Detainees' lawyers allege surveillance

Government is spying on their talks, Guantanamo attorneys say

May 07, 2008|By New York Times News Service

One lawyer for Guantanamo detainees said he replaced his office telephone in Washington because of sounds that convinced him it had been bugged. Another lawyer who represents detainees said he sometimes had other lawyers call his corporate clients to foil any government eavesdroppers.

In interviews and a court filing yesterday, lawyers for detainees at Guantanamo said they believed government agents have monitored their conversations. The assertions are the most specific to date by Guantanamo lawyers that officials may be violating legal principles that have generally kept government agents from eavesdropping on lawyers.

"I think they are listening to my telephone calls all the time," said John A. Chandler, a prominent Atlanta lawyer and Army veteran who represents six Guantanamo detainees.

Several of the lawyers, including partners at large corporate law firms, said the concerns had changed the way they go about their work apart from Guantanamo cases. A lawyer in Chicago, H. Candace Gorman, said in an affidavit that she was no longer accepting new clients of any type because she could not assure them confidentiality.

The new filing, by the Center for Constitutional Rights, came in a 2007 lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act in which Guantanamo lawyers are seeking records to determine whether they have been targets of surveillance.

The Justice Department declined to comment yesterday. But in a legal response in March, its lawyers said they could neither confirm nor deny that detainees' lawyers had been targets of such surveillance "because doing so would compromise the United States Intelligence Communities' sources and methods."

Justice Department officials have said in the past that they had not used their terrorist-surveillance powers to target lawyers but that telephone "calls involving such persons would not be categorically excluded."

Since 2001, lawyers representing terrorism suspects not being held at Guantanamo have said they suspected government eavesdropping. Justice Department officials have said they intercepted such lawyers' conversations rarely and inadvertently.

But some detainees' lawyers say they believe there may be a comprehensive effort to monitor their communications at Guantanamo and elsewhere.

In yesterday's filing in U.S. District Court in New York, Thomas B. Wilner, a partner at Shearman & Sterling, said government officials insisting on anonymity told him twice that he "should be careful in my electronic communications."

In addition to being a leading Guantanamo lawyer, Wilner is an international trade law specialist. "You need to be very careful in what you say on the telephone," he said in an interview.

Gorman's court filing said that during a visit to the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba, her military escort "referred in conversation to personal information about my family that I had not disclosed to him."

Several of the lawyers said a program of surveillance would be consistent with obstacles they have encountered in representing detainees. In 2004, officials proposed "real-time monitoring" of lawyers' interviews with Guantanamo detainees.

A federal judge barred that, saying that listening to lawyers' meetings failed to recognize "the exceptional place in the legal system of the United States" for attorney-client communications.

Guantanamo officials say that they monitor attorney-client meetings for the safety of lawyers with video cameras but that meeting areas are not wired for sound. But several lawyers said clients had told them that interrogators had asked them about topics that had been discussed.

The Guantanamo spokeswoman, Cmdr. Pauline A. Storum, said interrogators are trained not to inquire about attorney-client meetings.

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