A Defense Department official has stirred up a maelstrom in the American legal community by calling on corporate America to boycott law firms that help represent captives at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Speaking to a morning radio talk show Thursday, Cully Stimson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, rattled off a list of some of the most prestigious law firms in the nation.
Each apparently has attorneys providing pro-bono, or no-charge, legal representation to captives at the U.S. Navy Base, where the Bush administration is holding some 395 men and teens as enemy combatants.
"It's shocking, " said Stimson, 43, a former federal attorney and Navy lawyer. "The major law firms in this country . . . are out there representing detainees."
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By late Friday, major U.S. legal advocacy groups condemned his remarks -- and a senior defense official distanced the Pentagon from them as well.
"Mr. Cully Stimson's comments in a recent media interview about law firms representing Guantánamo detainees do not represent the views of the Defense Department or the thinking of its leadership, " said Bryan Whitman, the senior Pentagon spokesman.
Stimson was speaking to a Washington, D.C., radio station, Federal News Radio, which runs long interviews for commuting government workers.
"I think quite honestly when corporate CEOs see that those firms are representing the very terrorists that hit their bottom line in 2001, " he said, "those CEOs are going to make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms."
No Guantánamo captive has been convicted of a crime.
Into this vacuum, 500 U.S. lawyers, ranging from small solo practitioners to major national law firm partners, have filed unlawful detention lawsuits on behalf of Guantánamo detainees.
Moreover, private attorneys arguing on behalf of the captives have also handed the Bush administration two major defeats at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Miami defense attorney Neal Sonnett, who has not worked on the cases but has been an American Bar Association observer at Guantánamo, called Stimson's remarks "irresponsible" and "shameful."
"It's not only an attack on corporate America, " he said, "but an attack on the rule of law."
Stimson, a former George W. Bush administration deputy U.S. attorney, rattled off such a complete list of the major law firms that Sonnett concluded it was part of a choreographed campaign "to intimidate lawyers and their law firms who are rendering important public service."
Sonnett described pro-bono representation of someone who can't defend himself -- regardless of a captive's guilt or innocence -- as a bedrock American value.
Also Friday, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., wrote President Bush a letter of protest, calling Stimson's remarks "reprehensible" and "especially appalling . . . from a senior defense official responsible for U.S. detention policy."
The American Bar Association issued a statement Friday condemning the comments.
"Lawyers represent people in criminal cases to fulfill a core American value: the treatment of all people equally before the law, " said ABA President Karen J. Mathis.
"To impugn those who are doing this critical work -- and doing it on a volunteer basis -- is deeply offensive to members of the legal profession, and we hope to all Americans."
The American Civil Liberties Union took a different tact in its condemnation:
"What Mr. Stimson condemns are precisely the values we should be trying to defend in the war on terror, " said ACLU National Director Steven R. Shapiro.