TD Blog Interview with Wesley Powell

Wesley Powell is a partner in the New York City office of the law firm of Hunton & Williams, specializing in antitrust law and securities litigation. Mr. Powell represents a number of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as a number who have previously been released. On April 4, 2008, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Powell by telephone. What follow are my interview notes, corrected as appopriate by Mr. Powell.
The Talking Dog: I’ll start with my usual first question, where were you on September 11, 2001?
Wesley Powell: I was in the very building I’m in now, New York’s Met Life Building. At that time, I was in another firm (now Clifford Chance). On that morning, I was on my way into the office, but by the time I had arrived, they were stopping people from going up to the elevator– this is not only a landmark building, but there are no other high buildings around it, so they stopped people going in.
I managed to get into offices that the law firm had in a nearby building, and I stood in amazement and watched, and then walked home. I live downtown, near 14th Street, and my phone service and water were cut off for a while, I went home, and then pretty much did what everybody else did that day.
The Talking Dog: Can you tell me the names, nationalities and current whereabouts of your Guantanamo clients?
Wesley Powell: I have four clients who are still being detained– three Yemeni nationals and one Libyan. The Libyan is Ismael Bakush, now held in Camp 5. The one Yemeni I regularly meet is Ahmed Hussein, who is now in Camp 6. I have two clients– this is not uncommon– I don’t know all that much about them because they have never agreed to meet me. They are the Yemenis Al-Shamrani and Al-Bahlul…
The Talking Dog: Am I correct that he [Al-Bahlul] is the man charged by the military commissions who has refused all assistance of counsel, including his military counsel (Major Tom Fleener, I believe)?
Wesley Powell: That’s one and the same. Al-Bahlul has expressly made many efforts NOT to have military counsel. He made a pro se motion to fire his counsel, and he has always protested against the proceedings and refused to participate in them. I have remained his habeas counsel of record; I understand that he is back in front of the Commissions on some version of charges. I have made efforts to find out if new military counsel has been formally appointed, but I have not yet been advised of that.
None of my other clients have been charged, and none have been cleared for release either, though there has been very little correlation between the “cleared for release” list and those actually released.
My former clients are the Yemeni, Issa M Al-Jayfi, who was released in 2006 with a group of 6 men returned to Yemen. I also represented 3 French nationals, two of whom were released in 2004 before lawyers were even permited to visit Guantanamo. I did meet the third (Ridouane Khalid)… I was in the second or third group of lawyers permitted to visit GTMO. The other French cleints are Mourad Bechellali and Nizar Sassi, both of whom have written books about their detentions (with co-authors) and who were also represented by a well-known French lawyer in their criminal proceedings in France.
The Talking Dog: Can you tell me a bit about your clents that you find significant, such as your impressions of them or their particular backgrounds?
Wesley Powell: With respect to the Yemenis, I have now met with the families of the three Yemenis still at Guantanamo, in Yemen last year. Hussein is the client I have the most contact with– I have met him around seven times. He was only 16 or 17 when captured. He had left his home in Yemen’s Hadrahmout Province– also the ancestral home of the bin Ladens. His father is a well-known businessman, and having met him, I can tell you is a very nice man. Hussein went to Pakistan to study at 15 or 16, and to do relief work. While there, he went to Afghanistan a couple of times. The second time he went there, after 9-11, he and those he was with took off back for Pakistan. They crossed the border, and ended up in a school where a whole lot of people were rounded up– the Salafiyah Sschool, I believe. He is a very bright guy– he has learned a lot of English, and although I use a translator for technical legal details of his case, I can now converse with him. He has not seen his parents since he was 14, 15 years old. He has lost a lot of weight– largely beecause he doesn’t like the food at GTMO (and it disagrees with him). Otherwise, he is in decent health, and maintains a good mental state. He is genuinely likeable.
Al-Jayfi — who has been released– is a big, heavy set, boisterous man, who I would describe even as a funny guy. He is now around 30. He was captured in Pakistan, with a different group from Hussein. Interestingly, he had left Yemen with a group of friends to get out of a conservative Islamic culture… he wanted to see the world. He was held on the thinnest of allegations, so it did not surprise me that he was among the first Yemenis to be released. I met him in Yemen; since his release, he has gotten married, and appears to be getting on with his life.
Shamrani has four children. I met them, as well as his father and brother… they came and met us for a press conference in Yemen. Al-Shamrani has been a long term hunger striker. I have kept on eye out on his condition, to the extent that is possible (as he does not wish to meet me).
Al-Bahlul also has children; I have met his father and cousin. I generally don’t know much more about al-Bahlul, as, again, he does not wish to meet me (and has been most emphatic about trying to represent himiself).
The Libyan, Ismael is in his late 30’s… around my age. He fled Libya, fearing persecution from Qaddafi. His brother was back in Libya, and he fears that Qaddafi has killed his brother. He certainly doesn’t want to return to Libya, and I’ve been working on trying to get him asylum, as well as to ensure that our government does not return him to Libya.
With respect to my French clients, I have spoken to both Khalid and his wife. He is around 40 now. At the time of his capture, he had just married his wife. She went to visit her family in Algeria, and he went with friends to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He found it intolerable to be a devout Muslim in Paris (constantly seeing, for example, billboards of scantily clad people) and he wanted to go to a more religious place. He was in Afghanistann right after 9-11, and he fled to Pakistan with his friends and was captured. I have talked to him. I don’t know if he has any children. He was convicted in France under their anti-terrorism laws using evidence provided by the United States military, but I don’t know the status of that proceeding. I can tell you that having seen both the classified and unclassified record, I don’t see on what basis he could have been arrested or charged. He may end up with “time served in Guantanamo” as his sentence. I will have to check with his French lawyer as to his status. France has been just about the most aggressive Western country with respect to its anti-terrorism activities, and has a very powerful examining magistrate devoted full time to terrorism prosecutions.
The Talking Dog: We’re a little more than a year or so after the unfortunate remarks made by former Defense Dept. official Cully Stimson. Can you tell me if the Government’s periodic ostracism of pro bono habeas counsel has effected your legal practice in any way, and how your Guantanamo representations have effected your overall legal practice?
Wesley Powell: Cully Stimson, if anything, proved ultimately beneficial to habeas counsel. My firm was among those listed in the Wall Street Journal editorial and then on the radio show on which Stimson spoke. The management of my own firm went out of their way to commend me for my representations, and were very offended that this guy would try to intimidate firms into dropping these clients. There are a number of prominent Republicans in my firm and the team I work in, and they have all been very supportive and offended by this as well. So, Stimson’s remarks, if anything, caused a rallying around of the habeas counsel, at least as far as I am aware. No one has had a negative word to me; my corporate clients have been very supportive and think it is cool that I am doing this work. Other than taking time that might otherwise be spent for more business development and more billable hours, this has not effected the remainder of my practice. It’s one of those things– we all make personal sacrifices to be in this profession to begin with– taking on this kind of representation just means more of them.
The Talking Dog: You have recently been part of a group of lawyers that signed a statement on behalf of Yemeni detainees suggesting that they will not be tortured should they be returned to Yemen; can you comment on that?
Wesley Powell: This comes out of a longstanding issue with the Yemeni government that needs to be resolved in order to get the diplomatic motion necessary to return our Yemeni clients home. Around a month or so ago, a number of us went to the Yemeni embassy and met with the Yemeni ambassador to the United States. Yemen’s concern is that previously, when efforts were made to return detainees to Yemen, the American government would assert that “the lawyers have said their clients fear torture.” These were assertions made a long time ago in some cases, and to a good degree, mischaracterize the actual assertions made… The bottom line is that we conveyed to the Yemenis that at this point, all of our Yemeni detainee clients want nothing more than to go home to Yemen, period.
The Talking Dog: I understand that you were also recently part of a group of Guantanamo habeas lawyers who signed a statement suggesting that of the three remaining candidates for President (my college classmate) Sen. Barack Obama appeared to represent the best hope for alleviating problems caused by American detention policy. Can you comment on that?
Wesley Powell: Of the Presidential candidates, I was already supporting Obama’s candidacy anyway. The habeas attorneys have done a lot of lobbying of members of Congress, and Obama’s office has been the most supportive, about understanding the conditions necessary to improve matters. While she has come around of late, Hillary Clinton was much more resistant, at least intially, though as I said, she has recently appeared to be more receptive to our position, she seemed not particularly eager to go out on a limb on this. I do note that a large percentage of the habeas lawyers are involved in these lobbying efforts.
The Talking Dog: Can you comment on media coverage of matters Guantanamo and “war on terror” detention policy, local, national, international as applicable?9
Wesley Powell: I think there are several reporters who have followed these matters and done a very good job. William Glaberson at the New York Times, or Carol Rosenberg at the Miami Herald, to name two. But by and large I am quite disappointed that there hasn’t been more of a media focus than we have seen. Maybe Guantanamo would have been resolved sooner if more people found about it– if there were broader press coverage or even interest. As important as other stories are– and there are a lot to report– such as what is going on in Afghanistan and Iraq (and even those stories seem to be getting less coverage of late)… important stories like Guantanamo take a back seat. There has been some good reporting to be sure, but I wish there were more. There is a certainly a lot going on in the world– a whole lot of messes clamoring for press attention, and that presents a problem for getting more and better coverage.
The Talking Dog: Is there anything else I should have asked you but didn’t, or anything else that my readers and the public need to know about the matters we’ve talked about?
Wesley Powell: There are so many angles, particularly for those of us who have been so involved in Guantanamo and war on terror related matters. I never thought of myself as a naiive person, and I would certainly take what public officials said with a grain of salt. But there was a time that when the President of the United States talked about issues like Guantanamo, I would have given a greater benefit of the doubt. On these issues, we have just seen so much official dishonesty– and having had an inside look myself in the prison and knowing who the men we are holding there are, how they are treated, how and under what circumstances they were captured, compared to what the Administration has said in public, it has just been an enormous disappointment to me, and I hope we can cure this disconnect with reality soon.
The Talking Dog: : On behalf of all of our readers, I’d like to thank Mr. Powell for that informative interview.
Readers interested in legal issues and related matters associated with the “war on terror” may also find talking dog blog interviews with attorneys Martha Rayner, Angela Campbell, Stephen Truitt and Charles Carpenter, Gaillard Hunt, Robert Rachlin, Tina Foster, Brent Mickum, Marc Falkoff H. Candace Gorman, Eric Freedman, Michael Ratner, Thomas Wilner, Jonathan Hafetz, Joshua Denbeaux, Rick Wilson,
Neal Katyal, Joshua Colangelo Bryan, Baher Azmy, and Joshua Dratel (representing Guantanamo detainees and others held in “the war on terror”), with attorneys Donna Newman and Andrew Patel (representing “unlawful combatant” Jose Padilila), with Dr. David Nicholl, who spearheaded an effort among international physicians protesting force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, with physician and bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles on medical complicity in torture, with law professor and former Clinton Administration Ambassador-at-large for war crimes matters David Scheffer, with former Guantanamo detainees Moazzam Begg and Shafiq Rasul , with former Guantanamo Bay Chaplain James Yee, with former Guantanamo Army Arabic linguist Erik Saar, with law professor and former Army J.A.G. officer Jeffrey Addicott, with law professor and Coast Guard officer Glenn Sulmasy, with author and geographer Trevor Paglen and with author and journalist Stephen Grey on the subject of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, with journalist and author David Rose on Guantanamo, with journalist Michael Otterman on the subject of American torture and related issues, with author and historian Andy Worthington detailing the capture and provenance of all of the Guantanamo detainees, and with Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch to be of interest.