Since the dying days of the Bush administration, when the Supreme Court savaged the indifference of the executive branch and of Congress towards the cruel mess they had created at Guantánamo, by ensuring that the prisoners had constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights, it has, sadly, all been downhill when it comes to judicial oversight of the national security state. Moreover, in two recent decisions, the Supreme Court has shown indifference to torture, either in the past or in the future.
In the three years since that landmark case, Boumediene v. Bush, the prisoners’ initial success in the District Court in Washington DC., where they won 38 of the first 52 cases, has been abruptly halted, as right-wing judges in the D.C. Circuit Court, led by Senior Judge A. Raymond Randolph, have pushed back, insisting that little evidence is required to continue holding men indefinitely, even if, as in most cases, they were nothing more than insignificant foot soldiers for the Taliban, rather than international terrorists.
In response to this repeated hurling down of gauntlets by Judge Randolph, who is notorious for approving every piece of Guantánamo-related legislation that was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court, there has been no repeat of Boumediene. In the last few months, lawyers for the prisoners have tried to undermine Judge Randolph and his colleagues on numerous fronts. Eight Guantánamo cases have made their way to the Supreme Court, as SCOTUSblog reported back in December, but all have failed.
Some of these cases have previously been discussed here. There are, for example, the poor Uighurs, innocent Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province, seized by mistake but trapped in Guantánamo because no one wants to allow them to be resettled in the US. Their attempt to secure justice in the courts finally came to an end last month, when the Supreme Court refused to consider their case, leading to an extraordinary and eloquent lament by one of their attorneys, Sabin Willett.
Before that, Judge Laurence H. Silberman, another aged right-winger, had wandered off on an extraordinary tangent about the perceived threat of terrorists in the case of a generally insignificant Yemeni, Yasein Esmail, who lost his appeal, and in March another generally insignificant Yemeni, Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman, whose habeas petition was granted in February 2010 by a judge who perceived that the government’s evidence consisted entirely of statements made by prisoners who had been tortured or whose testimony was officially regarded as unreliable, had his successful petition reversed. On that occasion, the culprits were a panel of judges that included another well-known right-winger, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who declared, as ProPublica reported, “that the government doesn’t need direct evidence that a detainee fought for or was a member of al-Qaeda in order to justify a detention.”
The Supreme Court fails to tackle torture in the past
Over the last two weeks, the Supreme Court has cemented its reputation as a court that has turned its back on the lingering injustices of the Bush administration, which have, in addition, been endorsed and defended by President Obama. In the first instance, on May 16, the Court refused to grant a day in court to five victims of “extraordinary rendition,” who have been trying, since May 2007, to have a court hear their stories of how they were abducted and sent to be tortured in locations around the world with the help of Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., a subsidiary of Boeing, which, it is clear, acted as the CIA’s travel agent for torture.
The five plaintiffs — who include the British residents Binyam Mohamed, rendered to torture in Morocco, and Bisher al-Rawi, kidnapped on business in the Gambia and rendered to the CIA’s “Dark Prison” in Afghanistan — won a crucial appeal in their case in March 2009, in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, when the government’s attempt to protect itself (and its predecessors) from scrutiny by invoking the little known and little used “state secrets doctrine” was thwarted by a panel of three judges, who ruled that the executive branch’s claim that it was entitled to dismiss lawsuits merely by invoking the words “national security” would “effectively cordon off all secret actions from judicial scrutiny, immunizing the CIA and its partners from the demands and limits of the law.”
That ruling, however, was overturned last September, when a full panel of judges supported the government’s unprincipled use of the “state secrets doctrine.” As I explained at the time:
[W]hen asked to rule on whether these five men should have their day in court, or whether the government should be allowed to dismiss their lawsuit by claiming that the exposure of any information relating to “extraordinary rendition” and torture threatened the national security of the United States, American justice contemplated looking at itself squarely in the mirror, telling truth to power, and allowing these men the opportunity to address what had happened to them in a court of law, but, at the last minute, flinched and turned away. By six votes to five, the Court decided that, in the interests of national security, the men’s day in court would be denied.
In declining to review the men’s case, the Supreme Court has, as described in a strongly worded editorial in the New York Times, “abdicated [its] duty” and allowed “a major stain on American justice” to proceed unchecked.
The Times‘ editors did not mince their words. After noting that the abduction of “often innocent” foreigners, and their rendition to “countries well known for torturing prisoners” was “central to President George W. Bush’s antiterrorism policy,” and that he “then used wildly broad claims of state secrets to thwart any accountability for this immoral practice,” they added that “President Obama has adopted the same legal tactic of using the secrecy privilege to kill lawsuits,” and that therefore the only hope lay with the courts.
The editors’ verdict on the Supreme Court was harsh but completely justified. After noting first of all that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals “gave in to the pretzel logic shaped by the Bush administration that allowing the torture victims a chance to make their case in court using nonsecret evidence would risk divulging state secrets,” and that the Supreme Court has now “allowed that nonsense to stand,” the editors added:
By slamming its door on these victims without explanation, it removed the essential judicial block against the executive branch’s use of claims of secrecy to cover up misconduct that shocks the conscience. It has further diminished any hope of obtaining a definitive ruling that the government’s conduct was illegal — a vital step for repairing damage and preventing future abuses.
They also stated:
The Supreme Court should have grabbed the case and used it to rein in the distorted use of the state secrets privilege, a court-created doctrine meant to shield sensitive evidence in actions against the government, not to dismiss cases before evidence is produced.
In conclusion, the Times‘ editors pointed out that this was “not the first time the Supreme Court has abdicated its responsibility to hear cases involving national security questions of this sort,” lamenting that not even a single one of the justices was prepared to offer “a dissent or comment to let the world know that the court’s indifference was not unanimous,” either in the Jeppesen case, or, last year, in the case of Maher Arar, an innocent Canadian sent to Syria by George W. Bush to be tortured, or even, in 2007, in the case of Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen, seized by mistake, who was rendered to a torture prison in Afghanistan.
“What the world sees,” the editors added, “is rendition victims blocked from American courts while architects of their torment write books bragging about their role in this legal and moral travesty … The Supreme Court’s action ends an important legal case, but not President Obama’s duty to acknowledge what occurred, and to come up with ways to compensate torture victims and advance accountability.”
Unfortunately, as they also added, “It is hard, right now, to be optimistic.”
The Supreme Court fails to tackle torture in the future
In its second recent abdication of responsibility, the Supreme Court dismissed the last of the Guantánamo-related cases to come before them on May 23, with only two dissenters, Justice Stephen G. Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, prepared to consider Khadr v. Obama, a case named after Omar Khadr, but now, after Khadr accepted a plea deal last October, dealing solely with the question of whether the courts have any say in where Guantánamo prisoners are sent.
Related to Kiyemba v. Obama, the Uighurs’ case, which involved other questions regarding the courts’ ability to dictate where Guantánamo prisoners are — or are not — sent, the focus in Khadr was an attempt by prisoners to prevent the administration from forcibly repatriating them to countries where they fear the risk of torture. In defense of the administration, this has not often been an issue, although President Bush repatriated two Tunisians unwillingly, and Obama has done the same with two Algerians, but it remains a worry (as, for example, in the case of Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian who is terrified of being repatriated), and it is, of course, disappointing that only two justices were prepared to consider the prisoners’ legitimate fears.
Instead, they have, once more, handed the decision making process to the D.C. Circuit Court, where judges, using a narrow reading of an Iraq detention case (Munaf v. Geren) decided on the same day as Boumediene, have ruled, as SCOTUSblog described it, that they have almost no power “to control the ultimate fate of Guantánamo detainees,” and that the prisoners themselves “have no other constitutional rights than a basic right to file a habeas challenge to their detention.” The Circuit Court also ruled that a 2005 federal immigration law “bars a Guantánamo detainee from making a claim in US court that a transfer to a given nation will violate a global treaty against torture.”
With this decision, as SCOTUSblog noted, “The chances that the Supreme Court will review the way lower courts have implemented its constitutional decision on the legal rights of detainees at Guantánamo Bay moved close to the vanishing point .” It was also noted, in what could almost be read as a sad epitaph for any hope that the law will ever lead to the closure of Guantánamo:
In terms of constitutional history, the Court’s sweeping declarations in the Boumediene decision, about the role of the judiciary in keeping the government from switching the Constitution on and off, now appear to have meant far less as a check on Executive power than they had seemed when that ruling came down in June 2008. And, while that decision might once have seemed to hold out the promise of ending the detention of many held at Guantánamo, it now appears to mean that some will remain at Guantánamo for years to come, and that facility will remain open indefinitely.
And that, in the end, is not something that the Supreme Court foresaw when the ruling in Boumediene was issued, and nor, furthermore, should it be something that the Court can now continue to ignore indefinitely.
Originally published on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.
Andy Worthington, a regular contributor to The Public Record, is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and the definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. He maintains a blog at andyworthington.co.uk.