The Jurisprudence of Detention: Definitions and Cases

Almost a year has passed since the Supreme Court’s decision to extend habeas rights to Guantanamo in Boumediene. Detention policy is currently under review by interagency task forces; it is worth looking at what the developing body of detention rulings say about the future of detention.

Taking prisoners is an unavoidable part of military action. Telling our troops that they can engage identified enemies with lethal force but cannot detain them puts them in an impossible position.

But who can we hold? The Taliban foot soldier is an easy case, but as we move away from the battlefield things get a little fuzzy. A chronological review of the decisions regarding detainee status gives some insight.

Salim Hamdan

The first case comes from the military commissions convened in Guantanamo. Though it predates Boumediene, it puts the question of who is an unlawful enemy combatant in front of a judge.

Salim Hamdan was the petitioner in the Supreme Court case that invalidated military commissions established by executive order. Congress responded to his victory at the Supreme Court with the Military Commissions Act (MCA) to establish legislatively-sanctioned commissions, but their jurisdiction is limited to “alien unlawful enemy combatants.”

Following the passage of the MCA, Hamdan’s defense counsel filed a motion for an additional hearing to determine whether he was a lawful or unlawful combatant. If he was a lawful combatant, then the commission would lack jurisdiction and he might then be prosecuted in a court-martial. Lawful combatants (i) have a commander, (ii) wear uniforms or a distinctive symbol, (iii) bear their arms openly, and (iv) follow the laws of land warfare.

Captain Allred, the officer presiding, granted the defense motion.

Allred found that Hamdan’s service to Al Qaeda as Osama Bin Laden’s driver and occasional bodyguard, pledge of bayat (allegiance) to Bin Laden, training in a terrorist camp, and transport of weapons for Al Qaeda and affiliated forces supported finding him an enemy combatant. Hamdan was captured at a roadblock with two surface-to-air missiles in the back of his vehicle. The Taliban had no air force; the only planes in the sky were American. Hamdan was driving toward Kandahar, where Taliban and American forces were engaged in a major battle. The officer that took Hamdan into custody took pictures of the missiles in Hamdan’s vehicle before destroying them.

Hamdan’s past association with the Ansars (supporters), a regularized fighting unit under the Taliban, did not make him a lawful combatant. Though the Ansars wore uniforms and bore their arms openly, Hamdan was taken into custody in civilian clothes and had no distinctive uniform or insignia.

Based on his “direct participation in hostilities” and lack of actions to make him a lawful combatant, Captain Allred found that Hamdan was an unlawful enemy combatant.

Decisions Under the Enemy Combatant Definition

Following Boumediene, detainees have had their cases heard by federal judges. The District Court for the District of Columbia adopted and applied the following definition, and the government need only prove it by a preponderance of the evidence:

An “enemy combatant” is an individual who was part of or supporting Taliban or al Qaeda forces, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners. This includes any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported hostilities in aid of enemy armed forces.

District Judge Richard J. Leon moved through these cases quicker than his colleagues and gives us several decisions to look at.

Lakhdar Boumediene, et al.: Five ordered released, one detained. This is the set of six petitioners that won the right to habeas corpus hearings at the Supreme Court. They were picked up in Bosnia and allegedly planned to travel to Afghanistan to fight against American forces. Judge Leon ordered five of the six released because the word of an unnamed informant was simply not enough to justify their detention. Since the evidence was insufficient to determine that a plan to travel to Afghanistan existed, Judge Leon did not reach the question of whether such a plan would constitute “support.” Leon found that the sixth man, Belkalem Bansayah, was an enemy combatant based on corroborating sources and evidence that he was adept in using false passports in multiple fake names and was facilitating the travel of others to fight in Afghanistan. This constituted “support” necessary to find him an enemy combatant.

Hisham Sliti: One detained.  Sliti is a Tunisian who traveled from London to Afghanistan on a false passport. He was detained in 2000 by Pakistani authorities because of his false passport and had an address book with contact information for radical extremists. He escaped back into Afghanistan and was later re-captured fleeing the American military in 2001. Judge Leon found that he had traveled to Afghanistan with the financial support of extremists with well-established ties to Al Qaeda, spent time with Al Qaeda-affiliated radicals, stayed at a guesthouse associated with Al Qaeda that served as barracks for terrorist training camps, and that other guests at the house were instrumental in creating terrorist cells. By his own admission, he knew the location, appearance, and code words used by those attending the nearby training camp.

Moath Hamza Ahmed al Alwi: One detained. Al Alwi is a Yemeni who traveled from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban against the Northern Alliance. Judge Leon found that al Alwi could remain in custody based on the evidence that he had trained at Al Qaeda camps, stayed at Al Qaeda guesthouses, fought on two fronts with the Taliban, and did not leave Afghanistan until his Taliban unit was bombed on two or three occasions by American aircraft.

Mohammed el Gharani: One ordered released.  El Gharani is a Saudi who went to Pakistan around 2001. The government alleged that he had been a member of an Al Qaeda cell in London, stayed at an Al Qaeda-affiliated guesthouse, and fought American forces at the battle of Tora Bora. Judge Leon did not find these claims credible, as all of them were based on the word of fellow detainees. The government also alleged that he had been a courier for Al Qaeda, but had insufficient evidence to back up this claim.

In the above cases, six detainees have been ordered released and three met the criteria to be classified as “enemy combatants.”

Transition From “Enemy Combatant” to “Substantial Support”

The Obama administration has since dropped the term “enemy combatant” and changed its claim of detention authority:

The President has the authority to detain persons that the President determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and persons who harbored those responsible for those attacks. The President also has the authority to detain persons who were part of, or substantially supported, Taliban or al-Qaida forces or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act, or has directly supported hostilities, in aid of such enemy armed forces.

The first decision under the new definition came down from District Judge Ellen Huvelle.

Yasin Muhammed Basardh: One ordered released. Basardh is a Yemeni who was arrested in early 2002 and transported to Guantanamo Bay. He cooperated with detention authorities, giving information about his fellow detainees. As a result, other detainees physically assaulted him and threatened to kill him. Judge Huvelle determined that widespread disclosure of Basardh’s cooperation with the government renders his prospects for rejoining terrorists “at best, a remote possibility.”

Judicial Review of the Authority to Detain

The definitions of “enemy combatant” and the power claimed by the Obama administration are very similar, and the addition of “substantially” is probably only going to affect marginal cases.

A recent review of the revised claim of detention power broadly approved the government’s power of detention. District Judge Reggie B. Walton accepted, in a slightly modified form, the general power of the government to detain those who have participated in hostilities. In doing so, he rejected a detainee’s claims that the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed after 9/11 did not allow military detention and that detainees must be tried in a civilian court or released.

Judge Walton adopted the following definition for detention decisions:

[I]n addition to the authority conferred upon him by the plain language of the AUMF, the President has the authority to detain persons who were part of, or substantially supported, the Taliban or al-Qaeda forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, provided that the terms “substantially supported” and “part of” are interpreted to encompass only individuals who were members of the enemy organization’s armed forces, as that term is intended under the laws of war, at the time of their capture.

Judge Walton did limit the government’s detention authority to those part of the “command structure” of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. This precludes detaining “[s]ympathizers, propagandists, and financiers” that may be part of enemy organizations in an abstract sense but who are not part of the organizations’ command structure. Judge Walton also did not resolve the issue of organizations and individuals “associated” with the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Though Judge Walton rejected the petitioners’ “direct participation in hostilities” standard for detention in favor of the government’s “substantial support” standard, he explicitly authorized detention of an Al Qaeda “member tasked with housing, feeding, or transporting” members of the organization. An Al Qaeda cook who trained at a terrorist camp can be detained just as “his comrade guarding the camp entrance.”

The competing definitions can often arrive at the same conclusion. Captain Allred determined that Salim Hamdan was an unlawful enemy combatant for a combination of the “substantial support” activities under the “direct participation in hostilities” standard.


The cases above illustrate that the general principles of detention have not changed significantly with adjusted definitions. The terms “enemy combatant,” “direct participation in hostilities,” and “substantial support” will be interpreted by judges on a case-by-case basis much like a finding of probable cause to issue a warrant or justify a search.

Vetting the Future Supreme Court Justice

In choosing a Supreme Court nominee to replace Justice Souter, President Obama will have an opportunity to avoid the partisanship he promised to reduce on the campaign trail, which his legislative agenda has thus far only exacerbated.

But given the way Bush nominees were treated by Senate Democrats, it won’t be easy. After the stormy confirmation hearings for Judges Bork and Thomas, President Clinton’s nominations of Judges Ginsburg and Breyer sailed through the confirmation process with little opposition and even less acrimony. With the return of Republican nominees after the election of George W. Bush, however, Senate Democrats resumed their scorched earth practices, starting with appellate court nominees and continuing to the nominations of Judges Roberts and Alito to the High Court.

Hearings were never held, filibusters were threatened and reputations were tarnished.

The question now for Senate Republicans will be, is turnabout fair-play?

The answer may turn on just who President Obama selects. At the least, given this recent history, there is no reason Senate Republicans need to be unduly deferential to the president’s nominee. We will need to know both the judicial philosophy and the constitutional philosophy of the nominee.

That will require respectful but sharp questioning by members of the loyal opposition. Their duty under the Constitution requires nothing less.

State Secrets Case Proceeds

A three-judge panel from the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled yesterday that the State Secrets Privilege, a doctrine barring the introduction of sensitive information as evidence, did not bar a suit by former CIA detainees.  (H/T SCOTUSBlog)

The plaintiffs allege that the defendant, a contract airline associated with the extraordinary rendition program, knowingly flew them to countries where they would be tortured.  The panel held that individual pieces of evidence may be subject to the Privilege, but a suit could not be entirely barred by a government assertion that sensitive information could be revealed.

This presents a split in federal circuit rulings on the State Secrets Privilege.  The Fourth Circuit held that the Privilege could bar a civil suit entirely.  This expansion of the State Secrets Privilege, started under Bush and continued under Obama, is a departure from the fact-specific evaluation described by the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Reynolds.  “Judicial control over the evidence in a case cannot be abdicated to the caprice of executive officers.”

As my colleague Tim Lynch has written before, the State Secrets Privilege often has little to do with keeping secrets and a lot to do with avoiding liability.  All that remains to be seen is whether the Obama administration will appeal the ruling, either to an en banc rehearing by the full Ninth Circuit or at the Supreme Court.

Tuesday Podcast: ‘Anthony Kennedy’s Modest Libertarianism’

Author Helen J. Knowles calls Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy a “modest libertarian” in her new book The Tie Goes to Freedom: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy on Liberty, which analyzes Kennedy’s jurisprudence.

In Tuesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Knowles explains why she chose to recognize Justice Kennedy as a “modest libertarian”:

If you line all the justices up and say… did they vote for the individual, or for the government? Kennedy is overwhelmingly in favor of the individual rather than the government, far more than any of his colleagues.

An Eminent Domain Injustice

“My name is Susette Kelo, and the government stole my home.”

That was how former New London, Connecticut resident Susette Kelo, who lost her home in one of the most troubling legal battles against eminent domain abuse, began her talk at the Cato Institute in January.

The court ruled that Susette Kelo’s little pink house in New London, and the homes of her neighbors could be taken by the government and given over to a private developer based on the mere prospect that the new use for her property could generate more taxes or jobs.

At this time, the property is still empty.

In this new mini-documentary produced by Austin Bragg and Caleb Brown, those who fought on Kelo’s behalf tell her story.

For an in depth look at Kelo’s case, read Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage by Jeff Benedict.

For more videos like this one, subscribe to Cato’s YouTube channel.

Monday Podcast: ‘Challenging Domestic Military Detentions’

410px-ali_saleh_kahlah_al_marriAli Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, the exchange student from Qatar who was detained by the FBI with alleged ties to al-Qaeda, sat for years in a military brig in South Carolina as the only domestically detained enemy combatant.

The Bush Administration used al-Marri to test a legal theory aimed at keeping suspected terrorists in military prisons indefinitely.

President Obama has reversed that ruling, and has moved al-Marri into civilian courts. The Supreme Court is no longer hearing al-Marri’s appeal.

In Monday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Legal Policy Analyst David Rittgers says that there’s nothing that will stop future administrations from again reversing the policy.

This is creating this legal cul-de-sac where we can have military detention domestically…and the reason that they picked Al-Marri is, just as you would pick a sympathetic plaintiff to sue to overturn a law, if you want to keep a law…you would look for an unsympathetic defendant, and Al-Marri is as unsympathetic as you can get.

…He is the test case to keep this policy open.

The Cato Institute co-authored an amicus brief (PDF) at the Supreme Court supporting al-Marri’s challenge to the military detention.