In deciding the fate of dozens of inmates at Guantanamo Bay, federal judges have been thrust into the position of crafting law that could end up governing U.S. detention of terror suspects around the world.
With so much at stake, Attorney General Eric Holder has relied heavily on the Justice Department unit that contemplates the executive branch’s thorniest legal questions, the Office of Legal Counsel, giving way to an unusual system where advisers are editing the work of the advocates.
OLC is enmeshed in more than 100 cases initiated by Guantanamo Bay detainees who are challenging their confinement in federal court in Washington. OLC lawyers review and revise virtually every brief filed in the cases, a break with tradition that has created some friction between the office and lawyers who defend the government’s positions in court, said several current and former Justice Department officials.
OLC acts as outside counsel for the president and the agencies, and its advice, often memorialized in opinions, is expected to represent the best reading of the law, but not necessarily the most popular. Rarely does the office concern itself with litigation, in part because it must be neutral to be effective, said one former OLC official.
“OLC is generally not an advocacy unit,” said Peter Shane, a law professor at Ohio State University and a former OLC lawyer during the Carter administration. “A large part of the office’s credibility has been based on the notion that it has kind of a quasi-adjudicative role.”
The office worked closely with the task force that recently completed a yearlong review of the Guantanamo Bay detainees. The task force determined that of the 198 detainees at the military-run prison, about 50 are unprosecutable but thought to be too dangerous to transfer, underscoring the importance of the habeas corpus cases — the chief means for testing the Obama administration’s detention regime.
The Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in Boumediene v. Bush recognized the right of Guantanamo Bay prisoners to challenge the legitimacy of their detention. But the high court left it to the lower courts to shape the proceedings, and the Obama administration has not asked Congress to intervene. (Interestingly, several judges overseeing the cases have spoken publicly about need for a guidance from Congress.)
Absent legislation, the habeas cases have become vehicles for hashing out questions about the scope of the government’s detention authority, the admissibility of evidence extracted through coercion, and the burden of proof required to hold prisoners indefinitely, among others.
Current and former officials said the cases play to talents of the OLC, jokingly referred to as “finishing school” for Supreme Court clerks, and they pointed out that several other Justice Department offices are involved in the effort.
The Civil Division’s Federal Programs Branch and Appellate Section, which have primary responsibility for the habeas cases, also collaborate with the offices of the Solicitor General, Associate Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General, and Attorney General, as well as the National Security Division.
“These cases present questions that have not been faced by the department or this administration previously,” said a senior Justice official.
In first months of the Obama administration, some legal experts questioned whether OLC was losing influence. They pointed to several signs.
The White House counsel’s office, for one, began in 2009 with about two dozen lawyers, a higher headcount than in OLC. The president, typically OLC’s biggest client, seemed to be building his own law firm.
Then, in April, a report emerged that the Attorney General had overridden OLC’s judgement that a District of Columbia voting rights bill, which Holder supports, was unconstitutional. The Attorney General went to the Solicitor General’s Office for a second opinion, and lawyers there told him they could defend the legislation if enacted.
It made OLC appear as if its advice were dispensable.
Complicating matters, the Obama administration has been unable to install a Senate-confirmed Assistant Attorney General in the office. Law professor Dawn Johnsen’s nomination has been held up in the Senate for nearly a year over Republican opposition to her vocal criticism of the Bush administration’s national security policies and her past work for an abortion rights group.
But far from ceding ground, the office has taken on new responsibilities, including guiding the Guantanamo Bay task force’s thinking on which detainees should be prosecuted, transferred or held indefinitely — and then seeing that its recommendations are executed in court.
Jones Day partner Gregory Katsas, a former Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Divison during the Bush administration, said that collaboration was typical of high-profile cases, but that the degree of OLC’s involvement was not.
“When we had the detainee cases, we would talk informally between the litigators and the counselors,” said Katsas, who was the Civil Chief when the Supreme Court decided Boumediene. ”We gave OLC drafts here and there, but the practice of having OLC set up as an overseer of the Civil Division on a regular basis is very new.”
OLC officials referred a reporter to the Justice Department’s Office of Public Affairs, which declined to give a statement.
The culture of the office differs vastly from that of the Civil Divison. OLC, with roughly 20 lawyers, provides advice to the government on complex legal and constitutional issues, interprets statutes and mediates legal disputes among agencies.
The Civil Division’s more than 750 lawyers represent the government in federal courts across the country, working closely with the Office of the Associate Attorney General, which oversees the division, and the Office of the Solicitor General, which signs off on all appeals. (The acting head of OLC, David Barron, was a constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School; Tony West, the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division, was a litigation partner at Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco.)
In the past, Justice Department offices consulted OLC on pending litigation, if, for example, separation of powers or other constitutional questions arose. But the office shied away from litigation strategy to avoid conflicts and because it lay beyond OLC’s bailiwick, said one former OLC lawyer, who served in the Bush administration.
OLC’s influence over Guantanamo Bay issues dates back to the Bush administration. The office worked closely with the National Security Division and the Pentagon on the military commissions.
In at least two cases — against Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s former driver, and Omar Ahmed Khadr, a Canadian citizen accused of killing an American soldier in Afghanistan — OLC lawyers made rare appearances before a military judge. In pretrial hearings, they argued matters related to the Geneva Conventions, the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force and the Military Commissions Act. After the issues were briefed and argued, the OLC lawyers faded into the background.
The office, which had enjoyed relative obscurity prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, came to symbolize the Bush administration’s controversial national security policies, having blessed waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping and extraordinary rendition. The office’s work exposed divisions among the Bush administration officials over the legality of the programs, prompting the resignations of senior Justice Department officials.
By the time Bush left office, several OLC opinions had been withdrawn, and the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility was years into an investigation of former OLC officials John Yoo and Jay Bybee.
OLC in the Obama administration has been more active in Guantanamo Bay matters. Barron and Martin Lederman, an OLC Deputy Assistant Attorney General, were part of Obama’s Justice Department transition team, and they were heavily involved in detainee issues before they were appointed to lead the office, said one lawyer who worked on the transition.
Lederman, like Johnsen, had been a fierce critic of the office’s work during the Bush administration, and his support for habeas rights and positions on indefinite detention were well-known within the department before he returned. (Lederman was an OLC lawyer during the Clinton administration.)
Views are mixed as to whether OLC should be so heavily invested in the Civil Division’s affairs. Some Civil Division attorneys told Main Justice OLC’s work was helpful, because of novel questions raised in the litigation, while others said it amounted to a cumbersome layer of oversight that has strained the relationship between lawyers in the two components.
In a new study, co-authors Benjamin Wittes and Rabea Benhalim of the Brookings Institution and Robert Chesney of the University of Texas Law School appeared to make an argument for OLC’s involvement in describing the significance of the cases:
They are more than a means to decide the fate of the individuals in question. They are also the vehicle for an unprecedented wartime law-making exercise with broad implications for the future. The law established in these cases will in all likelihood govern not merely the Guantánamo detentions themselves but any other detentions around the world over which American courts acquire habeas jurisdiction. What’s more, to the extent that these cases establish substantive and procedural rules governing the application of law-of-war detention powers in general, they could end up impacting detentions far beyond those immediately supervised by the federal courts. They might, in fact, impact superficially-unrelated military activities, such as the planning of operations, the selection of interrogation methods, or even the decision to target individuals with lethal force.
“I’m not sure OLC can be faulted,” said one Civil Division lawyer. “It’s all new. The executive has had to come up with a way of dealing with these cases on the fly.”
But disagreements over the application of the Obama administration’s detention standards, which were devised by OLC, have been a source of friction. (The new standards, introduced in a habeas case in March, dispensed with the Bush administration’s “enemy combatant” designation and declared that Obama’s power to detainee suspected terrorists indefinitely flowed from the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, as informed by law-of-war principles.) Civil Division lawyers chafed at OLC’s insistence that they drop certain legal arguments or abandon their defense in habeas case, the lawyers said.
The Civil Division lawyer said some on the habeas team feel OLC should have withdrawn after crafting the new detention standards, “to be consulted only as need be on resolving some big-ticket items.”
The relationship has steadily improved since the early days of the Obama administration, before the task force charged with determining the fate of Guantanamo Bay detainees hit its stride, the lawyers said. Questions about the government’s position in each case were answered at the task-force level, leaving little room for argument.
“There was a lot more head-butting going on before the task force process got fully underway,” said another Civil Division lawyer. “Now it’s a matter of defending the cases the task force is willing to defend. It has made things go more smoothly.”
The task force, led by prosecutor Matthew Olsen, recommended 35 detainees for prosecution in federal or military courts; at least 110 for release, either immediately or eventually; and nearly 50 for detention without trial.
The habeas cases, however, continue to wind through the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Of the 41 decided habeas cases, 32 of them cut in favor of the detainee.
That number, however, includes 17 Chinese Muslims, known as Uighurs, who were ordered released in the U.S. by a federal judge in 2008. While the Bush administration eventually dropped the Uighurs’ “enemy combatant” designation, meaning the habeas petitions went unchallenged, the Justice Department appealed the release order.
The issue — whether federal judges have the power to release in the U.S. detainees no longer deemed a threat — is before the Supreme Court. Arguments in the case, Kiyemba v. Obama, are scheduled for March 23.
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