Guantanamo Fight Comes to K Street

Posted November 14, 2003 at 5:32pm

In an unprecedented move, a dozen Kuwaiti families have hired K Street lobbyists to help them try to free family members from the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the U.S. military is holding enemy combatants from terrorist sweeps in Afghanistan.

The coalition of Kuwaiti families this spring hired Arnold & Porter to help them navigate D.C., according to lobbying disclosure filings.

Meanwhile, Great Britain and Australian diplomats — as well as a New York legal aid group — have pursued their own efforts in the nation’s capital on behalf of a separate set of foreign nationals held at the camp.

The advocacy efforts come as the Supreme Court announced last week that it would determine the legal standing of more than 600 detainees at Guantanamo in the court’s next session.

The move by the Kuwaiti families to hire lobbyists appears to be the only example of Guantanamo lobbying in town.

“I would have heard about it,” Tom Wilner, an attorney with Sherman & Sterling, who is on the Kuwaiti families’ legal team in Al Odah v. United States, said of the possibility of other lobbying on the issue.

“Very few of [the detainees’ families] have hired any representatives in Washington or have done any lobbying,” he added.

Douglas Dworkin, who is a partner with Arnold & Porter, did not comment on the firm’s lobbying activities or its strategy.

But a disclosure form shows that Arnold & Porter was hired June 14 by the International Counsel Bureau — which has a post office box address in Safat, Kuwait — to lobby on “issues related to the detention of Kuwaiti citizens at Guantanamo Naval Base.”

Dworkin, a former general counsel at the Defense Department, is aided on the Kuwaiti account by Arnold & Porter’s John Daley, Ronald Lee and Brian Wilson, according to the disclosure filings culled by PoliticalMoneyline.com.

Meanwhile, the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights has been shepherding a separate legal effort on behalf of two British and two Australian nationals held at the camp.

In addition to its legal case, Rasul v. Bush, the Center for Constitutional Rights is handling a Guantanamo public relations effort, which includes a number of speaking engagements in the run-up to oral arguments before the court in March.

But unlike the Kuwaiti families, CCR has no plans to hire K Street lobbyists. A spokesman said the group does have “some informal contacts” that it consults with in the nation’s capital.

Observers of Guantanamo advocacy activities say that while there is no formal coordinating effort among the various interest groups — which includes human rights organizations and public interest law firms — they do keep one another informed of their individual activities related to the cases, which have been consolidated for the oral arguments.

More than 600 accused Taliban and al Qaeda militants were rounded up in U.S. military sweeps of Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Most of those captured, whom the Bush administration labeled “enemy combatants,” came from Afghanistan — though many hail from Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia.

But few of the detainees have the financial and organizational resources of those from Kuwait.

One marked difference between the situation of the Kuwaiti detainees and the majority of Guantanamo detainees is that a large amount of information exists on the Kuwaiti prisoners.

Through the efforts of their families, the Kuwaiti detainees have a name and a face through a Web site, KuwaitiDetainees.org.

According to the site, many of the Kuwaiti nationals were involved in refugee relief in Afghanistan and Pakistan prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and may have been victims of local tribes itching to cash in on American bounties on terrorist extremists.

“When Pakistani villagers knew that there were financial rewards for those who could hand any Arab over to the American troops, they started to arrest them …” a Kuwaiti aid worker is quoted on the Web site.

One observer said that since the Kuwaiti families are well-to-do, they can afford to hire lobbyists to press their case. Most detainees are poor Afghans, whose families do not possess the financial resources to advocate for their release.

In July, Australian and British officials traveled to Washington to discuss the situation of their detained nationals with the White House and the Pentagon, as well as the Justice and State departments.

President Bush named six of the detainees, including Australia’s David Hicks and Britain’s Moazzam Begg and Feroz Abbasi, as being eligible for military tribunals to assess their alleged role in terrorist activities.

“We haven’t taken issue of the characterization of the detainees as unlawful combatants. But we have sought assurances and had discussions as to how those military commissions are to be carried out so they are fair and transparent,” said Matt Francis, spokesman for the Australian Embassy in Washington.

In reaction to last week’s Supreme Court announcement, the Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, while traveling in London, said that it would not interfere in the case.

“This is entirely a matter for the U.S. Supreme Court and we offer no advice or comment and will be making no submissions to the American Supreme Court,” Downer said.

While using diplomatic muscle can be as powerful as a K Street lobbying campaign, countries like Australia and Great Britain — who support the White House — must tread lightly.

“Most [countries] want to support the war on terror but they don’t want to appear aggressive [to the United States],” Wilner said.