Pentagon Remark on Detainees Stuns Legal Experts

A deputy assistant secretary of defense says corporate leaders should pressure law firms to stop representing Guantanamo detainees. The Pentagon says the views do not reflect policy, but legal experts are aghast.

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A Bush administration official at the Pentagon created a wave of criticism yesterday when he made the following suggestion. America's top corporate should pressure the law firms they hire not to represent terrorism suspects detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has the story.

NINA TOTENBERG: Deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainees, Cully Stimson, said in an interview on Federal News Radio that corporate America should make the nation's leading law firms choose between their lucrative paying clients and the detainees being represented on a pro bono basis.

Mr. CULLY STIMSON (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainees): You know what? It's shocking. The major law firms in this country are out there representing detainees. And I think, quite honestly, when corporate CEOs see that those firms are representing the very terrorists who hit their bottom line back in 2001, those CEOs are going to make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms.

TOTENBERG: Legal ethics experts of all ideological stripes disagreed. NYU law professor Stephen Gillers.

Professor STEPHEN GILLERS (NYU): He should be sent back to basic civics classes on the American adversary system and forced to take a quiz before he's allowed to resume his duties.

TOTENBERG: George Mason University legal ethics professor Ronald Rotunda says Stimson, who's a lawyer, doesn't seem to understand that lawyers have an obligation to represent even the unpopular.

Professor RONALD ROTUNDA (George Mason University): There's a fine tradition of the bar. I think it's actually well within Pentagon policy. The trial, there's supposed to be - and I think they will be - with valid trials, not show trials.

TOTENBERG: Reaction in the legal community has ranged from seething outrage to quiet despair. Among the outspoken is Thomas Wilner, whose Wall Street firm, Sherman and Sterling, is currently lead counsel in a major legal challenge on behalf of the detainees.

Mr. THOMAS WILNER (Sherman and Sterling): They're really trying to make everyone who opposes them an enemy, or an aider of the enemy. It's really incredible. They don't understand what America is about. All we've fought for all this time is that people should have a fair hearing. And now they're trying to say that the lawyers who are standing up for that and standing up for the rule of law are enemies.

TOTENBERG: But not every law firm is willing to be so outspoken, as Professor Gillers observes.

Prof. GILLERS: They don't want to lose their corporate clients. And the corporate clients don't want to offend the government. So he's set in motion a series of disincentives that can undermine the right to representation.

TOTENBERG: By yesterday afternoon, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, had written to President Bush asking him to disavow the remarks of the Defense Department's Mr. Stimson. And last night, a senior Defense Department official said the Stimson comments, quote, "did not represent the views of the Defense Department or its leadership." Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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