The Justice Department Falsified a Judge’s Ruling in Order to Continue Unlawfully Imprisoning a Possibly Mentally Ill Man at Guantanamo

Judge Kennedy. Photo: Beverly Rezneck

Judge Kennedy. Photo: Beverly Rezneck

No, not during the Bush administration.  ProPublica reports:

When Judge Henry Kennedy Jr. ordered the release of a Guantánamo Bay detainee last spring, the case appeared to be a routine setback for an Obama administration that has lost a string of such cases.

But there turns out to be nothing ordinary about the habeas case brought by Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman , a Yemeni held without charges for nearly eight years. Uthman, accused by two U.S. administrations of being an al-Qaida fighter and bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, is among 48 detainees the Obama administration has deemed too dangerous to release but “not feasible for prosecution.”

A day after his March 16 order was filed on the court’s electronic docket, Kennedy’s opinion vanished. Weeks later, a new ruling appeared in its place. While it reached the same conclusion, eight pages of material had been removed, including key passages in which Kennedy dismantled the government’s case against Uthman.

In his first opinion, Kennedy wrote that one government witness against Uthman had been diagnosed by military doctors as “psychotic” with a mental condition that made his allegations against other detainees “unreliable.” But the opinion the public sees makes no mention of the man’s health and discounts his testimony only because of its inconsistencies.

The alterations are extensive. Sentences were rewritten. Footnotes that described disputes and discrepancies in the government’s case were deleted. Even the date and circumstances of Uthman’s arrest were changed. In the first version, the judge said Uthman was detained on Dec. 15, 2001, in Pakistan by Pakistani authorities. Rewritten, Kennedy said in the public opinion that Uthman admitted being captured “in late 2001 in the general vicinity of Tora Bora,” the cave complex where bin Laden was thought to be hiding at that time.

The creation of the additional opinion stemmed from a mishap inside the Justice Department: Kennedy’s first opinion was accidentally cleared for public release before government agencies had blacked out all the classified information it cited.

While the government privately took responsibility for the error, it initially refused to correct it. Two people familiar with the discussions said prosecutors in the Justice Department’s Civil Division gave Kennedy a choice: his entire decision would remain classified or he could write a new version that did not reference classified evidence.

Justice Department sources offered a different account. They said the department later relented and gave Kennedy a properly redacted version of the opinion, in which classified material had been blacked out. The sources said this opinion was meant to be published. But for reasons that remain unclear, the edited opinion became the starting point for the creation of an entirely new version.

Matthew Miller, a spokesman with the Justice Department, said “the department’s practice in all of these cases is to propose release of a properly redacted opinion.”

The second opinion, drafted after a contentious exchange between Kennedy and the prosecutors, did not refer to the earlier version and gave no indication material had been removed.

Legal scholars and classification experts said the drafting of a second opinion was a deception. All previous opinions in Guantánamo habeas cases have noted when material has been blacked out or removed to protect security.

Stephen Gillers, who teaches legal ethics at New York University School of Law, said Kennedy may well have had a legitimate concern about “national security issues.”

“But that concern then inspired him to participate in the creation of a parallel universe that fools everyone except a small circle of judges. We don’t allow the justice system to create false impressions,” Gillers said.

ProPublica obtained the original version of Kennedy’s opinion when it appeared briefly in the court record and conducted a line-by-line comparison with what was published five weeks later. That comparison, highlighting information that was removed, can be found here.

Reporting for this story was complicated by the fact that much of the evidence is classified, and judges, lawyers and prosecutors are barred from discussing most aspects of the litigation. But an examination of the opinions and additional documents, as well as interviews with government and intelligence officials, former military prosecutors and key players in the habeas cases, makes it possible for the first time to publicly examine the evidence against a detainee designated for indefinite detention.

To justify Uthman’s incarceration, the government relied on statements from five current or former detainees who were previously discredited by judges in other cases, questioned by internal Obama administration assessments or found unreliable by military psychiatrists because they were mendacious, mentally ill or subjected to torture.

Kennedy’s first opinion reveals that some of the government’s evidence came from a detainee who committed suicide at Guantánamo three years ago after months of hunger strikes. In the second opinion, the detainee’s name is concealed, making it impossible for the public to know he is dead.

Further on they report:

Although President Obama inherited many aspects of U.S. detention policy from his predecessor, Guantánamo detainees have been fighting their detentions in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia almost entirely on his watch.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2008, as Obama was campaigning for president, that detainees could challenge their detentions in federal court under the constitutional doctrine of habeas corpus, which protects individuals from unlawful imprisonment by the government.

Obama, still a senator then, issued a statement calling the ruling “an important step toward re-establishing our credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law, and rejecting a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus. Our courts have employed habeas corpus with rigor and fairness for more than two centuries, and we must continue to do so as we defend the freedom that violent extremists seek to destroy.” The first challenges were decided on Nov. 20, just three weeks after Obama’s election.

Lawyers from the Justice Department’s Civil Division handle the Guantánamo litigation in coordination with intelligence agencies and the Department of Defense, which acts as warden of Guantánamo. The litigation process was built around the government’s assertion that the bulk of the evidence is classified, a claim that has enabled the government to operate under a cloak of near total secrecy, with judges and defense attorneys barred from publicly discussing most aspects of the litigation. Court filings that reveal details about the cases undergo classification review before they are made public.

Intelligence and military officials take the lead in determining what can be released. As this story was going to publication, the Justice Department released an unclassified version of its appeal brief in the Uthman case. A number of details that were excised from Kennedy’s final opinion appear in the appeals brief.

Justice Department spokesman Miller said, “as a general matter, Justice Department litigators are not responsible for classification or declassification decisions in habeas cases.”

Officials at other agencies said they had a fairly free hand in removing information supplied for the government’s case. “Whenever a court security officer identifies a document slated for posting on the court’s public docket as potentially containing classified information, the officer refers that document to appropriate agencies for classification review,” Maj. Tanya Bradsher, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon, said.

One government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity acknowledged that the classification process has been plagued with inconsistencies and that no one is coordinating the effort. In most declassified habeas filings, the names of all detainee-witnesses are removed; in others, a name or two slips past the redaction process.

Some government-ordered deletions clearly appear designed to conceal names of confidential informants, associations with foreign intelligence services and the identities of certain federal agents. But the Uthman case shows that many of the deletions go further.

“This censorship has nothing to do with protecting ‘national security’ and everything to do with covering up government mistakes and malfeasance,” said Jonathan Hafetz, a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law who has represented a number of detainees in habeas litigation. The practice, he said, allows the government to “mislead the American public on issues of profound importance to the country by skewing the perception of who really is at Guantánamo.

Read more, including both versions of Judge Kennedy’s ruling and the government’s appeals brief, here.  See also Scott Horton’s overview at Harper’s, including links to analyses by Democracy Now! and Andrew Sullivan.

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  • Anonymous

    The Justice” Department is a mess because during the Bush Administration the chief person charged with hiring basically ignored the law on two levels:1.) You’re not supposed to put political operatives into bureaucratic positions (ie. positions where the person will remain after your administration is out of power). Political appointees are supposed to swap out when a new administration comes in, but those other positions stay, and therefore are supposed to be non-political.2.) There should be no ideological test for any of those positions.However during the Bush Administration, not only were political appointees put into non-political bureaucratic positions, but they were asked irrelevant questions like whether they were Christian, if they believed in evolution. And they were asked these questions by a “graduate” of crazy Pat Robertson’s Regent University, who was so dumb, she thought you took an oath to President Bush in order to serve in the government, not an oath to uphold the Constitution.That was part of what was brought out in the hearings over the also illegal U.S. Attorney firings which were also done for political reasons.Now none of that excuses the Obama Administration for not following up on all that, and enforcing accountability for all the Bush Administration abuses in the Justice Department to get rid of these jerks who keep pushing Bush Era policies. The whole “we’re looking forward not backward” thing is a cop-out, and is the same mistake the Democrats made when they dropped the ball on Iran-Contra prosecutions when Clinton came in to office – so we ended up with criminal nimrods like John Poindexter popping up like a bad rash 20 years later with fascist programs like TIPS, the Total Information Awareness program, and “helping out” in the drafting of the PATRIOT Act.

    But still, let’s be clear about where this B.S. actually started, before we point out the accomplices after-the-fact.

    What’s true is that the same screw-ups who pulled this kind of nonsense during the Bush Administration, are still there screwing things up, and they need to get kicked to the curb like YESTERDAY.

  • 5by5

    The Justice” Department is a mess because during the Bush Administration the chief person charged with hiring basically ignored the law on two levels:1.) You’re not supposed to put political operatives into bureaucratic positions (ie. positions where the person will remain after your administration is out of power). Political appointees are supposed to swap out when a new administration comes in, but those other positions stay, and therefore are supposed to be non-political.2.) There should be no ideological test for any of those positions.However during the Bush Administration, not only were political appointees put into non-political bureaucratic positions, but they were asked irrelevant questions like whether they were Christian, if they believed in evolution. And they were asked these questions by a “graduate” of crazy Pat Robertson’s Regent University, who was so dumb, she thought you took an oath to President Bush in order to serve in the government, not an oath to uphold the Constitution.That was part of what was brought out in the hearings over the also illegal U.S. Attorney firings which were also done for political reasons.Now none of that excuses the Obama Administration for not following up on all that, and enforcing accountability for all the Bush Administration abuses in the Justice Department to get rid of these jerks who keep pushing Bush Era policies. The whole “we’re looking forward not backward” thing is a cop-out, and is the same mistake the Democrats made when they dropped the ball on Iran-Contra prosecutions when Clinton came in to office – so we ended up with criminal nimrods like John Poindexter popping up like a bad rash 20 years later with fascist programs like TIPS, the Total Information Awareness program, and “helping out” in the drafting of the PATRIOT Act.

    But still, let’s be clear about where this B.S. actually started, before we point out the accomplices after-the-fact.

    What’s true is that the same screw-ups who pulled this kind of nonsense during the Bush Administration, are still there screwing things up, and they need to get kicked to the curb like YESTERDAY.

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