What would it be like for an American lawyer to have the job of defending an accused enemy of the state in a dictatorial country? It would be much like fictional Byron Carlos Johnson’s undertaking in Paul Batista’s Extraordinary Rendition, except Johnson was working in the United States of America. Post 9/11, there were many changes in the legal system in response to concerns for national security, including establishing a new category of “enemy combatants,” whose rights are extremely limited. Batista’s novel takes this factual state of affairs somewhat further.
Byron Johnson is a successful partner in a large New York law firm. He has been asked to represent Ali Hussein, a suspected Al Qaeda money manager. Hussein has been the subject of “extraordinary rendition,” the practice of sending prisoners to countries that allow torture of those prisoners. Hussein was held and routinely beaten for several years in various countries, but has not been charged with a crime, and has not been allowed to see any visitors. The U.S. government has finally decided to bring Hussein back to the US. for trial. Johnson accepts the case on a pro bono (without charge) basis. The government allows Johnson to speak to Hussein, but only for very brief meetings.
Johnson is not even told what the charges are against Hussein. The government insists that Johnson should just get Hussein to confess, because the need for “national security” overrides any democratic principles relating to the rights of the accused. But Johnson wonders:
“…did the Constitution give Ali Hussein as a foreign national arrested overseas the right to a speedy trial, to effective representation by a lawyer, to a freedom from cruel and unusual punishment and to other constitutional guarantees?”
It’s a reasonable question, but the answer is fairly clear: No.
Johnson’s work on behalf of Hussein begins to take so much time (on a non-paying) basis that for this and a few other reasons his partners expel him from the firm. Nevertheless, he soldiers bravely on with the assistance of Christina Rosario, a beautiful Columbia law student who had worked for his firm as a clerk the previous summer. Johnson’s burden is greatly increased because, not only is he not given a copy of the indictment, he is also denied access to the government’s evidence due to “national security” concerns.
[The state secrets privilege is a common-law evidentiary rule that permits the government “to block discovery in a lawsuit of any information that, if disclosed, would adversely affect national security.” (Ellsberg v. Mitchell, 709 F.2d 51, 56 (D.C. Cir. 1983) The Department of Justice (DOJ) under George W. Bush radically expanded the use of the state secrets privilege, transforming the privilege, according to critics, into an alternative form of immunity that shielded the government and its agents from accountability for systemic violations of the law.]
Johnson enlists the aid of Simeon (“Sy”) Black, a free lance reporter closely modeled on Seymour Hersch. Through Black’s contacts, one of whom is a very competent private detective, Johnson learns a great deal about some shadowy (presumably CIA and Department of Homeland Security) thugs who are dictating case strategy and management to the government’s lawyers.
All of the people helping Hussein come into danger themselves, as the tension ratchets up for a riveting conclusion.
Evaluation: Jim and I each had fairly similar reactions to this book. In brief, we thought the legal portions were well done, the caricatured bad guys unnecessary, and that the “romantic” scenes should have been omitted, or at least, rewritten. We have made more extensive remarks on our other blog, Legal Legacy, if you wish to see our thoughts in detail (skip down to the Discussion section, as the basic review is unchanged).
Published by Astor + Blue Editions LLC, 2013