The Talking Dog

April 13, 2013, TD Blog Interview with Michael Mone

Michael Mone, Jr. is an attorney with the Boston law firm of Esdaile, Barrett, Jacobs & Mone. He represents a Syrian national still detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and previously represented an Uzbek national detained at Guantanamo who was resettled to Ireland in 2009. On April 9, 2013, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Mone by telephone. What follows are my interview notes as corrected by Mr. Mone.

The Talking Dog: Can you tell me how you first became involved in represented Guantanamo detainees?

Michael Mone: In 2005 I decided to volunteer to represent a detainee at Guantánamo on a pro bona basis. I got in touch with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and they assigned me a Saudi client; but he was released before I even got to meet him. Then, I was assigned to represent a man who was identified to me as an Egyptian national confined to a wheel chair-- Abu Abdul Aziz. I worked on his case for at least six months, before I realized that the Egyptian in the wheelchair actually went by the name Saami al Lahti, that he was already represented by Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve, and that he too had been released. The mix-up was due in part to stale information provided by a third detainee as to who actually wanted/needed a lawyer. This was back in day when the US government wasn’t exactly forthcoming about who was in Guantánamo, nor did they see the need to facilitate a detainee’s access to counsel.

In April 2006, CCR approached me again, and this time, assigned me Oybek Jabbarov, an Uzbek national. I represented Oybek and, eventually, managed to secure his release and resettlement in Ireland in September 2009. Soon thereafter he was reunited with his wife and two sons after nearly eight years of separation. Initially, I spent quite a lot of time just trying to get the protective order entered in his habeas case so that I could actually write to and meet my client. I had to file a petition under the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals just to get the protective order entered so I could have permission to communicate with him. It took close to a year between being assigned his case and when I finally met him in August of 2007.

Then, in September of 2009, after years of working to secure his release and great efforts to get the Irish government to accept Oybek for resettlement (as well as great effort to get the U.S. government to send him there), I finally had the long-awaited fateful meeting where I could finally deliver the news Oybek had been waiting to hear: that he was getting out of Guantánamo and that he would shortly be going to Ireland. It is a moment I will never forget.

As I flew out of Guantánamo the next day, I recall looking out the window, and thinking to myself that I would never ever have to come back to this place again. As fate would have it, I had not landed in Fort Lauderdale from Cuba for more than ten minutes, before another habeas attorney asked me to take over the representation of his Syrian client. I told him I could not do it at that moment, as I had too many loose ends to tie up with Oybek, not to mention other pressing legal matters back at the office. But the main reason was that I was just emotionally and mentally exhausted from representing Oybek, and I wasn’t ready to throw myself into another detainee’s case. So I told my colleague I needed some time to catch up on things, but that I would take up the representation once those matters were attended to if the client were still at Guantanamo. And sure enough, that man-- Ali Hussein al-Shabhan, ISN 327, a Syrian national has been my client since May of 2010.

The Talking Dog: To the extent you can, please tell me something about your client, such as age, family status, personality, circumstances of their capture, or anything else you believe of relevance, as well as the status of his habeas proceedings.

Michael Mone: Ali is one of 86 men at Guantánamo who are cleared for transfer. As such, his habeas case is stayed. As I did with Oybek, I am trying to get a third country to consider accepting Ali for resettlement. Even before the Arab Spring, Ali could not be safely repatriated to Syria due to legitimate fears of persecution at the hands of the Assad regime. Certainly now, with Syria in civil war, repatriation is out of the question. Not that Ali has any interest in every returning to Syria -- he doesn’t. He wants to re-build his life in a new country where he can be safe and live in peace.

Ali will be 31 in June. He has been in GTMO since June of 2002, having spent the entire decade of his 20's in that prison. Prior to his detention, he was living in Kabul, Afghanistan with some other Syrians. When the fighting broke out, he joined the exodus of people trying to get out of harm’s way and flee to Pakistan. He left with three other Syrians he knew in Kabul, and they made their way to Pakistan, but they were picked up by Pakistani border guards and handed over to U.S. forces for a bounty.

Ali traveled to Afghanistan after graduating from high school. He wanted to "see the world" and visit a country more devoted to Islam than Syria. He was the eldest of ten siblings, and lived with his extended family; his father was a welder, and he worked every day after school in his father’s shop. After finishing school, he just wanted to travel, explore his faith, and escape a rather oppressive country for a while.

The Talking Dog: Can you tell me if your client or clients is or are participating in the present hunger strike, and whether they have participated in prior hunger strikes? And can you tell me how your most recent visit to GTMO compares, in terms of restrictiveness for example, with prior visits?

MIchael Mone: I have not spoken to Ali since the hunger strike broke out. I last spoke to him in December of 2012, for about an hour and a half. I had a call scheduled for Wednesday of last week, but unfortunately, he did not come to the phone. He has missed calls with me before, so that, by itself, is not determinative of anything.

However, I recently read that one of the lawyers representing another Syrian at Guantanamo who had been living with Ali in Kabul is on hunger strike, so I suspect Ali might be on hunger strike as well. Ali has not been a committed hunger striker in the past, so if he is on hunger strike now, that kind of tells you just how bad things have gotten there.

I haven't been to Guantanamo myself since April of 2011, and so I can't really give you any insight into how things compare now in terms of conditions. The last time I went down, Ali told me that he didn't want me coming down "just to see him"-- he said he'd rather not see me at all unless I had something concrete to tell him (presumably, about his getting out), and I've respected his wishes. Previous to that visit, I had flown to GTMO to see him in January of 2011, but he refused to see me. I wish I had something significant to tell him that required a face-to-face meeting, but unfortunately that just hasn’t been the case. I do write him and schedule calls as regularly as I can.

The Talking Dog: Can you comment on media coverage, in particular, of events at Guantanamo in calendar year 2013, and previously, and in particular, with respect to your own clients and representation?

Michael Mone: Prior to the hunger strike, there was very little media coverage at all about the men at Guantanamo. Yes, Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald and others were reporting on the military commissions concerning the alleged 9/11 conspirators, but my client, and those cleared for transfer for years, received no coverage at all before the hunger strike. Their plight has been largely forgotten, or ignored, for years. It's sad that it takes a hunger strike for the media to pay attention to these men, but that's where we are.

Back in 2009, President Obama sent Admiral Patrick Walsh down to Guantanamo to make sure conditions there complied with the Geneva Conventions, and I recall him saying how he was struck by how uncertainty plays over time, that is to say the psychological toll of not knowing when, if ever, you were getting off the island, and the effect it was having on the men. He specifically mentioned the Uighurs, who had a court order for their release, yet at the time they had gone nowhere, and the impact their plight had on the other men. That was over four years ago! Now, you've got 86 men cleared for transfer by a unanimous decision of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, and by the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and yet, we're still holding the men. This is completely unacceptable.

The Talking Dog: We have reached the point where more men have died at Guantanamo (and invariably under suspicious circumstances) than have been "convicted" under the controversial "military commissions," and a number of those "convicted" have actually been released, while the majority held are actually "cleared for release." President Obama has been handily reelected, notwithstanding the utter failure of his "close Guantanamo within one year" promise and evident decision to continue the logical arc of policies he inherited from the Bush/Cheney Administration. Further, Justice Stevens has retired, replaced with Obama's own former solicitor general, who might or might not continue recusing herself from any Guantanamo related litigation. And so, in light of all that, do you have any predictions for Guantanamo, "preventive detention" and related issues for, say, the remainder of Barack Obama's Presidency?

Michael Mone: If you had told me in 2005, when I first signed on to represent a detainee, that I would still be doing this eight years later, I would have said you were crazy. But here we are. I hesitate to make any predictions. I certainly hope that the Secretary of Defense, military personnel at the base, and habeas lawyers can come together and reach a short term solution to ending the hunger strike. I understand that the specific incident that triggered the strike involved the alleged mishandling of Korans. I would hope that some accommodation can be reached that would satisfy the detainees and end the hunger strike.

But the underlying cause of the hunger strike is what Admiral Walsh commented on in 2009, and that is the uncertainty, and the utter despair and hopelessness that it creates, of not knowing when, if ever, you will get out of Guantánamo and see your family again.

Unless they can relieve pressure in the long term, you will have a very dire result at Guantanamo; some men will surely die from the hunger strike.

One frustration I have is that you could give these men some hope by transferring some of those men who are cleared for release. Yes, Congress has erected barriers, but there are provisions in the current NDAA that allow for the transfer of detainees. This would go a long way towards relieving some of the uncertainty and despair, but it would take a measure of political will and presidential leadership that we simply haven't seen from the Obama Administration since the Executive Order to close the base was first announced.

President Obama certainly made some courageous promises in 2009, but then, in the face of opposition, he ended up doing nothing. In May of 2009, the Administration had a plan to relocate two Uighurs to Northern Virginia-- but in the face of Republican (and some Democratic) opposition, the President backed off. In doing so, he missed an opportunity to defend his decision to close the prison at Guantánamo, and to explain to the American people that resettling these men in the US -- men picked up simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time who posed no danger to anyone -- was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, instead of standing up for principle at a critical moment, he punted, and the Administration has really been backtracking on Guantánamo ever since.

There was an ABC/Washington Post poll from last year that showed on national security issues, 53% of self-identified liberal Democrats support President Obama's decision to keep Guantanamo open. Given those results, there's obviously no political price to be paid for breaking his promise to close Guantánamo. At the end of the day, the American people don't really care.

The Talking Dog: Can you tell me how your Guantanamo representation has effected you personally, be it professionally, emotionally, spiritually, or any other way you'd like to answer?

Michael Mone: I've been practicing law for sixteen years and will probably go another twenty or so... but I know that representing a detainee in Guantanamo is the best thing that I will ever do as a lawyer. John Adams once said that, of all the things that he ever did, and that includes serving as President of the United States and authoring the Declaration of Independence, that the best service he ever rendered his country was the defense of British soldiers accused of committing the Boston Massacre. Now, I'm not comparing myself to John Adams, but this experience has taught me how vital it is for lawyers to represent unpopular clients or causes -- it is in the best traditions of our profession, and it is what our system of justice depends upon. It is the best service a lawyer can render to his country.

My Uzbek client, Oybek, once said to me "You know, I don’t understand how your country could arrest me, throw me in jail, and mistreat me, and then at that same time, let me have a US lawyer to defend me and try to get me out of here. It makes no sense.” But that is how our system is supposed to work. But we've gotten away from many of our basic values since 9/11, and we need to get back to our traditional respect for human rights and the rule of law. Unfortunately, once the pendulum swings away from civil liberties and the rule of law, and towards "security," it doesn't always swing back. Not without a push. We still have indefinite detention, expanded executive powers, military commissions instead of criminal trials in our federal courts, and the use of drones to kill U.S. citizens and it is all, I'm afraid, very disheartening.

The Talking Dog: Is there anything else that you believe I should have asked but didn't, or that the public needs to know concerning these issues?

Michael Mone: The time has long passed for the American people to realize that not every man sent to Guantanamo was a terrorist. We, as a country, need to face the awful truth that we sent hundreds of innocent men to Guantánamo who had nothing to do with terrorism. They were held in horrendous conditions, separated from their families and loved ones for years, all in our name. There are currently 86 men cleared for release as determined unanimously by highest levels US national security. They could leave tomorrow if there was the political will to release them (and for some, a third country that would accept them). Their continued incarceration at Guantánamo is inexcusable and a stain upon our national honor.

Certainly, there are some bad guys down there and they should be prosecuted -- in a Federal Court -- and punished. But the “innocent man sent to Guantánamo” is not a myth. Sadly, it was a common occurrence. Only when we finally come to terms with that simple fact can the steps be taken to close the prison at Guantánamo once and for all.

The Talking Dog: I join all of my readers in thanking Mr. Mone for that moving interview.

Readers interested in legal issues and related matters associated with the "war on terror" may also find talking dog blog interviews with former Guantanamo military commissions prosecutors Morris Davis and Darrel Vandeveld, with former Guantanamo combatant status review tribunal/"OARDEC" officer Stephen Abraham, with attorneys Matt O'Hara, Carlos Warner, Matthew Melewski, Stewart "Buz" Eisenberg, Patricia Bronte, Kristine Huskey, Ellen Lubell, Ramzi Kassem, George Clarke, Buz Eisenberg, Steven Wax, Wells Dixon, Rebecca Dick, Wesley Powell, Martha Rayner, Angela Campbell, Stephen Truitt and Charles Carpenter, Gaillard Hunt, Robert Rachlin, Tina Foster, Brent Mickum, Marc Falkoff H. Candace Gorman, Eric Freedman, Michael Ratner, Thomas Wilner, Jonathan Hafetz, Joshua Denbeaux, Rick Wilson,
Neal Katyal, Joshua Colangelo Bryan, Baher Azmy, and Joshua Dratel (representing Guantanamo detainees and others held in "the war on terror"), with attorneys Donna Newman and Andrew Patel (representing "unlawful combatant" Jose Padilila), with Dr. David Nicholl, who spearheaded an effort among international physicians protesting force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, with physician and bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles on medical complicity in torture, with law professor and former Clinton Administration Ambassador-at-large for war crimes matters David Scheffer, with former Guantanamo detainees Moazzam Begg and Shafiq Rasul , with former Guantanamo Bay Chaplain James Yee, with former Guantanamo Army Arabic linguist Erik Saar, with former Guantanamo military guard Terry Holdbrooks, Jr., with former military interrogator Matthew Alexander, with law professor and former Army J.A.G. officer Jeffrey Addicott, with law professor and Coast Guard officer Glenn Sulmasy, with author and geographer Trevor Paglen and with author and journalist Stephen Grey on the subject of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, with journalist and author David Rose on Guantanamo, with journalist Michael Otterman on the subject of American torture and related issues, with author and historian Andy Worthington detailing the capture and provenance of all of the Guantanamo detainees, with law professor Peter Honigsberg on various aspects of detention policy in the war on terror, with Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch, with Almerindo Ojeda of the Guantanamo Testimonials Project, with Karen Greenberg, author of The LeastWorst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days, with Charles Gittings of the Project to Enforce the Geneva Conventions, and with Laurel Fletcher, author of "The Guantanamo Effect" documenting the experience of Guantanamo detainees after their release, to be of interest.