WASHINGTON -- Lawyers for the Obama administration are arguing that the United States will be irreparably harmed if it has to abide by a judge's ruling that it can no longer hold terrorism suspects indefinitely without trial in military custody.
The lawyers made the argument on Friday in seeking a stay of the ruling, issued earlier this week by Judge Katherine Forrest in the Southern District of New York.
Forrest had ruled on behalf of a group of journalists and activists who said they feared the government could grab them under section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012. That section affirms the administration's right to detain any "person who was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces," including U.S. citizens.
Forrest found that the definitions of "substantially supported" and "associated forces" were so vague that a reporter or activist could not be sure they would not be covered under the provision if they worked with a group deemed to be associated with terrorists, or perhaps circulated the message of an associated individual by printing an interview.
The judged ruled that such a circumstance violated the First Amendment right to free speech, as well as the Fifth Amendment right to due process that holds that a person must be able to understand what actions would break the law.
Forrest also argued that in passing the law, Congress had dramatically expanded the categories of people that can be detained, although the legislation itself and the administration asserted that the provision was doing nothing more than reasserting the White House's authority originally granted under the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force that lawmakers passed after the 9/11 attacks.
Friday, in a stay request signed by New York's Southern District U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, Assistant Attorney General Stuart Delery and Department of Defense General Counsel Jeh Johnson, the government argued that the injunction was an "unprecedented" trespass on power of the president and the legislature that by its very nature was doing irreparable harm.
The request also argued that the injuction places an undue burden on military commanders in a time of war while the plaintiffs -- among them pulitzer-prize-winning reporter Chris Hedges and noted left-wing academic Noam Chomsky -- had no reasonable fear of ever being detained "in the foreseeable future."
"The Court’s injunction against application of section 1021 'in any manner, as to any person,' ... combined with its mistaken view that section 1021 goes beyond reaffirming the authority contained in the AUMF, could impose entirely unjustified burdens on military officials worldwide, complicating the ability to carry out an armed conflict authorized by Congress in the public interest," the stay request says.
"Given the absence of any risk of impending harm to plaintiffs, the serious injury to the government and the public interest in the invalidation of a statute enacted by public representatives, and the possible effect on an ongoing armed conflict and the Executive’s prerogatives in military affairs, a stay is necessary," it concludes.
The request is seeking both an immediate temporary stay so that the matter can be argued, and a permanent one lasting until higher courts resolve the case, which the administration announced Thursday it would appeal. A hearing was set for Wednesday next week. Forrest denied the short-term stay, so the law cannot currently be used.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Bruce Afran, noted that the government's lawyers told Judge Forrest during arguments after she issued her first temporary injunction in May that they did not know if the administration was using the detention provision. If the government is now arguing that stopping the practice would cause irreparable harm, it shows the administration was indeed using the law and violating the injunction, Afran said.
"The only way they could be done irreparable harm is if they've been using this all along," Afran said.
"It just shows the lawlessness of this, even under the Obama administration," he added.
The group Demand Progress has been appealing to President Obama to stop defending the law, and said more than 60,000 have signed a petition on the matter since Wednesday.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
Earlier on HuffPost:
Interview A Member Of The Taliban
<strong>Scenario:</strong> As a foreign correspondent on assignment in Afghanistan, you successfully contact Taliban representatives who take you to meet a mullah. After you've completed your interview and fact-finding mission, U.S. officials arrest you under suspicion of terrorism. <strong>How:</strong> Section 1021 (2) of the National Defense Authorization Act <a href="http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-112hr1540enr/pdf/BILLS-112hr1540enr.pdf" target="_hplink">grants power</a> to indefinitely detain "a person who was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners." You're not sure if what you did was "substantial" or really "supported" anyone. It's quite possible that nobody does, as the text of the law doesn't define these words. This could take a while to sort out. In the recent hearing on a lawsuit challenging that section of the act, Judge Katherine Forrest asked an Obama lawyer if plaintiff Chris Hedges could be assured that he would not be subjected to detention under Section 1021, journalist Naomi Wolf <a href="http://naomiwolf.org/2012/03/ndaa-hearing-notes/" target="_hplink">noted</a>. Hedges is a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter who has worked extensively in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The administration attorney suggested that the specifics of Hedge's situation would make his detention unlikely, but responded, "I cannot say that today." While the Obama administration has said you're entitled to a trial as a U.S. citizen, this won't preclude you from a protracted journey through an encumbered court system charged with figuring out -- based on secret evidence -- why you were picked up. And if it this happens during a future administration, officials might not agree with Obama on your right to a trial.
Attend A Fundraiser
<strong>Scenario:</strong> A local civil liberties group holds a swanky fundraising event and you, a wealthy philanthropist, write a sizable check. Sometime later, the group is placed on a watch list, which results in authorities arriving at your door, hauling you away. <strong>How:</strong> It's possible a portion of your money somehow got funneled to al-Qaeda or a pro-Taliban group or that somehow you became an indirect material supporter of what the National Defense Authorization Act calls an "associated force." But just what are "associated forces"? That question appeared to stump Obama administration lawyers when pressed by Judge Katherine Forrest during a recent hearing. "I don't have specifics," an attorney told her. Answering a later question about whether WikiLeaks could be construed as an "associated force," an administration lawyer suggested that it couldn't, unless there were a connection to the Taliban or al-Qaeda. If someone happens to be wrong about your case, you might sit in detention until the courts figure it out. Or, according to the act, you'll be released when officials determine it is "the end of the hostilities authorized by the Authorization for Use of Military Force."
Write A Book
This hypothetical situation comes straight from this spring's hearing on a lawsuit challenging parts of the National Defense Authorization Act, as captured by <a href="http://naomiwolf.org/2012/03/ndaa-hearing-notes/" target="_hplink">Naomi Wolf</a>: <blockquote>Bruce Afran, lawyer for the plaintiffs, presented the hypothetical of a book that did not say how to make a bomb but simply expressed support for the political goals of the Taliban, or that made the case that the Taliban's view that the US government overreaches in occupying other countries, has merit. He and Judge Forrest discussed the hypothetical that such a book could be a bestseller and be on a book tour, generating comment throughout the Middle East. Judge Forrest simplified the example to a hypothetical of a book with only one sentence, and whose only sentence read: "I support the political goals of the Taliban'. She asked the government lawyers if such a book could be read as providing 'material support' for 'associated forces" under the NDAA. They did not rule it out. Judge Forrest pushed: "You are unable to say that [such a book] consisting of political speech could not be captured under [NDAA's Section] 1021?" Obama lawyers: "We can't say that."</blockquote>
Organize A Demonstration
<strong>Scenario:</strong> Some societal injustice is prompting you to start a movement in protest. Hours after a particularly well-attended and rambunctious rally, you're approached by men in black suits who flash their badges and toss you in the back of their unmarked SUV. <strong>How:</strong> It's possible that you or one of your loosely connected crew of associates did something to make you a suspect linked to an "associated force." Or perhaps, according to another part of National Defense Authorization Act's Section 1021 (2), your actions constituted "substantial support" to a "person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of [al-Qaeda or the Taliban]." Journalist and "Day of Rage" organizer Alexa O'Brien joined a recent lawsuit challenging sections of the act out of concern that she was being targeted as a potential terrorist threat. But at a hearing on the suit this spring, Obama administration officials did not alleviate such concerns, as <a href="http://naomiwolf.org/2012/03/ndaa-hearing-notes/" target="_hplink">Naomi Wolf has documented</a>: <blockquote>O'Brien produced into evidence a [Department of Homeland Security] memo that sought to link US Day of Rage to their cyberterrorism initiative. The government lawyer was given a chance by Judge Forrest to dispute the memo as fraudulent and did not do so.</blockquote>
Help Out A Friend
<strong>Scenario:</strong> A good friend whom you've lost touch with contacts you, asking for help funding his around-the-world trip. You wire money and wait for him to return. Sometime later, there's a knock on your door. The people on the other side of it have questions about a sum of money you sent abroad to someone questionable. They ask you to come with them. <strong>How:</strong> You're finding it impossible to believe that your childhood friend became a terrorist or connected with al-Qaeda, the Taliban or "associated forces." But even if he did manage to get mixed up in some sketchy business, shouldn't there be an exception for you, his well-intentioned friend who was just helping someone in need? Not necessarily. At a recent hearing, Judge Katherine Forrest tried to get the Obama administration to <a href="http://naomiwolf.org/2012/03/ndaa-hearing-notes/" target="_hplink">give an assurance that "unwitting" support</a> could be protected, noting that there was no direct reference to such language in the law. Obama's attorney was unable to provide such a safeguard, instead arguing that the new law possessed the same exemptions contained within the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, which was passed by Congress after 9/11. The brief and broadly interpreted <a href="http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-107publ40/html/PLAW-107publ40.htm" target="_hplink">authorization</a> makes no mention of the word "unwitting," though.
Accidentally Provide Missiles To Insurgents
<strong>Scenario:</strong> You're a flippant, billionaire playboy or -girl with a cool haircut and two Ph.D.s., one in nuclear fusion and the other in kicking ass. You get bored, so you decide to fight crime in Afghanistan and make a quick jaunt to Kandahar. In the process of taking on an encampment of Taliban insurgents, the firing mechanism for one of your missiles malfunctions, launching it thousands of feet into the air. It returns to Earth undetonated, only to be picked up by an enemy who uses it as the centerpiece of an improvised explosive device. When a U.S. mine-sweeping crew deactivates the makeshift bomb and finds your name emblazoned on the device, you're picked up. <strong>How:</strong> This appears to be a clear-cut case of "substantial support" to the Taliban or at least "associated forces" who wanted to do harm to U.S. troops. So much for your intentions of wanting to help out with a little vigilante justice. Any resulting court case could take ages.
Plan A Terrorist Attack
<strong>Scenario:</strong> You're a total jerk and not a very big fan of America, so you decide that the best course of action is to take out your anger with an act of destruction on a densely populated city. You do some planning and set up your device, but when it comes time to use it, it malfunctions, leaving you injured and going to jail on a stretcher. <strong>How:</strong> You're an American citizen, you'll get your constitutional guarantee of a trial, right? If President Barack Obama's promises are followed, yes. But that doesn't mean you can't undergo some form of indefinite detention while you await trial. During a hearing on the lawsuit challenging parts of the new National Defense Authorization Act, Obama's lawyers were unable to say for sure if the trial promised in his signing statement would be a civilian or military one. This could have a heavy bearing on the nature of your detention. And if you were to commit such actions under the administration of another president, there's no telling how a new commander in chief would interpret the act, making your fate even less certain.