Who Will Redact Our Next Big Constitutional Debate?

In her Gitmo anniversary piece, Dahlia Lithwick, piggybacking on Adam Liptak’s earlier report, used the extensive redactions in the DC Circuit Opinion overturning Adnan Latif’s habeas petition to illustrate how little the courts are telling us about his fate, our detention program, and its impact on the most basic right in this country, habeas corpus.

But in the spirit of the day, I urge you to stop for a moment and look at the decision itself, so heavily redacted that page after page is blacked out completely. The court, in evaluating a secret report on Latif, can tell us very little about the report and thus the whole opinion becomes an exercise in advanced Kafka: The dissent, for instance notes that “As this court acknowledges, “the [district] court cited problems with the report itself including [REDACTED]. … And according to the report there is too high a [REDACTED] in the report for it to have resulted from [REDACTED].” Liptak describes all this as an exercise in “Mad Libs, Gitmo Edition.” But in the end, it’s also an exercise in turning the legal process of assessing the claims of these prisoners at Guantanamo Bay into something that replaces one legal black hole with another: pages and pages of black lines that obscure in words what has been obscured in fact. Americans will never know or care what was done at the camp and why if the legal process that might have transparently corrected errors happens behind blacked-out pages.

Latif’s classified petition for cert has just been filed.

We won’t get to see that petition, though, until after the court redacts it, at which point it will presumably look just like the Circuit Opinion–page after page of black lines.

It’s worth asking who will get to redact that petition, which is after all an important effort not only to free a man cleared for release years ago, but also to restore separation of powers and prevent detainees and Americans alike from being held solely on the basis of an inaccurate intelligence report.

That’s important because, thus far, the existing court documents in this case have been redacted inconsistently.

We know that because the dissent in the Circuit Opinion quotes language from Judge Henry Kennedy’s ruling, yet that language doesn’t appear anywhere in the unredacted sections of his ruling itself. For example, David Tatel refers to the “factual errors” Kennedy described (21; PDF 88) and cites Kennedy’s repetition of Latif’s explanation for having lost his passport–he “gave it to Ibrahim [Alawi] to use in arranging his stay at a hospital.” (37; PDF 104)  Yet the appearances of these phrases have been entirely redacted from Kennedy’s opinion (there are many more fragments for which the same is true, supporting general claims about the inaccuracy of the report, but they are less specific).

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Latif: The Administration Blew Up Habeas with a Detainee They Determined Could Be Transferred

There are a few more details that need to be readily available about Adnan Farhan Abd al Latif, the Yemeni Gitmo detainee whose habeas corpus petition led DC Circuit Judges Janice Rogers Brown and Karen Henderson to gut habeas. Most importantly, almost two years before the Administration used an unreliable intelligence report to justify his detention, the Bush Administration had determined he could be transferred out of DOD control.

DOD Recommended Transfer of Latif in 2006

Latif’s Gitmo file makes that clear.

JTF-GTMO recommends this detainee for Transfer Out of DoD Control (TRO). JTF-GTMO previously recommended detainee for Transfer Out of DoD Control (TRO) on 18 December 2006.

So on December 18, 2006, DOD determined they should transfer of Latif. On January 17, 2008, they determined they should transfer of Latif. (This is a point Judge Henry Kennedy made in his ruling, citing slightly different documents.) Presumably in January 22, 2010, Latif was among the 30 Yemeni detainees the Gitmo Task Force determined designated for “conditional” detention:

30 detainees from Yemen were designated for “conditional” detention based on the current security environment in that country. They are not approved for repatriation to Yemen at this time, but may be transferred to third countries, or repatriated to Yemen in the future if the current moratorium on transfers to Yemen is lifted and other security conditions are met.

The Bush Administration had designated 15 detainees for transfer; the Obama Administration transferred 6 of those in December 2009, before the UndieBomber attack, Mohammed Odaini got sent back in 2010 after winning his habeas petition, and one more Yemeni got transferred to a third country. Which suggests that Latif is among the unlucky 7 detainees whom both the Bush and Obama Administrations believe could be sent home, if it weren’t for the security situation in Yemen.

In other words, Latif remains in Gitmo because our partner in Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, doesn’t control the country, and because Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a plane, not because Latif himself represents a big threat.

Nevertheless, the Administration insisted on making a case, based on a dodgy intelligence report, to legitimize their continued detention of a man whom they had already decided could be transferred.

TD-314/00684-02 Is the Document Being Used to Hold Latif

As I laid out here, they did so primarily with an intelligence report from early 2002 that sorted through a large number of detainees turned over to the US by Pakistan in late 2001.

By comparing Latif’s Factual Return to his Gitmo File, we can be almost certain that this report is the cable numbered TD-314/00684-02. Read more

With Latif Decision, Section 1031 Authorizes Indefinitely Detaining Americans Based on Gossip

As I noted yesterday, both Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin understand Section 1031 of the Defense Authorization to authorize the indefinite detention of American citizens. Levin says we don’t have to worry about that, though, because Americans would still have access to habeas corpus review.

Section 1031 makes no reference to habeas corpus, and places no limitation on habeas corpus review.  Nor could it.  Under the Constitution, habeas corpus review is available to any American citizen who is held in military custody, and to any non-citizen who is held in military custody inside the United States.

Even ignoring the case of Jose Padilla, which demonstrates how easily the government can make habeas unavailable to American citizens, there’s another problem with Levin’s assurances.

Habeas was gutted on October 14, when Janice Rogers Brown wrote a Circuit Court opinion holding that in habeas suits, judges must grant official government records the
presumption of regularity.

The habeas case of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif largely focused on one report purporting to show that Latif fought with the Taliban. I suspect the report is an early 2002 CIA report, written during the period when the US was trying to sort through hundreds of detainees turned over (sometimes in exchange for a bounty) by the Pakistanis. The report I suspect is at issue summarizes the stories of at least 9 detainees, four of whom have already been transferred out of US custody. David Tatel’s dissent makes it clear that there were clear inaccuracies in the report, and he describes Judge Henry Kennedy’s judgment that this conditions under which this report was made–in the fog of war, the majority opinion agrees–increased the likelihood that the report was inaccurate. Of note, Latif’s Factual Return reveals the government believed him to be Bangladeshi until March 6, 2002 (see paragraph 4); they blame this misunderstanding on him lying, but seeing as how the language of an interrogation–whether Arabic or Bangladeshi–would either seem to make his Arab identity clear or beset the entire interrogation with language difficulties, it seems likely the misunderstanding came from the problem surrounding his early interrogations.

Beyond that report, the government relied on two things to claim that Latif had been appropriately detained: The claim that his travel facilitator, Ibrahim Alawi, is the same guy as an al Qaeda recruiter, Ibrahim Balawi (usually referred to as Abu Khulud), in spite of the fact that none of the 7 detainees recruited by Balawi have identified Latif. And the observation that Latif’s travel to Afghanistan from Yemen and then out of Afghanistan to Pakistan traveled the same path as that of al Qaeda fighters (here, too, none of the fighters who traveled that same path identified Latif as part of their group).

In other words, the government used one intelligence report of dubious reliability and uncorroborated pattern analysis to argue that Latif had fought with the Taliban and therefore is legally being held at Gitmo.

And in spite of the problem with the report (and therefore the government’s case), Judge Janice Rogers Brown held that unless Judge Kennedy finds Latif so credible as to rebut the government’s argument, he is properly held. More troubling, Rogers Brown held that judges must presume that government evidence gathering–intelligence reports–are accurate as a default.

When the detainee’s challenge is to the evidence-gathering process itself, should a presumption of regularity apply to the official government document that results ? We think the answer is yes.

Rogers Brown is arguing for a presumption of regularity, of course, for the same intelligence community that got us into Iraq on claims of WMD; the report in question almost certainly dates to around the same period that CIA went 6 months without noticing an obvious forgery.

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Pakistani Bounty Claims: Adnan Farhan Abd Al Latif and TD-314/00684-02

Benjamin Wittes has been complaining that no one besides Lawfare’s writers is looking closely at the DC Circuit decision in Latif.

Why has there been virtually no press coverage of the Latif decision? Other than this article on CNN’s web page, which actually ignores the aspect of the case that makes it jurisprudentially important, a search on Google News reveals none (other than Lawfare stuff).

Memo to the press: This case is important. It is far more likely, in my judgment, to provoke a cert grant than any habeas case the D.C. Circuit has decided to date. If and when it does so, it will present a novel and deeply important question to the Supreme Court: Whether the courts in reviewing these habeas cases should start with a presumption of the validity of government intelligence.

So I decided to take a closer look.

At issue is a Yemeni detainee, Adnan Farhan Abd Al Latif, picked up in Pakistan in December 2001 and alleged to have trained with al Qaeda. Judge Henry Kennedy granted Latif’s habeas petition last summer, largely because he found the government’s single most important piece of evidence–an intelligence report of some kind (which I’ll call the Report)–unreliable. The DC Circuit–with Judges Janice Rogers Brown and Karen Henderson in the majority and David Tatel in dissent–remanded the case on the issue of the detainee’s credibility. But on the more important issue–whether Kennedy was correct in dismissing the Report–they overturned the district decision. Here’s Wittes’ description of the evidentiary issue.

I think the document in question is a report with the serial number TD-314/00684-02 that I take to be the CIA’s report of Pakistani claims about a significant number of detainees they turned over to the US in December 2001–basically the intake report for a chunk of detainees, possibly (given the time and place) turned over for bounty.

Here’s my logic: Latif’s Gitmo file makes the same claim the government made in his habeas case: that Latif trained and then fought with al-Qaeda. But that entire report cites just one source–TD-314/00684-02–to make that claim. It cites TD-314/00684-02 to support the following assertions:

While detainee was with the Taliban, he encountered Abu Hudayfa the Kuwaiti; Abu Hafs the Saudi, and Abu Bakr from the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain. Detainee claimed he saw a lot of people killed during the bombings, but never fired a shot. Detainee then traveled to Jalalabad, AF, and crossed into Pakistan with fleeing Arabs, guided by Taqi Allah.


Detainee’s recruiter is assessed to be senior al-Qaida facilitator Ibrahim Muhammad Abd al-Razzaq Baalawi, aka (Abu Khulud). Detainee admitted Ibrahim Aliwee convinced detainee to travel to Afghanistan for jihad and admitted staying at Abu Khulud’s residence for a short period in Kandahar.


Detainee admitted receiving weapons training from the Taliban and then fighting in support of the Taliban on the front lines.


Detainee admitted after training he was sent to the front lines north of Kabul. Detainee remained there until the Taliban retreated and Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance.

For the remaining assertions regarding Latif’s ties to Al Qaeda, the Gitmo report includes no citation.

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Judge: One Night at a Zubaydah-Related Guest House Not Grounds for Indefinite Detention

As McClatchy reported yesterday, Judge Henry Kennedy granted a the habeas petition of a Yemeni man, Mohamed Hassan Odaini, several weeks ago. That brings the total number of men held at Gitmo who have won habeas petitions to 36.

Kennedy’s ruling reveals not just his exasperation with the government’s arguments, but also the absurd lengths to which the government is going to try to keep some of these men at Gitmo. While much of the ruling remains classified, the government is effectively trying to argue that Odaini must remain at Gitmo because he spent one night at a guest house with alleged ties to Abu Zubaydah (that night happened to be the night the US raided the house and captured its inhabitants), and that one night is all the proof they need to argue that the of evidence showing he’s just a student must be a cover story to hide an affiliation with al Qaeda.

As Kennedy lays out in detail, 12 other Gitmo detainees discussed the safe house in ways that were consistent with Odaini’s own story, and eight of them specifically identified him as a student who had been at the house for just a day or so before the raid. At least six times–starting back in 2002–different people associated with his detention declared him to be appropriate for release. That includes a June 2009 notice from the Gitmo Task Force that he could be transferred (which is not necessarily release, mind you). Yet between a stay and the moratorium on the release of Yemeni detainees put in place after the Christmas bombing attempt, Odaini remains in custody.

But, the government still argues that Odaini’s detention is legal–based partly on the fact that he was at that guest house when they raided it.

Pursuant to an order the Court issued in advance of the merits hearing in this case, the parties identified the issues in dispute and structured their presentations to address each issue in turn during the hearing. Accordingly, respondents first argued that Odaini’s stay in Issa House supports the conclusion that he is lawfully detained and second that his version of events is so implausible as to further support denial of the writ of habeas corpus. Both arguments fail.

Respondents insist that Odaini’ s presence at lssa House demonstrates that he is part of the Al Qaeda-affiliated network of a man named Abu Zubaydah. They vehemently argue that the fact that the occupants of Issa House allowed Odaini to come inside demonstrates that he was, like them, part of this network.

Much of the discussion surrounding the government’s argument is redacted. But it’s clear that at least part of it–apparently, the government’s theory of guest houses–is based on dubious expertise. Following one passage that is redacted, Kennedy wrote,

Based on this statement, respondents argue that the Court should find that Odaini is part of Al Qaeda and therefore lawfully detained. The Court will not do so. It is standard practice to tell jurors evaluating expert testimony that if”they [find] that the opinion is not based on sufficient education or experience, … the reasons supporting the opinion are not sound, or … the opinion is outweighed by other evidence, [they may] completely or partially disregard the opinion.”

Which raises the question of whether the redactions serve to hide classified information–or the government’s own dubious claims about the culture of guest houses (one of the few other unredacted passages in this section refute the claims made in the redacted section about the security of guest houses).

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