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April 25, 2008


Noodling on the news — Channeling Kafka


On the third planet from the sun, Bob Egelko wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle:

San Francisco — Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a now-defunct organization that was once on the government’s terrorist list, said it learned it had been a surveillance target from a document that the National Security Agency inadvertently turned over in 2004.

The foundation returned the document at the government’s request. The Ninth U.S Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in November that the document was so sensitive that Al-Haramain’s lawyers couldn’t even rely on their recollections of it to establish wiretapping.

Elsewhere, in a parallel universe, a lawyer named Joseph L. walked down a long corridor in one of those gray nondescript buildings that houses government bureaucrats. In front of him, a uniformed guard stood beside a closed door. The door’s frosted glass was lit from behind. It was labeled with black lettering that read, “International Trading Corporation.

As L. approached, the guard held up his hand. L. stopped. He shifted his briefcase to his left hand and began to reach into the inside pocket of his suit jacket. The guard stepped forward and grasped L.’s wrist.

“Keep your hands where I can see them,” he said.

L. withdrew his hand and waited.

The guard snapped, “Identification, please.”

“It’s in my pocket,” L. said. “May I get it out?”

The guard pulled out an electronic wand and waved it over L.’s body. The wand emitted a soft beeping sound.

Satisfied, the guard stepped back. “Go ahead,” he said.

L. pulled out his wallet and handed his driver’s license to the guard, who read it carefully and consulted a list by his side.

The guard turned and pressed a button on the doorframe. L. could hear the sound of a buzzer on the other side.

The door opened. A small dark man looked out and motioned to L. to follow him.

The two passed through a large empty anteroom and into another hallway. After they had walked about a hundred meters, they came to a doorway flanked by two guards. One took L.’s briefcase and scanned it with an electronic wand. The other held up a small device that looked like a camera and pointed it toward the irises of L.’s eyes.

The guards nodded, and the small dark man rested his forefinger on a sensor near the door. The door swung open. He led L. into a small windowless office and seated him before an antiquated computer.

“This is where you’ll prepare your brief,” he said.

L. nodded. He knew the drill. How many times had he done it before, in the same office with the same unnamed man by his side? And yet the man never showed signs of recognizing him.

L. began to type. His task was simple: to prepare a brief in support of his client’s case, in response to the government’s arguments. He had never seen the government’s arguments and never would. They were based on classified documents, and their release might endanger national security. It was up to him to imagine what those arguments might be and to frame an appropriate response.

L. typed steadily for two hours, pausing only occasionally to rub his wrists. He was a poor typist, plagued by misspellings. All the while, the small dark man sat on a straight-backed chair, staring at the wall or examining his fingernails. The only sound was the soft click of the computer keys.

Finally, L. leaned back in his chair and stretched. He pushed the Print button on the computer and waited while his brief was spewed out page by page. He read what he had written, made a few corrections, and printed it out again. This time he handed it to his companion. He knew his own security clearance was so low that he could not expect a copy. He had no idea if the judge would receive one. He knew that the judge would never see the documents on which it was based.

The small dark man unplugged the computer and ran L.’s first draft through a shredder. He emptied L.’s briefcase and shredded his notes as well. Silently beckoning to L., he led him back the way they had come, down the long corridor, through the anteroom, and out the door.

L. walked quickly out of the building. When he reached the sidewalk, the sound of the passing traffic seemed deafening. The warm pungent air assaulted his nostrils. He paused, sloughing off the constricting atmosphere he had just left.

He wondered if he should call his client and tell him how the session had gone. There wasn’t much point to it. He never dared say too much, on the assumption that their conversations were being monitored. In any case, he was never sure that his efforts would bear any fruit. But he had to try. The knowledge that L. was working for his release would bring some measure of hope to his client, even if that hope soon turned out to be unfounded.

He pulled out his cellphone and dialed the number of the Terrorist Detention Camp.

Meanwhile, back on the third planet from the sun, Patrick Radden Keefe wrote in the New Yorker:

In October, [lawyer Lynne] Bernabei wrote a letter to the Justice Department. The attorneys representing Al Haramain had been dealing with a novel quandary of legal ethics. If they had a reasonable belief that any telephone conversation with Seda or Buthi might be monitored by the N.S.A., could they talk to their clients without violating attorney-client confidentiality? Bernabei requested confirmation that the government was not intercepting her “written or oral communications” with her clients. Two weeks later, she received a response from the lawyers at the Justice Department. They wouldn’t confirm or deny.

Thanks for reading. I’m outta here till Monday.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008