Stimson bullies detainees lawyers

Though I’ve never met Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles Stimson, based on his public attempt to generate a corporate boycott of law firms offering “pro bono” representation to terrorist suspects being held at Guantanamo Bay, I believe the man should be fired.

As virtually everyone now knows, Stimson gave an interview last week in which he implied that firms providing representation to prisoners are at best unpatriotic and at worst in the employ of this nation’s enemies. It was a blatant attempt to threaten the law firms providing the representation to back off and urging their corporate clients to seek representation elsewhere if the firms fail to do so.

Stimson is the deputy assistant secretary for detainee affairs, so Gitmo apparently comes under his jurisdiction. At any rate, he’s the guy who runs reporters and lawyers down there to show them just how fortunate the detainees are to be there rather than somewhere else. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I suspect things aren’t as bad at Gitmo as they could be or as bad as they are for the prisoners shipped off to prisons in some third-world country for questioning.

But that’s hardly the point. Stimson is apparently annoyed by the attorneys who have volunteered to see to it that prisoners we hold receive something approaching civilized treatment and that those who may have been caught up in sweeps and jailed without ever having done anything wrong get the help they need to eventually win their freedom. Lawyers for the defense are always an annoyance. Prosecutors don’t like them and neither do those who run prisons and jails, but most recognize that it’s a defense lawyer’s role to be annoying based on no less than our Constitution.

It would be far easier to jail miscreants if they didn’t have lawyers and those jailed would be easier to deal with if they weren’t able to go crying to their attorneys whenever some guard steps out of line. Of course, without lawyers, the innocent as well as the guilty might end up behind bars and our jails and prisons might come to resemble the hellholes depicted in some old movies showing southern prisons of the ’40s and ’50s.

Stimson and those like him no doubt believe deeply that there are no innocents at Gitmo and that those there represent people who, as our sworn enemies, deserve worse than they get regardless of how badly they might be treated. The problem is, of course, that some detainees have already been released years after their arrest because it turned out they hadn’t done anything wrong. One suspects there might be others who are behind the fences not because they are terrorists but because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I have no doubt that almost all of those we are holding are guilty and that we can justify how they are treated. Doubters are living in a fantasy world, but that does not mean we should as a nation sink to the level of our enemies. We don’t treat the guilty or our enemies as badly as some cultures do not because torture doesn’t work (though it usually does not), but because doing so would betray the values that make this nation unique.

Justice requires that we punish the guilty and good sense demands that we hold on to combatants we capture so long as their release would endanger us, but justice and good sense both require that we weed out the guilty from the innocent and send the innocent home to their families and loved ones. Anyone who understands what this country is all about should understand why this is so important.

And anyone except perhaps Mr. Stimson who has attended law school should understand that the only way to do this is through the legal representation of the guilty, the suspected and the innocent. More than 500 lawyers from dozens of major firms around the country are today providing the legal assistance that so annoys Mr. Stimson. He obviously wants the legal advice to stop and if he can get the lawyers to pull back by impugning their patriotism or getting the clients who put food on their table to threaten them on his behalf, he might succeed.

Fortunately, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Stimson’s superiors at the Defense Department are, in the peculiar way government officials like to do these things, “distancing” themselves from Stimson. In the real world, there is only one way to deal with an employee who, in the words of a Defense Department spokesman, “doesn’t speak for the Department” on such matters: Fire him. 

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (