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How I Ended Up Representing The World's Most Hated Terrorist In Guantanamo Bay

Picture it. Late spring 2020. The world is closed. End of times stuff. I couldn't remember the last time I left my apartment. It's less than five minutes until my virtual interview. I'm in a t-shirt and (hidden) basketball shorts. Then . . . horror struck.

I'm too casual for this casual interview.


The Military Commissions Defense Organization (MCDO) is charged by the Department of Defense (DoD) to represent detainees from the War On Terror that are held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in their military commissions. It is a mix of service members from every branch, DoD civilians, pro bono attorneys and professors, and private attorneys mostly funded by the John Adams Project, a joint partnership between the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).

A lighthouse overlooking the bay on Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
Always on watch. A view of the Bay.

I had discussed my selection for this assignment with a colleague as I finished up my appellate defense role. "You'll get scheduled for interviews with a number of the defense teams," she said. "You will end up on one of the non-capital, lower cases. The bigger fish, like the USS Cole case, don't typically trust military lawyers. And there is no way you'll get selected for the 9/11 case. That's the biggest one."

Well, the first call came from the Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM) defense team, the principal Accused in the five defendant capital 9/11 commission and the alleged mastermind of the attacks themselves.

So, I was relaxed. It was basically a practice interview, but with the leading death penalty litigators in the United States.

The world had been turned upside down. But I panicked. I ran to my closet, found the least wrinkled dress shirt, and got back to my screen just in time. Don't think they noticed.

It ended up being a great conversation, but I knew not to expect anything.

I got a call that night. The team wanted to offer me a spot before anyone else got the chance to speak to me.

My entire post-graduate experience was in military justice. First as a law clerk in the military's highest court, then as a prosecutor, defense counsel, and appellate defense counsel. I'm published and continue to study the law. That was the value add to the client, particularly since nearly all the attorneys were civilians with no prior military experience. They didn't speak the language.

So began a very interesting ride. A death penalty case that resulted from what the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has repeatedly described as "the largest criminal investigation in the history of the United States."

Base sign
"Pearl of the Antilles"

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