Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

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.

Time to End the War on Drugs

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is calling for a large-scale study on the question of  whether to legalize marijuana.  Arnold wants the study to include international comparisons to show the possible impact of such a change.  Cato just released such a study concerning Portugal.

Our friends at NORML are running ads like this in some markets.

Over at Reason, Jacob Sullum takes a look at national Zogby poll numbers, which shows that a majority of voters support marijuana legalization.

New Doherty Book Review

There is a new review of Brian Doherty’s book, Gun Control on Trial: Inside the Supreme Court Battle over the Second Amendment, over at The American Spectator.

The review captures the uphill battle that the Heller litigants faced in the District of Columbia:

When an employee on the Taxicab Commission once suggested that taxicab drivers be able to arm themselves for self- defense, a spokesman for then mayor Anthony Williams said, “The proposal is nutty, and obviously, it would not be entertained seriously by any thinking person.” After D.C. readjusted its laws in the wake of Heller so that guns were no longer prohibited but regulated to the point of making ownership exceedingly difficult, Mayor Adrian Fenty justified it thusly: “I don’t think [the people of D.C.] intended that anybody who had a vague notion of a threat should have access to a gun.” Apparently the mayor doesn’t know or doesn’t care that once a threat is real, it’s probably too late to go through all of the city’s regulatory hoops.

Cato held a book forum for the event, which is available here.  Also check out Reason TV’s videos of Brian discussing this historic legal battle, both before and after the decision came down.

More Property Rights Shenanigans on the West Coast

Cato recently filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to review a Ninth Circuit decision that tramples on property rights.  (See also this oped I co-authored with co-counsel.)

Well, tomorrow the Ninth Circuit hears another case involving property rights violations, and this time the plaintiffs, in exchange for a building permit, were forced to give up their right to vote. Arguing for the beleaguered property-owners will be none other than Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur.  You can read more about the case in Tim’s own blogpost on PLF’s site.

Here’s the basic principle with these cases: just as the government can’t take your property (for public use) without just compensation, it can’t attach arbitrary regulations and fees.  After all, if you own an acre of land and the government tells you you can’t do anything on it – be it run around or drain puddles or build – it might as well have “taken” it by eminent domain.  And if it says you can do these things only if you give up some other entitlement you have – not necessarily money, but, say, the right to put up signs criticizing the local government – it has imposed an unconstitutional condition on your enjoyment of your property.

Counterinsurgency or Counternarcotics?

This clip from NBC Nightly News shows a DEA raid in Afghanistan:

As I have said before, the quickest way to create an insurgent is to burn a man’s livelihood. This may be a competent counternarcotics tactic, but it is an epic failure as a counterinsurgency strategy. We can fight a war against the Taliban or we can fight the war on drugs, but we can’t do both in the same place at the same time.

Related thoughts from Doug Bandow here.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s Philosophy of Judging

Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals has been mentioned as a possible Supreme Court nominee.  She also has been caught on tape explaining her view of a judge’s role.  Reports the Washington Post:

As White House press secretary Robert Gibbs put it, Obama is looking for “somebody who understands how being a judge affects Americans’ everyday lives.”

Congressional conservatives have reacted anxiously to that qualification, fearing that it means a nominee who is more interested in making the law than in interpreting it.

One possible candidate for the seat, Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, appeared to walk close to that line in a video that emerged yesterday. Sotomayor would be the first Latino and the third woman to serve on the high court.

Speaking at Duke University in 2005, Sotomayor said, “All of the legal defense funds out there, they’re looking for people with court of appeals experience” because “the court of appeals is where policy is made.”

She then sought to soften the statement, adding lightly, “I know this is on tape and I should never say that, because we don’t make law, I know. Um, okay. I know. I’m not promoting it, I’m not advocating it.” The audience laughed as she brushed off the statement, perhaps sarcastically.

Making policy.  Yes, it is indisputable that that’s what judges often do.  But is that what they are supposed to do? 

President Barack Obama seems to think so, when he talks about the importance of “empathy” in judges.  (With whom do I empathize in this First Amendment case:  the U.S. Attorney General or the New York Times?  I vote for the Times!)  However, the Senate might want to debate this issue before approving someone to fill Justice David Souter’s vacancy, especially if the nominee shares the president’s apparent view that empathy is a substitute for jurisprudence in interpreting the law and Constitution.

One Step Closer to Gambling Online?

Following on from the mildly good news of a few weeks ago, Barney Frank (D, MA) has announced that he will introduce a bill tomorrow to roll back current restrictions on gambling online (the restrictions are made operative by bans on U.S. banks from processing transactions to and from gambling websites).  Although the details of the bill are yet to be released, this here article contains some good analysis.