Northeast Ohio-Based Federal Public Defender Carlos Warner Works for Change at Guantanamo Bay

Shut it down

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When was the last prisoner intake at Guantanamo?

We represent the last intake at Guantanamo. The last intake was in 2007. That was Muhammad Rahim. This is the guy who, if you look at the Internet, has written letters about LeBron James. He’s written all sorts of funny and sad letters.

Do you represent clients up here in the Northern District of Ohio or are you focused on Guantanamo?

[Guantanamo] takes up a lot of my time, but I have regular cases here in federal court. We have cases in Akron and Cleveland, Youngstown and Toledo. I grew up in Cleveland Heights. I was a state public defender until 2005. I ended up moving down to Hudson in 2003 and I’ve been with this office since 2005. True and true Clevelander suffering with the Browns. My clients know more about Cleveland and Cleveland sports and that sort of thing. I call Cleveland my tribe. Most of them come from tribal communities.

When you were approached for this work, did you have any trepidation about representing clients from Guantanamo?

There is a learning curve, but we were all learning. This is not the practice of law. When you start practicing in federal court, there’s a learning curve but there are a lot of people who can teach you. There’s really no one who can teach you about Guantanamo because this is the first thing. Now we can give some guidance, but the rules change everyday. I didn’t think that seven years later or however long it’s been I’d still be doing this. We at the federal defender’s office, when we’re assigned a case we see it to the end -- whether it’s one year or 10 years. I didn’t have any trepidation about it. I thought it was interesting. I still am shocked about how the system works. That’s a real wake-up call. I think all of us that are involved in the litigation -- not that we’re high on any sort of target list -- but I think they listen to everything we do. That’s a little different.

What sort of things should the American public be thinking about?

I think the most important thing is that Guantanamo does not house the worst of the worst -- not even close. The ones in Guantanamo are people who got caught up in a net. I could cite 100 sources. Colin Powell, when it was happening, said the majority of people in Guantanamo are innocent. Those are his words, not mine.

The other thing that is very disturbing is you have the right that all these people return to the battle. There was even talk about one of the Afghans in Qatar returning to the battle. It was the lead story on CNN forever. That was slowly debunked, and when it was debunked there wasn’t another story about it. The recidivism of the people who have left under Obama -- there’s one person who left who has been confirmed [back on the battlefield]. A lot of the people who did return to the battle were under Bush, but even those people are a relatively low number. Those are the two basic arguments for the general public. The general public, sadly, if we were to go out here on East 9th Street and just ask people, many people would think it’s closed. I deal with that kind of awareness.

I wanted to touch on last year’s Senate torture report too. What do you make of the contents and the fact that it was published?

Some of my clients were in there. I think it was a wonderful step. Sen. Feinstein has been a wonderful advocate. Really, sometimes it crosses lines. John McCain came out and said the same thing: "We need to own up to do we did and not try to cover it up." I’m not commenting on what classified information I know, but I see it being covered up for the fact of embarrassment -- not because there’s some national security secret that we have to protect. No, we don’t want the world to know what we did. When that comes out in the detail that it did, that’s great. Our country is built on transparency. I can’t tell the future, but this is going to be one of the darkest chapters in our history. When we look at what we did after 9/11 to everybody around the world, we’re going to say that was such a horrible, emotional reaction. But this is an ongoing reaction. The government obviously not only did it there, but they did it here too. That’s scary. That’s not what we’re about. It really is what these kind of radical organizations are about. They do those things. There’s no comparison to what ISIS is doing now, but it’s like an eye for an eye. There are people here in the U.S. who would say we should capture them and burn them alive. That’s how some of us think, and that’s just not what we’re about. We’re not like that. We shouldn’t be like that. It’s not about being civilized, it’s about being a leader. We’re just not a leader in this area.

So I thought it was a wonderful step. They took it from 5,000 to 500 pages. They should release the 5,000 pages to journalists. And they need to reduce that to 1,000 words and put it on Perez Hilton or TMZ or some place where everybody’s gonna read it. It’s 500 pages, and it affects my clients; I read every word of it. I was nodding my head. I don’t think anyone else did. They just watched the stories.

I read the back of that report, and in the back of the report you have the head of the CIA -- Michael Hayden -- perjuring himself, taking an oath and perjuring himself. It read like an indictment. It had Michael Hayden’s statement, and then: We know this is false, and boom boom boom. It’s right there. This is one of the things that bothers me, being a federal defender here. I see that all the time with our clients -- poor people, someone in the city of Cleveland made a mistake, they lied, they get prosecuted for perjury, they go to prison for it. But somehow if you’re the head of the CIA, it can be laid out and you’re not prosecuted for it. I would suspect I’d be prosecuted for it. But there’s definitely deferential treatment. Stuff like that is rampant throughout the report -- just the criminality of the government.

Could you point to any books or articles or something I could look into for more info on all this?

If you want a Cleveland angle here, definitely look up Muhammad Rahim. There are so many good stories on CNN. I had him on That’s so lighthearted, but at the same time he has letters that are so sad. It’s a good example of what our strategy was. He’s an interesting guy. This was a while ago, but I got to show him three movies. Two movies were pretty easy -- To Kill a Mockingbird and A Few Good Men. The third one he said, “I want you to show me a movie that captures American culture.” We talked about this forever. We ended up settling on The Big Lebowski. So we were there, and the guards were there, and they were laughing. We were sitting around and he was eating circus peanuts -- those marshmallow peanut. He was eating those and he turns to me and goes, “Do Americans actually like these?” I said no. What we figured out was that, while it was great and he can speak English, it was almost too American -- he didn’t get so many of the references. That’s a good example of what we try to do.

So many lawyers go down there and they’re like, “We’re gonna file this brief, and we’ve got that. War is over in Afghanistan, so they’ll free you.” They’ll email me about it, and we’ll talk, and I’ll say, “Look, knock yourself out, but you’re playing with a stacked system."

Another thing we do: Someone asked me what our approach is. There’s another federal defender, and he agrees with my strategy. We named it "the Dada approach to litigation," where we’re just gonna be totally ridiculous. We were doing that -- not behaving unprofessionally, but we’d make ridiculous requests. We’d get ridiculous responses. We’d see that that’s what it is: You have to poke fun at the system to make any progress. I think that we have made progress using that bizarre approach.

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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