After over two years of being held incommunicado in solitary confinement, Yaser Esam Hamdi finally got to see a lawyer — as is his right as a U.S. citizen.
The fact that Hamdi is an accidental American — he is a Saudi born in Louisiana — does not mean he has any less rights.
The Bush administration claims the right to hold Hamdi and another American, Jose Padilla, indefinitely, without access to courts and counsel, based on its designation of them as "enemy combatants," a glaring violation of their constitutional rights. Both cases are headed to the Supreme Court.
Initially, in the aftermath of 9/11, the courts seemed inclined to give the administration the benefit of the doubt, but the legal tide began to turn late last year. When it looked like an appeals court was about to order that Hamdi be granted access to a lawyer, the administration abruptly announced it was OK if the prisoner met with federal public defender Frank Dunham, although the visit "should not be treated as a precedent."
The reason the administration gave for allowing the one-hour visit was that Hamdi had no further intelligence value, and officials were through interrogating him. If that were so, why did military prosecutors sit in on the meeting and videotape it? And why did they bar discussions of anything substantive, including the conditions of his confinement?
The next step is for Dunham to be able to meet with Hamdi privately and regularly to make his right to a lawyer truly meaningful.
Dunham said his client was "appreciative" of the visit. No doubt. Hamdi, who was taken prisoner in Afghanistan by the Northern Alliance, was probably surprised to find that he is at the center of a celebrated civil liberties case, one that we hope reaffirms a fundamental right.
Said Dunham eloquently if ungrammatically, "They just can't take a U.S. citizen and lock him up and keep them there forever." It should be chiseled over the door of the Justice Department.