Skip Navigation

The U.S. Detention System Since 9/11: A Conversation

As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we discuss the President’s detention policy, the Warsame case, and whether we can hold the government accountable for deprivations of liberty. This is the second installment in a three-part series.

  • Emily Berman
  • Jonathan Hafetz
August 10, 2011

As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Brennan Center counsel Emily Berman and Seton Hall Law Professor Jonathan Hafetz discuss the President’s detention policy, the Warsame case, and whether we can hold the government accountable for deprivations of liberty.

This is the second installment in a three-part series. You can read the first conversation here.

Hafetz is the author of Habeas corpus after 9/11: Confronting America’s New Global Detention System. You can read the chapter Terrorism as Crime.

There was a fascinating story in The Nation last month, reporting about a facility in Mogadishu, Somalia, where the CIA seems to be operating a semi-autonomous detention program in conjunction with Somali intelligence. According to The Nation, “the underground prison is officially run” by the Somali’s national security agency, but “US intelligence personnel pay the salaries of [Somali] intelligence agents and also directly interrogate prisoners.”

Is there any way to hold the government accountable for these deprivations of liberty?

One question these last two stories raise for me — and I’ll want to come back to this — is whether the current administration has a coherent detention policy, or if it’s operating on an ad hoc basis, and whether that’s a good or a bad thing.

But first, I’d like to ask you whether the writ of habeas corpus provides any protection from unlawful detention for prisoners like Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame or the ones in Mogadishu? And if not, is there any way to hold the government accountable for these deprivations of liberty?

—Emily Berman

The facility highlights the problem of proxy detention — where the U.S. outsources detention to foreign agents or colludes with those agents in order to minimize accountability.

The practice of proxy detention is not new. (In fact, along with the ACLU, I presently represent a U.S. citizen named Amir Meshal in a lawsuit against four U.S. officials who used foreign agents in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, to imprison him for four months in 2007 without access to his family or the courts).

The story about the facility in Mogadishu highlights both the importance and potential limits of habeas corpus. It underscores why habeas must be available to challenge all detentions by the United States, regardless of location, and why the habeas right must be viewed broadly to reach situations where the U.S. exercises custody or control over a prisoner indirectly, through a foreign agent.

Obama’s approach elevates executive discretion over the rule of law.

A district judge in Washington, D.C. previously construed habeas corpus to reach this type of detention (The case, which involved a proxy detention in Saudi Arabia, is entitled Abu Ali v. Ashcroft). While Abu Ali was an American citizen, the habeas right to challenge illegal detention should extend both to citizens and foreign nationals. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s 2008 Boumediene v. Bush decision, which recognized Guantanamo detainees’ constitutional right to habeas corpus, emphasizes that citizenship is only one of many factors involved in determining whether habeas should be available to a person held overseas. 

One recurring problem is that it can be difficult in practice to establish the requisite level of U.S. control over detention for the purposes of establishing habeas corpus jurisdiction, while judges can be reluctant to order discovery into the degree of U.S. control when a prisoner is nominally in foreign custody. However, the danger of precluding such discovery outweighs any difficulties it poses, as it effectively permits the U.S. to interrogate and imprison individuals without accountability or review — precisely the kind of situation where the worst abuses tend to occur.

—Jonathan Hafetz

I want to briefly go back to the Warsame case — the Somali detainee held and interrogated for two months on a navy ship and then brought to the U.S. for prosecution. You’ve probably seen the letter that several congressional Republicans sent to President Obama protesting the way that Warsame was handled. The letter criticizes the President for failing to establish a “comprehensive detention system” outside of Afghanistan and calls on the President to define his administration’s policies on interrogation, detention, and prosecution of terrorists. 

Do you think this administration has a coherent policy for dealing with suspected terrorists?


President Obama’s approach to detention does, to be sure, suffer from a lack of consistency. While Obama has expressed a general preference for prosecuting terrorism cases in federal court, he has maintained the option to treat terrorism suspects militarily — by subjecting them to indefinite detention under the laws of war or prosecuting them in military commissions. In Warsame’s case, exercising that option meant two months’ of military detention followed by a federal criminal indictment. For others, including those at Guantanamo, it has meant perpetual confinement without trial or prosecutions in a second-class military justice system.  

Obama’s approach, as I’ve previously discussed here, gives far too much power to the government to circumvent or dispense with the fundamental constitutional protections provided in the federal criminal justice system. Who receives a federal trial? Who, by contrast, is subjected to the military regime of law-of-war detention or commission prosecution? Obama’s approach allows the government to exercise the military option when it lacks evidence, when the evidence is tainted (for example, because it was obtained through torture or other illicit means), or even when the case is too difficult politically to prosecute in federal court (as illustrated by the administration’s decision to abandon the prosecution of KSM and the other 9/11 co-conspirators in the face of a virulent political backlash).

Obama’s approach, in short, elevates executive discretion over the rule of law. It is, however, certainly preferable to the approach of those lawmakers who would mandate military detention, thus barring the prosecution of Warsame and countless other suspects.