FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
NEW YORK - Decrying the government's failure to comply with a court order requiring it to respond to a request for information about prisoner mistreatment abroad, the American Civil Liberties Union today said it will raise the issue with the court in a hearing scheduled for September 9.
The government released only a handful of documents, only one of which was not already publicly available. The anemic document production comes less than a week after a federal judge in New York rebuked the government for its failure to comply with the ACLU's request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
"With the world's eyes focused on Guantanamo, one has to wonder what the administration has to hide," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero, who is at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba observing the opening hearings in the new military commissions ordered by President Bush. "As if the black box that is Guantanamo weren't enough, now the government is exporting its open disdain for public scrutiny into our judicial system."
Romero, who is joined at Guantanamo by observers from four other public interest and legal organizations, has been denied reasonable access to the media, to the commissions' principal officials and to the detainees themselves.
At issue is a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the NYCLU and other groups to force the Bush administration to comply with a FOIA request filed in October 2003. The request sought information about the government's treatment of detainees held in Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Last week, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ordered the agencies named in the request, including the FBI, CIA and the Departments of State and Defense, to begin complying.
Calling the current proceedings in Guantanamo "fundamentally flawed," the ACLU's Romero said that today's developments raise further questions about the legitimacy of America's detention policies in the war on terrorism. "With the American government being so short-sighted, we're merely going to put our men and women in uniform at risk of the very same abuses we've seen in places like Abu Ghraib," Romero said.
The ACLU has already provided the government with a list of specific records that it knows are in the government's possession. The court last week ordered the government to either turn over the records requested in that list or review the documents and provide specific reasons for not releasing them. Rather than actually comply with that order, the government has neither released the records nor completed its review. Instead, it has withheld the records, arguing that they may be exempt from release once they are actually reviewed. In many cases, the government has not stated when its review will be completed.
"Unfortunately, the agencies continue to withhold critical information, and consequently we don't have a complete picture of what the government's policies were or who put them in place," said Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU staff attorney. "The agencies seem determined to keep the public in the dark and to insulate high level officials from accountability."
Last week's court order for document production followed a contentious hearing during which the presiding judge sharply criticized the government's continued stonewalling. "We are all functioning in good faith," said Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein. "The information may be unpleasant, the information may be exempt or producible. To allow a process of this nature to go on so long as to be part of a lawsuit doesn't seem to be an exercise in good sense and judgment."
Other plaintiffs in the case include the Center for Constitutional Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans for Peace.
The lawsuit is being handled by Lawrence Lustberg and Jennifer Ching of the New Jersey-based law firm Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione, P.C. Other attorneys in the case are Jaffer, Amrit Singh and Judy Rabinovitz of the ACLU; Art Eisenberg and Beth Haroules of the NYCLU; and Steven Watt, Barbara Olshansky and Jeff Fogel of CCR.
A web feature about the case, including the eight documents the government released, is online at www.aclu.org/torturefoia