WASHINGTON -- In the past few months, the small commercial air service to the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been carrying people military authorities had hoped would never be allowed there -- American lawyers.
And they have been arriving in increasing numbers, providing more than a third of about 530 remaining detainees with representation in federal court. Despite considerable obstacles and expenses, other lawyers are eagerly lining up to challenge the government's detention of people the military has called enemy combatants and possible terrorists.
A meeting this month at the Manhattan law firm Clifford Chance drew dozens of new volunteer lawyers who attended lectures by lawyers who have been through the rigorous process of getting the government to allow them access to Guantanamo.
The increase in lawyers for Guantanamo detainees was set in motion last June, when the Supreme Court ruled against the Bush administration and said that the prisoners there were entitled to challenge their detention in federal courts.
The rate at which lawyers have stepped forward for the task might be a reflection of the changing public attitudes about Guantanamo and its mission.
"In the beginning, just after 9/11, we couldn't get anybody," said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the New York-based group that is coordinating the assigning of lawyers to prisoners. The earliest volunteers, Ratner said, were those who regularly handled death penalty clients and were accustomed to representing the reviled in nearly hopeless cases.
But in recent months, some of the nation's largest and most prominent firms have enlisted in the effort and devoted considerable resources to it, including Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale & Dorr; Clifford Chance; Covington & Burling; Dorsey & Whitney; and Allen & Overy.
"People are now eager to take this on," Ratner said. The law firms are bearing all the expenses, he said.
The influx of defense lawyers at Guantanamo also seems to have had some effect on the character of the detention facility. Some of the lawyers contend, and one official agreed, that it was likely a factor in the authorities' decision to end most of the interrogations in recent months.
In addition, some lawyers and human rights officials say that the lawyers' presence has reduced reports of abusive treatment by guards and interrogators, people that had been the subject of complaints from the Red Cross and the FBI.
Maj. Gen. Geoffrey C. Miller, who was the commander of the base for nearly three years, until August 2003, said during his tenure that the system was designed to make the prisoners as compliant as possible to make them thoroughly dependent on their interrogators. An important ingredient in accomplishing that, he and other military officials at the base said, was isolation from the outside world.
The arrival of defense lawyers at Guantanamo is an irreversible disruption of that isolation. The lawyers represent the detainees' access not only to federal courts, but also to the international media; the only other authorized visitors, foreign officials and representatives of the Red Cross, do not generally speak publicly about the detainees.
The lawyers' presence at Guantanamo has not resulted in any detainee gaining freedom while the legal issues move slowly through the courts.
Tina Foster, a lawyer at the Constitutional Rights Center who is coordinating the lawyer recruitment effort, said that of the 300 lawyers who have signed up, most have not been to Guantanamo because of the onerous process of getting a security clearance.