Presumed Innocent? Representing Guantánamo Detainees

The New Republic, March 24, 2010

The attacks on the Justice Department lawyers who had represented Guantanamo detainees angered me for several distinct reasons. They typified a growing culture of incivility in the politics of national security and law that I have always loathed and have spoken against repeatedly. They sought to delegitimize the legal defense of politically unpopular clients and to impose a kind of ideological litmus test on Justice Department service. They were also, at least in part, about friends and professional acquaintances. And they reminded me painfully of other friends during the Bush administration who had been similarly slimed and for whom the bar had failed to stand up.

The criticism had been simmering for some time in newspaper columns and editorials, but it exploded in the public arena with the now-infamous web ad by a group called Keep America Safe. The video, ostensibly about the Justice Department’s unwillingness to release the names of all of the lawyers who had worked on Gitmo, brands the unknown ones as the “Al Qaeda 7” and wonders “Why the secrecy” behind them? “Whose values do they share?” The two lawyers whose identities were already public—Principal Deputy Solicitor General Neal Katyal and an official in the department’s National Security Division named Jennifer Daskal—saw individual articles blasting them. Citing their service, The New York Post asked in a January editorial, “Whose side is the Justice Department on: America’s—or the terrorists’?” When the latest video appeared, I typed out a simple statement and began circulating it among colleagues for signatures.

I am a peculiar choice to organize what The New York Times later called “a Who’s Who of former Republican administration officials and conservative legal figures”—not being a former GOP official, a conservative, or even a lawyer. I occupy a strange place in the current debate over law and terror, sympathetic to important arguments made by both right and left. I have fiercely criticized both the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies and the Obama administration’s—and fiercely defended both as well.

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