WASHINGTON – Reversing course, Pentagon officials have decided to allow a U.S.-born terrorism suspect access to a lawyer, the Defense Department announced Tuesday.
The Defense Department will make arrangements over the next few days for a lawyer to visit Yaser Esam Hamdi (search) "subject to appropriate security restrictions," a Pentagon statement said. Hamdi is being held as an "enemy combatant," a designation the Bush administration says denies him rights to a lawyer or a trial.
The Supreme Court is considering whether to hear an appeal from a public defender, Frank Dunham, who challenged Hamdi's detention and wanted to act as his lawyer.
Dunham had asked the Supreme Court to decide if the government has unconstitutionally imprisoned Hamdi without access to attorneys and without charges being filed against him.
Dunham said the Justice Department told him Tuesday night that officials would arrange for him to see Hamdi within a few days. He said he was happy the Defense Department was allowing Hamdi to meet with a lawyer but said that would not affect his arguments before the Supreme Court.
"U.S. citizens shouldn't be held without counsel for long periods of time," Dunham said. "I don't think it cures all the ills of this enemy combatant situation, especially for U.S. citizens."
The Pentagon announcement came one day before the Bush administration was scheduled to file a response at the Supreme Court to that appeal.
Hamdi will be allowed to decide whether he wants to be represented by Dunham or a private attorney, said Air Force Maj. John Smith, a spokesman for the Defense Department's legal office.
Hamdi was being held in the U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. He was captured in Afghanistan (search) in November 2001. Originally taken to the prison for terrorism suspects in Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba, he was transferred to the United States in April 2002 after military authorities determined he had been born in Louisiana and therefore is a U.S. citizen.
The Pentagon statement said that allowing Hamdi access to a lawyer "is not required by domestic or international law and should not be treated as a precedent."
Officials decided to grant the access to a lawyer because Hamdi is a U.S. citizen and the military has finished interrogating him, the Pentagon statement said. Hamdi has not been charged with any crime.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., rejected Dunham's appeal challenging his detention, ruling that the president has wide powers to detain enemy combatants during wartime. The Bush administration argues that under international law, enemy combatants such as Hamdi can be held until the war is over -- which could be years, if not decades, away.
Dunham and other lawyers challenging the detentions say they violate the prisoners' constitutional rights to a lawyer and a trial.
Hamdi is one of three terrorism suspects being held at the Charleston brig as enemy combatants. The other two are Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member who is accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb," and Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a Qatari man accused of being an Al Qaeda sleeper agent.
Because Hamdi and Padilla are U.S. citizens, they are not eligible for trials by military tribunals like the foreigners being held at the Navy base in Guantanamo Bay.