GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — The U.S. government is blocking the American Civil Liberties Union from paying attorneys representing suspected terrorists held here, insisting that the ACLU must first receive a license from the U.S. Treasury Department before making the payments.
ACLU director Anthony Romero on Tuesday accused the Bush administration of "obstruction of justice" by delaying approval of the license, which the government argues is required under U.S. law because the beneficiaries of the lawyers' services are foreign terrorists.
"Now the government is stonewalling again by not allowing Americans' private dollars to be paid to American lawyers to defend civil liberties,'' Romero said.
Treasury Department spokesman John Rankin declined to comment on the showdown with the ACLU, citing privacy policies.
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But he said the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control "is treating this request with the seriousness it deserves and strives to process license applications as expeditiously as possible.''
OFAC is perhaps best known for enforcing regulations against Americans' spending money in places like Cuba or North Korea. But OFAC also is responsible for making certain American funds aren't sent to terrorist groups.
The ACLU announced in April that it was teaming with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to provide top-flight criminal attorneys to Guantanamo detainees facing the death penalty before military commissions at Guantanamo for their alleged role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks.
Under the program, called the John Adams Project after the second American president, who earned criticism from fellow colonists from defending British soldiers, attorneys representing the detainees would be paid for travel, expenses, research and copying as well as $250 an hour. The ACLU said $8.5 million had been set aside for the project. Romero said attorneys already are due $200,000 in payments.
The program was endorsed by a wide range of lawyers including former Attorney General Janet Reno and former FBI Director William Webster.
Participants include Boise, Idaho, lawyers David Nevin and Scott McKay, who are defense consultants to alleged 9/11 architect Khalid Sheik Mohammed, 43; Seattle attorneys Jeff Robinson and Amanda Lee, defending Mohammed's nephew, Ammar al Baluchi, 30, who noted at his June 5 arraignment that he is a Microsoft certified computer engineer; and Chicago lawyer Tom Durkin, defending Ramzi bin al Shibh, accused of organizing some of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Nevin declared himself surprised at the standoff, especially since the ACLU had long been "in the business of defending people's rights.''
He added: "Obviously, everyone is going to do whatever is required to be done. But, intuitively, it seems odd to me that anyone's permission is necessary.''
The Treasury Department's Rankin this week offered no timetable for when the license might be issued.
''OFAC processes thousands of license requests each year for a variety of sanctions programs and consults with other offices and leadership in the U.S. Treasury and other agencies as the circumstances merit,'' he said.
Rankin said OFAC's role in the case was triggered because the Bush administration has designated Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind, and the other four defendants as "Specially Designated Global Terrorists.''
There was no explanation, however, of how that designation squares with the administration's insistence that the military commissions operate under the assumption that the accused are considered innocent until proven guilty.