stripped of his citizenship. (In fact, if he were convicted of fighting with an enemy military force he would be stripped of his citizenship anyway.)

Setting aside the many compelling arguments for why the United States on principal shouldn't be cowed by terrorists into abandoning our own Constitution, it's worth remembering that the Miranda rule serves a very important practical purpose: it ensures that suspects' confessions are usable in court against them, and that terrorism convictions in any U.S. legal forum will stand.

Liz Cheney's Impeccable Timing

 

It's nice to see that even conservatives are disgusted with Liz Cheney's latest attack on Eric Holder. As you've no doubt heard, Cheney is miffed that there are attorneys in the Department of Justice who, in the past, have defended people accused of nasty crimes. Of course, that's what defense lawyers are supposed to do, but that doesn't stop Liz Cheney from sponsoring scary videosinsinuating that defending someone swept up by US forces and accused of terrorism is just fundamentally worse than defending an ordinary serial murderer, rapist or corporate swindler.

Cheney and her small but highly vocal group Keep America Safe know how to prey on people's worst fears and prejudices. So I'm not all that surprised by their attack on lawyers like Neal Katyal, a Georgetown law professor, now Principal Deputy Solicitor General, who previously argued that the Bush administration's military commissions were unconstitutional -- and convinced a conservative U.S. Supreme Court that he was right.

But there's another reason Cheney's latest attack should not have come as a surprise. Consider the timing: late on Friday, February 18, the Department of Justice released a long-delayed report that set out the details of how two Justice Department lawyers, in close contact with the Vice President's office, wrote a series of legal memos that grossly perverted existing law and longstanding legal precedent to justify some of the most heinous acts of torture and institutionalized abuse of U.S. prisoners in American history. Although a career official at the Justice Department ultimately decided that the department's internal ethics rules were too unclear to recommend sanctions, the facts of the underlying report remain a damning indictment of attorneys John Yoo and Jay Bybee, among others, who gave the legal green light to criminal and immoral conduct.

What better time for Liz Cheney to change the subject?

Sure enough, a little more than a week later, and just days after the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Justice Department's ethics report, Keep America Safe on March 2 released its video on "The Al Qaeda 7" -- seven lawyers in the Justice Department with some connection at some point in their careers to the defense of a Guantanamo detainee.

Immediately, the media shifted gears: it was no longer John Yoo we cared about, now it was the "Al Qaeda 7" -- mysterious Justice Department lawyers who pal around with terrorists. Republican lawmakers such as Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa quickly jumped on the bandwagon.

Sure, the argument came to look kind of silly after The Huffington Post unearthed a 2007 article by Bush administration Solicitor General Ted Olson in which he specifically stood up for those detainees' defense lawyers, saying they represented the best of American values and were the real patriots. And then several prominent conservative lawyers, such as former DOJ officials John Bellinger and Peter Kiesler, publicly criticized the Cheney attack ad as "unfortunate" and "wrong."

But maybe none of that really matters. After all, it wasn't like the Al Qaeda 7 had actually done anything wrong or were at risk of any criminal or professional censure. On the contrary, they'd done exactly what the legal profession requires them to do: zealously defend their clients. But Cheney's attack conveniently shifted the spotlight away from other former Justice Department officials who actually are at risk of professional and criminal sanction.

The Office of Professional Responsibility's final report provides ample evidence former Justice Department attorneys John Yoo and Jay Bybee intentionally wrote legal memos that were blatantly wrong. It also suggests that White House officials were intimately involved in that process. The fact that John Yoo's e-mails were "deleted" and unavailable to the ethics investigators is no small matter either, both for what additional evidence those e-mails might have contained and because destroying federal records is a crime -- as is obstruction of justice.

Liz Cheney may have managed to temporarily distract the news media from the subject of her father's role in developing illegal policies that authorized torture. But let's hope that the Senate Judiciary Committee continues to press its probe, for there are many observers out there, both at home and abroad, who have not so easily forgotten.

Caving on the 9/11 Trial Would Send All the Wrong Messages

The Washington Post reports today that President Obama's advisors are planning to recommend that the administration reverse its decision to try the September 11 suspects in federal court and instead opt for military commissions. That's more than just disappointing, given the overwhelming consensus of military and legal experts that civilian courts are more effective for prosecuting terrorists. If the president were to heed that advice, it would also be astonishingly bad politics.

The Post story doesn't say what President Obama has decided to do, or whether Attorney General Eric Holder, who announced the decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators in federal court to much fanfare in November, will go along with those recommendations. But for the administration to reverse itself now on a key legal and strategic decision that critics have made a political hot potato would signal to Obama's opponents that if they just heat up the rhetoric and prey on people's fears enough, the administration will cave. And that would be a sorry signal of how this administration plans to determine critical matters of national security.

Recent reports have suggested that Senator Lindsey Graham has been cutting deals with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, not only on the 9/11 trials but on passing legislation to secure the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects in exchange for supporting the administration's efforts to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. To drum up support for his ideas, Graham has been going around denouncing the idea that the United States would "give the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks the same constitutional rights as an American citizen," and insisting that military commissions are the "proper venue" for such trials. Graham neglects to mention in such statements that all criminals in the United States have always had constitutional rights in U.S. courts -- these rights are, after all, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

And to call military commissions the "proper venue" is to suggest that they have a strong record for convicting terrorists -- which, in fact, they do not. Military commissions have convicted precisely three terrorists so far, two of whom have already been released from prison. By contrast, U.S. federal courts have convicted almost 200 self-described Islamic jihadist terrorists since the terrorist attacks of September 11.

None of that matters, however, when it comes to the politics of fear. Since Attorney General Eric Holder announced the decision to try the 9/11 suspects in federal court, his opponents have turned it into the linchpin of their opposition to the administration. At a demonstration in front of the federal courthouse in New York in December, protesters called Obama and Holder "the real terrorists" and demanded their impeachment.

As I stood in the cold rain watching them, I had to wonder, since when did so many ordinary Americans (admittedly many with tea bags hanging from their star-spangled hats) come to care so much about the procedural complexities of the federal judicial system? Why in the past, when the Bush administration prosecuted hundreds of terrorists in this same Manhattan courthouse, had they never claimed that our judicial system was a "moral disgrace" that would allow terrorists to "spew their hate across America"?

Of course, most of those protesters know very little about the U.S. court system and how much more effective it's been at convicting terrorists and locking them away for life than any military commission has. But some disgruntled Americans, understandably angry and insecure in tough economic times, have been whipped into a frenzy by Obama's most adamant opponents, who've channeled their fears into angry protests about terrorism rather than addressing their real and legitimate concerns.

Perhaps that's to be expected. But for the Obama administration to cave to that hysteria would send all the wrong messages. It would signal a victory for the politics of fear over the longstanding American tradition of respect for the rule of law. It would showcase a triumph of crass political deal-making over rational, fact-based decisionmaking. For President Obama, it would suggest a profound weakness on his part -- a message to his adversaries that if they just make enough of a stink about the decisions they don't like, then they can change them. And most importantly, it would mean that the administration is willing to sacrifice lasting national security to momentary political expedience. And that would be the saddest statement of all.


Diaries

Advertise Blogads