San Francisco — The Bush administration should drop plans to let agents eavesdrop on conversations between terrorism suspects and defense lawyers and should ease other restrictions to ensure military tribunals are fair and open, the nation's largest lawyers' organization said Tuesday.
"We must defend those whom we dislike or even despise," Miami defense lawyer Neal Sonnett told colleagues before the American Bar Assn. voted to ask the administration to change its rules for any tribunals.
The ABA's policy-making House of Delegates took no position on whether individual lawyers should participate in tribunals, although another lawyers organization, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, has already said it would be unethical to represent terrorism suspects under the current rules.
"The world will be watching us as we bring these accused terrorists to trial," Sonnett said.
The Pentagon will provide a free military lawyer to anyone brought before a tribunal, but also will allow defendants to choose outside civilian lawyers. Despite earlier misgivings about the fairness of military tribunals, it has been assumed that prominent defense lawyers would volunteer.
Sonnett has said he could not agree to do so unless the Pentagon changed the rules. Earlier this month the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said lawyers could not fulfill their ethical duty to fully and zealously defend a suspect under the current rules.
Besides the eavesdropping rule, the ABA objected to restrictions on civilian defense lawyers' access to information and to a requirement that such lawyers pay their own travel, lodging and other expenses.
The Pentagon has insisted that security and intelligence agents must be able to listen in on attorney-client conversations but has said the information will not be used against the defendant at trial. Outside the military setting, defense lawyers assume that their conversations with clients are private.
More than 660 al-Qaida and Taliban suspects are at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Though no charges have been filed, President Bush has named six candidates for a tribunal, which is a trial similar in many respects to a civilian trial but with fewer rights for defendants. The United States has not used military tribunals since World War II.