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April 27, 2007

After the Lawyers

It can be hard to tell whom the Bush administration considers more of an enemy at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp: the prisoners or the lawyers.

William Glaberson reported in The Times yesterday that the Justice Department had asked a federal appeals court to remove some of the last shreds of legal representation available to the prisoners.

The government wants the court to allow intelligence and military officers to read the mail sent by lawyers to their clients at Guantánamo Bay. Lawyers would also be limited to three visits with each client, and an inmate would be allowed only a single visit to decide whether to authorize an attorney to handle his case. Interrogators at Guantánamo Bay have a history of masking their identities, so the rule would make it much harder than it already is to gain the trust of a prisoner.

Perhaps the most outrageous of the Justice Department’s proposals would allow government officials — on their own authority — to deny lawyers access to the evidence used to decide whether an inmate is an illegal enemy combatant. Not even the appalling Military Commissions Act of 2006, rammed through in the last days of the Republican-controlled Congress, goes that far.

The filing, with the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., says lawyers have caused unrest among the prisoners and improperly relayed messages to the news media. The administration offered no evidence for these charges, probably because there is none. This is an assault on the integrity of the lawyers, reminiscent of a former Pentagon official’s suggestion that they are unpatriotic and that American corporations should boycott their firms.

The Justice Department also said lawyers had no right to demand access to clients at Guantánamo Bay because the clients are “detained aliens on a secure military base in a foreign country.”

The Supreme Court has already rejected that argument, and President Bush can hardly be worried about the sensibilities of Fidel Castro’s government. (The camp is on land leased to Washington after the Spanish-American War.)

It’s obvious why the administration is attacking the lawyers. It does not want the world to know more than it already does about this immoral detention camp. And brave lawyers have helped expose abuse and torture there, as well as detentions of innocent men — who are a large portion, if not a majority, of the inmates at Guantánamo Bay. The Bush administration does not want these issues aired in public, and certainly not in court.

Mr. Bush thinks that he has the right to ignore the Constitution when it suits him. But this is a nation of laws, not the whims of men, and giving legal rights to the guilty as well as the innocent is a price of true justice. The only remedy is for lawmakers to rewrite the Military Commissions Act to restore basic rights to Guantánamo Bay and to impose full accountability for what has happened there.