WASHINGTON -- A federal judge ordered the United States on Monday to publicly reveal unclassified versions of its allegations and evidence justifying the continued imprisonment of more than 100 detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay.
The Justice Department had been filing unclassified versions of its legal documents under seal, so that they could only be seen by judges, attorneys and government officials. Attorneys for the detainees were able to share the documents with their clients and witnesses who would agree to rules restricting the information's disclosure.
Department officials said the practice was necessary to protect national security after they discovered that some unclassified records mistakenly contained some classified information. The department had said the documents were only sealed temporarily while they could be more carefully reviewed for classified information.
Attorneys for the detainees said the secrecy made it harder for them to prepare for upcoming hearings and that some witnesses would not agree to the court's secrecy rules. The Associated Press, The New York Times and USA Today had joined the fight, arguing that the government was keeping valuable information from the public that has a right to monitor the legal process.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan sided with the detainees' attorneys and the media, saying the public has a right to access the records.
"The issue of what to do with the detainees at Guantanamo Bay remains a source of great public interest and debate," Hogan wrote.
"Providing the public with access to the charges levied against these detainees, as detailed in the factual returns, ensures greater oversight of the detentions and these proceedings," he said. "As long as public access does not come at the expense of the litigation interests of petitioners or national security, the court believes the public has a common law right to access the returns."
The judge ordered the Justice Department to publicly file its unclassified records or request what specific information it wants to keep protected, marking the exact words with a colored highlighter, by July 29.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said the ruling is under review and that the documents were never meant to be sealed indefinitely. He said the government has limited resources for classification and was using them to create declassified versions of the documents that detainees' attorneys could share with their clients and witnesses.
Dave Tomlin, AP's associate general counsel, applauded the ruling as "a very welcome affirmation of what we think was clear from the start."
"A court doesn't have to accept the government's word that keeping court records secret protects important security interests," Tomlin said. "The government must try to prove it, and it's the court's job to decide if they've succeeded."