Three U.S. law firms and a public relations company have received millions of dollars from a Middle Eastern organization partly financed by the Kuwaiti government to work for families of Kuwaiti men detained at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, public records show.
The legal work, funded by the Kuwait-based International Counsel Bureau (ICB), has figured prominently in court proceedings that have gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, including last month’s 5-4 ruling giving the detainees the right to have their cases heard in U.S. courts.
The ICB gets at least some of its funding to hire U.S. lawyers through the Kuwaiti government, records show.
“We understand that the government of Kuwait makes financial contributions for the legal fees and expenses of the International Counsel Bureau,” D.C. lawyer Thomas B. Wilner stated in a public filing with the Justice Department in 2005.
The Kuwaiti Embassy in Washington did not return telephone messages concerning the nature of the country’s relationship with the ICB.
Among the most prominent lawyers working on the Guantanamo litigation, Mr. Wilner is a partner at Shearman & Sterling LLP, which received more than $1 million from the Kuwait-based group. ICB has paid nearly $4 million overall to the U.S. firms, according to Justice Department and U.S. Senate lobbying records.
“This is not a case where the firm profited financially,” Mr. Wilner said. “We put more time and effort in this case than all the other firms combined.”
Shearman & Sterling spokesman Peter Horowitz said the firm donated about $1.5 million in proceeds it received from its work for Guantanamo detainees to the not-for-profit Regional Plan Association in New York, which seeks to shape transportation systems, protect open spaces and promote better community design for a 31-county area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Still, the fee arrangements between the Kuwaiti group and U.S. firms have prompted sharp criticism in recent years from Debra Burlingame, co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America, who has questioned the flow of foreign money for lawyers involved in U.S. judicial proceedings on national security issues.
Most U.S. law firms working on behalf of Guantanamo detainees are doing so at no charge. More than 50 firms were honored last year for doing pro bono work for detainees at a ceremony in Washington hosted by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. Among the firms was Shearman & Sterling.
A spokesman for the legal aid group said the organization wasn’t aware that Shearman & Sterling had worked on a fee basis. Mr. Wilner said the firm has been working pro bono since 2005, though it continued receiving fees from the ICB until 2006. Mr. Wilner said those fees were for work performed during 2005 and earlier.
“The idea that all of the lawyers here are working pro bono isn’t true. It just makes the cause look more noble,” Ms. Burlingame said.
According to its Web site, ICB was founded in 1994 by Abdul Rahman R. Al-Haroun, former manager for the corporate department of the Kuwaiti National Petroleum Co. The firm’s other partner, Ghazi Al Qahtani, joined in 1998 after 23 years with the Kuwait Oil Co., where he was general counsel and head of the company’s legal-affairs group, according to the bureau.
In written and public testimony for a congressional hearing last year, Ms. Burlingame accused Shearman & Sterling and other firms hired by ICB of “cashing in.” In comments that echoed previous statements by Ms. Burlingame on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, she also criticized the firms for accepting “millions of dollars in fees in furtherance of acquiring the release of committed [jihadis] from U.S. custody while men and women of the U.S. armed services are under fire in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
In response, a Shearman lawyer rebutted Ms. Burlingame’s comments in a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, a copy of which the firm provided to The Washington Times.
“We decided to undertake the representation because of the important constitutional principle at stake: the right of any individual detained within the jurisdiction and control of the U.S. government to have a fair hearing before a neutral judge to decide whether they should continue to be held indefinitely or should be charged, tried and, if convicted, punished,” Shearman lawyer Rohan S. Weerasinghe wrote.
Two other U.S. firms also have received funds from ICB: Arnold & Porter LLP and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.
Arnold & Porter declined to comment for this article. The firm reported about $75,000 in fees from ICB during the first half of 2006 in Justice Department filings. It also has reported an additional $250,000 in fees in recent years in U.S. Senate lobbying reports.
Arnold & Porter has lobbied Congress, the Justice Department, the State Department and the Defense Department on “issues related to efforts to obtain due process for the Kuwaiti detainees in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay,” according to lobbying reports.
A third firm hired by the ICB, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, provided legal counsel in the recent Supreme Court case, Al Odah v. United States, which gave detainees the right to have their cases tried in U.S. courts. Through the last five months of last year and all of January, the firm reported more than $250,000 in fees and expenses from ICB, according to foreign-agent filings at the Justice Department.
Among the firm’s charges were meal and travel costs for two Pillsbury lawyers to go to Cuba in August 2007 to “meet with clients at Guantanamo Bay to discuss legal strategy regarding actions taken against the clients by the U.S. government,” according to the filings.
The firm also reported contacts with numerous major media outlets concerning detainee issues, including The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CBS News and Al Jazeera.
Pillsbury lawyer David J. Cynamon declined to respond to questions concerning ICB for this article, saying that “as an attorney, I cannot and will not comment on matters concerning client relationships.” In a Pillsbury news release after the Supreme Court decision, Mr. Cynamon called the ruling “a complete victory not only for our clients, but for all Americans and citizens the world over, and, most importantly, for the rule of law.”
Lawyers aren’t the only ones receiving fees from the ICB.
The Kuwait-based group also has financed a public relations campaign run by Levick Strategic Communications in Washington, making hundreds of e-mails and telephone calls to reporters at dozens of media outlets across the country, including The Washington Times.
According to Justice Department filings, the firm - which also has represented the Executive Office of Dubai - contacts media outlets to “generate support for adherence to the June 2003 and June 2006 decision by the Supreme Court with regard to due process for the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.”
The firm also reported contacts with the American Civil Liberties Union earlier this year for “possible collaboration on the orange-ribbon movement to shut down Guantanamo,” according to Justice Department filings.
Levick Senior Vice President Gene Grabowski, a former reporter for The Washington Times, said the public-relations firm wasn’t working to free the detainees, but rather to focus public attention on why the men should be given a fair trial in U.S. courts.
“We were engaged to make the case … give them a real trial. It was never about freedom,” Mr. Grabowski said. “If they’re found guilty, they should be punished. We’re not arguing for their blanket freedom.”
Still, Richard Levick, who founded Levick, noted in a December 2005 article for an online trade publication, www.workinpr.com, “To date, six of the detainees have been set free, and the legal and public relations teams continue to coordinate efforts to help free the remaining six.”
Mr. Grabowski said that his boss’s comments were “not quite accurate,” adding that “our goal was never to set them free. Our goal was to get them a fair trial.”
In the article, titled “How a Media Campaign Helped Turn the Guantanamo Tide,” Mr. Levick wrote that while “legal and PR strategies don’t overlap,” the public relations campaign included a “news feed” of dozens of opinion pieces by Mr. Wilner, the Shearman lawyer, and Khalid Al-Odah, a father of one of the detainees, to raise awareness about Guantanamo detainees.
“In turn, such public awareness would ensure that judges knew that people were paying attention, that the prisoners weren’t forgotten, and that it was indeed a viable as well as correct position to affirm due process in this situation,” Mr. Levick wrote.
Mr. Grabowski said ICB serves as the Kuwaiti law firm for a group called the Kuwaiti Family Committee, which he said is made up of the families of current or former Kuwaiti Guantanamo Bay detainees. He said the funding from ICB initially came from the families, but “now there is some help from the Kuwaiti government.”