A righteous indignation
Tom Wilner has impeccable establishment credentials. A schoolmate of Al Gore's at Washington's prestigious St. Albans School. A fraternity brother of George W. Bush's at Yale. A highly regarded international trade lawyer with a blue-chip firm, Wilner once lived two doors down from Teresa Heinz Kerry in a six-bedroom colonial home in Georgetown.
Wilner's is not exactly the resume of a firebrand, but in the three years since he agreed to represent several Kuwaiti men held at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that's precisely what he's become. At fancy dinner gatherings, Wilner, 60, by his own account bluntly compares the partying to Germans' living it up while Jews died in Nazi concentration camps. When a federal judge told him that family obligations might delay a hearing for one of his clients in Guantanamo, Wilner scolded her in open court. "Guantanamo is one of the most important cases of a lifetime," Wilner says. "The fact that anyone can ignore it astounds me."
Since January of 2002, the U.S. military has held hundreds of alleged Taliban and al Qaeda fighters at Guantanamo Bay as "enemy combatants." Roughly 200 of the detainees have been released since then, and recent court decisions about this murky area of the law have called into question the legal status of the estimated 540 who remain. But the legal battles continue, and both sides believe that there is much at stake. Conservatives believe that challenges to the detention of potentially dangerous people who are not U.S. citizens threaten to erode the president's power as commander in chief during wartime. Liberals see Guantanamo Bay as a stain on American principle, a prison placed beyond U.S. borders with the intention of evading U.S. laws.
Count Tom Wilner among the latter group. A registered Democrat, Wilner grew up in a family that has always taken its particular notions of democracy very seriously. Tom's grandfather, a Polish immigrant, taught several of his children the Gettysburg Address by age 5. A history buff, Wilner says America's unique roots have shaped his view of the case. "The U.S. is different from other countries; we are not bound by a shared religion or a common race. We are bound by our principles: democracy, freedom, and the rule of law," he says. "These values are challenged in times of crisis, and that's when we must defend them."
Relatives of the Kuwaiti detainees say that they contacted 10 prominent U.S. firms in early 2002 when they discovered that family members were being held at Guantanamo. Seven firms rejected their request outright, but Wilner agreed to travel to Kuwait, where he learned of family claims that some of the detainees were actually in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region to perform charitable work when they were captured. "These guys were snatched by bounty hunters who were told they could feed their families . . . if they turned in an Arab terrorist," Wilner says. He believes that the men deserve a chance to contest their detentions.
Government officials tell a different story. In February 2004, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld emphasized that prisoners like Wilner's clients were not picked up haphazardly in Afghanistan. Although the military apprehended roughly 10,000 people, fewer than 10 percent were taken to Gitmo. While Wilner argues that many of his clients are "the best of the best," former Justice Department official David Rivkin urges caution about their backgrounds: "It's a fallacy that the best of our enemy in this war is good," Rivkin says.