By Marjorie Cohn
In one of the most severe blows the Bush administration has dealt to our constitutional democracy, the Pentagon attacked the lawyers who have volunteered to represent the Guantánamo detainees. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles Stimson threatened corporate lawyers who agree to defend the men and boys imprisoned there. Flashing a list of corporations that use law firms doing this pro bono work, Stimson declared, "Corporate C.E.O.'s seeing this should ask firms to choose between lucrative retainers and representing terrorists."
In 1770, John Adams defended nine British soldiers including a captain who stood accused of killing five Americans. No other lawyer would defend them. Adams thought no one in a free country should be denied the right to a fair trial and the right to counsel. He was subjected to scorn and ridicule and claimed to have lost half his law practice as a result of his efforts. Adams later said his representation of those British soldiers was "one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country."
Federal Judge Green, who has handled the many habeas corpus petitions filed by the Guantánamo detainees, expressed appreciation for the lawyers: "I do want to say we are very grateful for those attorneys who have accepted pro bono appointments. That is a service to the country, a service to the parties. No matter what position you take on this, it is a grand service."
More than 750 men and boys have been held like animals in cages during the last five years at Guantánamo. Many were picked up by warlords and sold to the US military for bounty. None has been tried for any crime. Very few even have any criminal charges against them.
Ironically, there were no alleged terrorists connected with 9/11 there until Bush recently transferred 14 men from his secret CIA prisons to Guantánamo. Meanwhile, hundreds of detainees languish in custody, aided by 500 courageous lawyers from 120 firms who have volunteered countless hours to represent them.
Under the Military Commissions Act Bush just rammed through Congress, the Guantánamo prisoners could be held for the rest of their lives without ever seeing a judge. Those who decide that death could not be worse than life at Gitmo have participated in a hunger strike. Rather than subject the Bush administration to embarrassment when prisoners die in US custody, military guards force feed them. Thick plastic tubes are forced down their throats with no anesthesia. Tubes are not sterilized before being reused on other prisoners. The UN Human Rights Commission called the force-feeding "torture." Many prisoners also report being tortured during interrogations.
Guantánamo has become the symbol of US hypocrisy. While fighting the "war on terror" and attacking other countries for their human rights abuses, the officials in the Bush administration have become war criminals. Torture and cruel or inhuman treatment are punishable as war crimes under the US War Crimes Act.
The Supreme Court held in Rasul v. Bush that the Guantánamo prison is under US jurisdiction, so prisoners there are entitled to the protections of the Constitution. The Sixth Amendment mandates that every person charged with a crime has the right to be defended by an attorney. The government is forbidden by the Fifth Amendment from denying any "person" - US citizen or not - due process of law. The presumption of innocence is enshrined in our legal system.
Bush's attack on lawyers is the latest assault on our civil liberties, which now includes warrantless surveillance of our phone calls and email, and most recently, our US Mail. Although Bush says he's spying on the terrorists, those who criticize his policies, including his illegal and immoral war on Iraq, are also invariably in his cross hairs.
All Americans should heed the words of Martin Niemoller: "First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I said nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat, so I did nothing. Then came the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist. And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did little. Then when they came for me, there was no one left who could stand up for me."
George W. Bush must immediately renounce Stimson's threats and relieve him of his duties. A country that would sacrifice its own values under the guise of protecting them has no moral authority in this world.
Marjorie Cohn, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, is president of the National Lawyers Guild and the US representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists. Her book, "Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law," will be published in June.