WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is trying to evade responsibility for problems at the Guantanamo Bay prison by falsely blaming defense lawyers for the trouble, the New York City Bar says.
The group's president leveled the criticism in asking Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to abandon a Justice Department proposal to limit lawyers' access to the nearly 400 detainees.
In a court filing this month, the department said attorney access via the mail system has "enabled detainees' counsel to cause unrest on the base by informing detainees about terrorist attacks."
The mail system was "misused" to inform detainees about military operations in Iraq, activities of terrorist leaders, efforts in the War on Terror, the Hezbollah attack on Israel and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, the department said in this month's court filing.
"This is an astonishing and disingenuous assertion," the association president, Barry M. Kamins, wrote to Gonzales.
Kamins said many detainees have been held in solitary confinement for prolonged periods and have lost hope of a fair hearing to demonstrate their innocence.
"Blaming counsel for the hunger strikes and other unrest is a continuation of a disreputable and unwarranted smear campaign against counsel," according to the letter Friday.
Kamins pointed to recent remarks by the former deputy assistant secretary for detainee affairs, Charles Stimson. Stimson resigned after saying he found it shocking that lawyers at many top firms represent detainees held at the U.S. military prison in Cuba.
The 137-year-old New York City Bar, with more than 23,000 members, is one of the oldest and largest lawyers' organizations in the country.
A Justice Department spokesman, Erik Ablin, said the department is reviewing the New York City Bar's letter.
Ablin pointed to the department's court papers that say the proposal on attorney access is well beyond what the Constitution and the law require.
Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said the military is giving broad lawyer access to many detainees, even though they are accused of having Al Qarda or Taliban links and the U.S. is at war.
Attorney Zachary Katznelson sees the Justice Department proposal as an attempt to seal the facility from critics.
"If we cannot come in, the only news getting out of here will be the government's carefully crafted version, which to my chagrin as an American deviates far too often from the truth," Katznelson said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. He is spending two weeks at Guantanamo Bay to meet with 18 client detainees.
The department wants to narrow the definition of "legal mail" and impose a three-visit rule on the number of face-to-face meetings once a detainee agrees at an initial meeting to let an attorney represent him.
On Thursday, American Bar Association President Karen J. Mathis criticized "arbitrary restrictions concerning the number of times and the ways that lawyers may confer with their clients in Guantanamo." She said such practices at Guantanamo or in a court "would threaten competent representation without at all advancing national security."
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will hear arguments on the department's proposal May 15.