Of all the hangovers from the George W. Bush years, the thorniest may be what to do about the U.S. military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There are still 171 detainees at Guantanamo and little consensus on what to do with them. Last spring, President Obama announced the resumption of military trials for some of those charged with participating in the 9/11 attacks. These trials, known as military commissions, have been stalled for years by legal challenges. Recently, the official in charge of the Guantanamo prison, Rear Adm. David Woods, issued a draft order that compounds these challenges. The order requires all correspondence between the accused and their appointed military lawyers to be reviewed by federal officials.
The proposed order is a mistake, one that threatens to jeopardize the progress made in reversing Guantanamo's tainted legacy as a legal black hole. It likely violates the 6th Amendment's guarantee of the right to counsel, which has long been understood to permit lawyers to communicate confidentially with their clients.
The order is not just bad law. It is also bad policy that could tarnish the most high-profile military trials held by our nation since World War II.
What legal rights the Guantanamo detainees possess is hotly contested. The Bush administration long argued that Guantanamo was Cuban, not American, territory and therefore the detainees had no constitutional rights. That view was repudiated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 in Boumediene v. Bush. In deciding that at least some constitutional rights extended to those held at Guantanamo, the court recognized the highly unusual nature of the base.
Guantanamo has been under American control since U.S. troops prevailed in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Cuba has no effective control over the base, which is governed by a lease that cannot be changed without U.S. consent and that accords the U.S. "complete jurisdiction and control." This history led the Supreme Court to declare that whatever the legal formalities, it is an "obvious and uncontested fact" that the United States is the de facto sovereign there.
In short, Guantanamo Bay is technically Cuba. But as a practical matter, it is just as much a part of the United States as Tampa Bay.
Boumediene did not involve the 6th Amendment. And the Supreme Court has never expressly declared that the 6th Amendment applies to foreigners tried abroad. In the closest case on point — involving Nazi saboteurs captured during World War II on the beaches of Long Island and Florida and tried in the U.S. — the court held that they lacked a 6th Amendment right to trial by jury because the laws of war did not require one for unlawful combatants. But the 1942 decision pointedly said nothing about the other aspects of the amendment, including the right to counsel.
In light of these precedents, it is not at all implausible that the right to counsel extends to those at Guantanamo. The Supreme Court made it clear in Boumediene that it was deeply troubled by the idea that the federal government could evade constitutional restraints simply by moving prisons offshore. That reasoning applies no less readily to offshore trials.
Woods' order does not simply raise legal concerns, however. By violating the sanctity of attorney-client privilege, it jeopardizes the perception of American military commissions as fair and just, a perception that is crucial if these trials are to succeed.
To see why, consider the fundamental purpose of such trials. Why not simply imprison the suspected terrorists in perpetuity without trial? The chief reason, dating to the landmark Nuremberg tribunal, is the belief that a just and fair trial of even our worst enemies is the best vindication of our nation's values, and the best way to ensure that cycles of revenge are tamped down, individuals are held accountable and the truth emerges.
War-crimes trials have long been tarred by cries of "victor's justice." It is only through scrupulous adherence to fair, neutral and time-honored procedures that we can forcefully refute such criticism.
To some critics, of course, no amount of due process can save the military commissions. They see the results as foreordained and the legal process as so much window-dressing. But the commissions, though rarely employed in our history, grow out of a long and honorable tradition of military justice. They can and ought to be fair proceedings. If they are perceived as unfair, they will jeopardize the entire point of war-crimes trials — which is, in the famous words of Justice Robert Jackson, the American prosecutor at Nuremberg, to "stay the hand of vengeance" and submit "captive enemies to the judgment of the law."
That is why the defense lawyers appointed to represent the detainees — American service members who proudly wear our uniform — have vigorously protested the effort to intrude on attorney-client privilege. They recognize an important truth. The U.S., and our long struggle against terrorist violence, will be the loser if the deck is stacked against the Guantanamo defendants.
Kal Raustiala is a professor of law and director of the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.