Review of The Challenge: Hamdan v. Rumsfeld

Review of The Challenge: Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and the Fight over presidential Power by Jonathan Mahler
Rating ***

I learned of this book from a panel discussion on Book TV with the author and two of the lawyers involved in the case. The book is billed as a true life legal thriller. While it doesn’t quite live up to that billing, it has merit on a number of fronts.

This is the story of Salim Ahmed Hamdan who was scheduled to be one of the first to be tried under president Bush’s military tribunals. The title comes from the legal challenge made by his defense attorneys in an attempt to not only challenge the legality of the tribunals but also Hamdan’s treatment in detention.

Salim Hamdan was Osama Bin laden’s personal driver. That was the extent of his involvement in terrorist activities. Yet the government’s position was that he was one of the “worst of the worst” as Dick Cheney was so often quoted as saying when describing the prisoners at Guantanamo. The reality is that Salim was just a family man trying to scratch out a living. He was no more a terrorist than Osama Bin Laden’s food taster. Fortunately for Salim, though, he was assigned two lawyers who actually went to bat for him all the way to the Supreme Court.

The subject of the mistreatment of prisoners by the U.S. both in Iraq and Guantanamo is one that I have written about previously. The books, films, and documentaries just keep coming. One estimate I read stated that perhaps as many as 90% of the prisoners held at Guantanamo are Innocent. What angers me most about that situation is that our Government has done everything in their power to mistreat, torture, and abuse these men whose only crime was to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. As if that wasn’t enough, the Government then tried to set up trials where the prisoners were not allowed any of the basic rights afforded by our flawed justice system – no ability to call witnesses, unable to see the evidence against them, etc… There are still men languishing in Guantanamo who have not been charged with any crime. That’s just not right. Fortunately, one of the first things Barack Obama did was sign an executive order to close Guantanamo within a year.

The author adds personal tidbits about the main players and tries to write in a style more like a nonfiction narrative, but he succeeds only part of the time. Too much of the book reads like a legal manual. Still, the story is compelling.

I read the hard cover edition, which did not include the resolution to Hamdan’s case. I know from news reports that he was eventually convicted of some minor crime and sentenced to what amounted to time served. I’m not sure of his status now, but I hope he’s back home with his family.

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