The Emerging Law of Detention: The Guantánamo Habeas Cases as Lawmaking

Executive Summary

President Obama’s decision not to seek additional legislative authority for detentions at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba—combined with Congress’s lack of interest in the task—means that, for good or for ill, judges must write the rules governing military detention of terrorist suspects. As the United States reaches the president’s self-imposed January 22, 2010 deadline for Guantanamo’s closure with the base still holding nearly 200 detainees, the common-law process of litigating their habeas corpus lawsuits has emerged as the chief legislative mechanism for doing so.

It is hard to overstate the resulting significance of these cases. They are more than a means to decide the fate of the individuals in question. They are also the vehicle for an unprecedented wartime law-making exercise with broad implications for the future. The law established in these cases will in all likelihood govern not merely the Guantánamo detentions themselves but any other detentions around the world over which American courts acquire habeas jurisdiction. What’s more, to the extent that these cases establish substantive and procedural rules governing the application of law-of-war detention powers in general, they could end up impacting detentions far beyond those immediately supervised by the federal courts. They might, in fact, impact superficially-unrelated military activities, such as the planning of operations, the selection of interrogation methods, or even the decision to target individuals with lethal force.

This peculiar delegation of a major legislative project to the federal courts arose because of the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision that the courts have jurisdiction to hear Guantánamo habeas cases. While the justices insisted on a role for the courts, they expressly refused to define the contours of either the government’s detention authority or the procedures associated with the challenges it authorized. All of these questions they left to the lower courts to address in the first instance. Combined with the passivity of the political branches in the wake of the high court’s decision, this move placed an astonishing raft of difficult questions in the hands of the federal district court judges in Washington and the appellate judges who review their work.

Yet despite the scope of its mandate and the project’s manifest importance, the courts’ actual work product over the past year has received relatively little attention. While the press has kept a running scorecard of government and detainee wins and losses, it has devoted almost no attention to the rules the courts—in their capacity as default legislators—are writing for the military and for the nation as a whole. Our purpose in this report is to describe in detail and analyze the courts’ work to date—and thus map the contours of the nascent law of military detention that is emerging from it.

Generally speaking, the law remains altogether unsettled. While in some areas judges have developed a strong consensus, in many other areas they have disagreed profoundly. They disagree about what the government needs to prove for a court to sign off on a detention, about what evidence it may employ in doing so, and about how deeply a court should probe material collected and processed for intelligence purposes, not litigation. Indeed, the judges of the federal District Court and D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals have, in the public opinions we reviewed, articulated differing approaches to or failed to authoritatively answer such elemental matters as:

  • The substantive scope of the government’s detention authority—that is, what sort of person falls within the category of individuals the government may lock up under its power to wage war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Does this class include only members of enemy forces or also their supporters? Can one even distinguish between the two? If the government is allowed to detain supporters, will any support qualify a person for detention or does it have to be substantial support? And even if the government can prove that a person has the requisite connection to the enemy, must it also prove that he is likely to commit a dangerous act of some description if released?
  • Whether and when a detainee can sever his relationship with enemy forces such that his detention is no longer a legal option. If a detainee once joined Al Qaeda, does he always count as Al Qaeda for legal purposes? Can he leave the group after some period of membership or association and thus no longer qualify for detention? Can he break with the group after capture by cooperating with authorities and thereby qualify no longer for continued detention? If a detainee can sever his relationship to the enemy, who has the burden of showing that he either did or didn’t do so? Does the detainee have to prove vitiation of the relationship or does the government have to prove its ongoing vitality?
  • What presumptions the courts should make regarding government evidence. Should the rough and tumble of warfare make them more forgiving or more skeptical of evidence whose provenance may be inexact? Should they grant either a presumption of authenticity or a presumption of accuracy to government evidence?
  • How to handle hearsay evidence that courts in normal cases would eschew. How should the courts handle intelligence reports whose sources the government may not identify? How should they handle statements by a detainee’s fellow prisoners in interrogations years ago when these witnesses may have long since left Guantánamo? And how should they handle interrogation statements by the detainees themselves?
  • How to handle detainee or witness statements alleged to have been extracted involuntarily or through abuse. Who bears the burden of proving that a statement either was or was not given voluntarily? What level of coercion suffices to render a statement unusable in these proceedings? And where coercion has taken place, how long does the taint of it last and under what circumstances does it lift?

The judges have struggled with other foundational questions as well, questions on which they have either found common ground or in which their disagreements remain latent: Who bears the burden of proof in these cases and by what standard of evidence? How should the courts treat “mosaics” of relatively weak data—mosaics which routinely inform intelligence analysis but are quite alien to federal court proceedings? And to what extent, if any, does the showing required of the government escalate over time?

So fundamentally do the judges disagree on the basic design elements of American detention law that their differences are almost certainly affecting the bottom-line outcomes in at least some instances. That is, some detainees freed by certain district judges would likely have had the lawfulness of their detentions affirmed had other judges—who have articulated different standards—heard their cases. And some detainees whose incarceration these other judges have approved would likely have had habeas writs granted had the first group of judges heard their cases.

The current degree of disagreement among the judges may be reduced over time, as several of the cases are currently on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and could easily head from there to the Supreme Court. These appeals should collectively go a long way towards narrowing the range of possible answers to the questions with which the lower court judges are now struggling. Or at least they may do so eventually. For the moment, the appeals are in various stages of development, with only one decided so far.

In the meantime, the lack of clarity regarding such important matters as the scope of the government’s detention power and the circumstances in which an interrogation statement can be used to justify a detention presents problems from the perspectives of both the detainees and the government. Neither can be sure of the rules of the road in the ongoing litigation, and the prospect that allocation of a case to a particular judge may prove dispositive on the merits can cut in either direction. Because it remains unclear how far the courts’ jurisdiction extends, moreover, nobody knows at this stage precisely how many cases these rules will ultimately govern and where else in the world they will have a direct impact. More fundamentally, because the courts in these cases are defining not merely the rules for habeas review but also the substantive law of detention itself, they have implications far beyond the litigation context. The rules the judges craft could have profound implications for decisions in the field concerning whether to initially detain, or even target, a given person, whether to maintain a detention after an initial screening, whether to employ certain lawful but coercive interrogation methods, and so forth.