Assistant Attorney General Tony West of the Justice Department Civil Division on Friday highlighted an often unpublicized part of his office’s portfolio: its work on national security matters.
The Civil Division typically is noted for its efforts to combat fraud, enforce immigration laws and protect consumers. But the Civil Division deals with almost all parts of the Barack Obama administration’s national security policy priorities, West said. He was speaking at an American Bar Association Standing Committee on Law and National Security breakfast attended by dozens of lawyers, including Civil Division Senior Counsel Mary L. Smith, Obama’s former DOJ Tax Division nominee.
“And probably nothing we do in the Civil Division is as vital to the safety and security of the American people as our work on national security matters,” West said. “Indeed, there’s scarcely a week that goes by where there isn’t some significant, often controversial national security issue that crosses my desk.”
West said habeas corpus cases involving Guantanamo Bay detainees take up most of the time he devotes to national security matters. He said the Civil Division is handling about 140 habeas cases involving Guantanamo Bay detainees who are contesting the legality of their detention.
The Assistant Attorney General said it is important to defend the cases because the detentions have strong legal justifications, the trials have safeguards in place for fairness and evidence used in the trials is not obtained by torture.
“While, in doing our best, we may not always get it right, I can assure you that we always try to do what’s right,” West said. “And I think that is the critical difference.”
Handling terrorism cases was nothing new for West when he became the Civil Division chief in 2009.
West, a former partner at the law firm of Morrison & Foerster LLP in San Francisco, represented the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2002.