A Victory Against Secret Law: Appeals Court De-Censors Its Ruling in Doe v. Mattis (the U.S. citizen enemy combatant case)

Today, in a victory against secret law, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has unsealed and re-issued a significant ruling it issued in May 2018 in the case of Doe v. Mattis, regarding an American citizen who was held without trial in American military custody for over a year as a suspected Islamic State member. This result is due to the vision and hard work of the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School, which had the idea and asked me to be the plaintiff. Congratulations to the clinic’s David Schulz, Charles Crain, Paulina Perlin, and Sarah Lamsifer.

The ruling in question was that the U.S. government could not forcibly transfer an American to another country over his objections without first proving that he was indeed an enemy combatant being legitimately detained under the laws of war, which he contested. The government considered it a secret which countries it was negotiating with to take the man, and so portions of the ruling that discussed those countries and legal issues raised by them were blacked out on pages 36, 37, and 44 in the majority opinion by Judge Sri Srinivasen, and pages 1, 4, 5, 8, 17-19, and 31-33 in the dissenting opinion by Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, making them difficult to parse.

In fact those countries were Iraq, where he was being held at an American base, and Saudi Arabia, where he was a dual citizen despite having been born in the United States. The New York Times had already reported those facts — and eventually other ones that still remain officially secret, like that his real name is Abdulrahman Ahmad Alsheikh and that he was ultimately freed in Bahrain — based on sources. But making these passages in the ruling visible is an important accomplishment for making this legal precedent understandable, both for scholars to study and for potential litigants if a similar dispute arises again in the future.

“I think the most important takeaway is that the public now knows that the government was arguing that dual citizens possessed lesser Fifth Amendment rights against transfer than sole-U.S. citizens,” said Brett Max Kaufman, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Doe/Alsheikh. “That may have been implied by what was public before, but now those arguments are out in the open (and the specific holding can be relied upon in future cases).”

Kaufman added that while the identity of Saudi was something of an open secret, there was real value in official confirmation, as the complaint “compellingly argued” and as is evidenced by the revelation of the government’s specific legal theory.

I would also like to applaud the Justice Department for not trying to fight the unsealing, other than by making a small request that we did not object to: keeping the name of a State Department official who filed an affidavit blacked out.

Here is the order and unredacted ruling: