Leahy Demands Answers From Pentagon About Letters From Guantanamo Detainees
By Adam Silverman
Burlington Free Press
Lawyers for alleged "enemy combatants" in military custody in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have accused the Pentagon of systematically withholding letters detainees have written to members of Congress.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., alerted to the situation by a Vermont lawyer representing a detainee, demanded answers this week in a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Leahy's was the first inquiry into the allegations, a Pentagon spokesman said Wednesday night.
"I am not aware that the Department of Defense has a written or unwritten policy banning all such communications," wrote Leahy, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, "nor am I aware of any legal authority that would permit the Department of Defense to impose a total ban of that sort."
At the bottom of the typed, one-page letter, Leahy scrawled next to his signature, "Is this really happening!"
Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. J.D. Gordon said that Leahy's letter, dated Monday, had not been received Wednesday. A call from The Burlington Free Press, Gordon said, was the first Pentagon and Guantanamo officials had heard of a potential problem with letters to Congress from detainees.
"This allegation is new," he said. "Lawyers for detainees continually make allegations that often turn out to be unsubstantiated."
Guantanamo detainees, who number about 460, sent and received 10,000 pieces of mail during a six-month period in 2005, Gordon said, although he did not know whether any of that correspondence involved legislators.
"The detainees are in very close contact with their families if they choose to be, and many of them have lawyers," Gordon said. "To say they're being held incommunicado is completely false."
Leahy and his staff remained concerned Wednesday about what they called a continuing pattern by the administration of President Bush to obfuscate and keep silent on matters important to the public.
"If true, this would be yet another unilateral action by the Bush-Cheney administration to withhold information from Congress, without consultation with Congress," Leahy spokesman David Carle said. "If this is a new unwritten policy that is part of that pattern, Congress and the American people deserve to know what the policy is, and what their justification for it is."
David Sleigh of St. Johnsbury, one of three Vermont lawyers representing Guantanamo detainees in cases challenging the legality of their incarceration, said he informed Leahy's office about the mail problems. Sleigh said he learned through conversations with an attorney for another detainee that a letter the suspect sent 98 members of Congress never was delivered.
"It's exasperating," Sleigh said. "I just don't understand any reason for it. These are the senators who are charged with overseeing the executive branch, and I think they're entitled to information from any source."
Gordon said Pentagon staffers will "look into the matter" and prepare a response when they can. Leahy asked for a reply within a week.
LEAHY'S LETTER To see Sen. Patrick Leahy's letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, go to http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/assets/pdf/BT3051867.PDF.