Kafka Comes to America
"Federal public defender [Steven] Wax masterfully delivers a harrowing story of the erosion of civil liberties after the September 11 terrorist attacks in a powerful testimony that reads like a thriller," hails Publishers Weekly (starred review). In Kafka Comes to America (Other Press), Wax interweaves the stories of two men he represented who were caught up in our government's post-9/11 counterterrorism measures. This event is cosponsored by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, the ACLU of Oregon, the Oregon Hispanic Bar Association, and Amnesty International.
Public defender ready to battle for individual rights
Attorney Steven Wax's book puts reader on front lines of war on terror
Saturday, June 14, 2008
The Oregonian Staff
Powell's City of Books was packed. All the chairs in the Pearl Room were taken, and the aisles in the art and architecture sections were filled with the cream of Portland's liberal legal establishment, eager to hear from the man who defended Brandon Mayfield and helped free a Guantanamo detainee.
Steven Wax was ready. He knew about half the crowd of about 300 by name and knew they shared his belief that the federal government has torn holes in the Constitution in its prosecution of the war on terror. It was a friendly audience, but Wax wasn't taking anything for granted, any more than he would in front of a jury in a courtroom or a judge in chambers. He was prepared, armed with the facts and ready to present them with passion and precision, the way he has for 25 years as the federal public defender for Oregon.
Every lawyer knows the importance of a good opening. Wax began by describing what it's like to arrive at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. government's detention center in Cuba. Wax put his audience on the tarmac with him, getting searched by military guards and going into Camp Echo to meet Adel Hassan Hamad, a Sudanese man who worked for a charity in Pakistan when he was arrested in 2002. Hamad -- Wax referred to his client exclusively as Adel, the same way he called Mayfield only by his first name -- had been at Guantanamo for 44 months. When Wax went into Hamad's cell, his client was "chained to the floor like a dog."
Wax stepped down hard on the phrase and let it sink in. He is 59, in his seventh four-year term as the federal public defender, and his sense of outrage hasn't diminished. He told the Powell's audience he was proud to be a child of the '60s, "infused with idealism and anger" and ready to use the law to defend individual rights against government power. Not every public defender's office took Guantanamo cases. But Wax volunteered because he thinks the issues are fundamental to preserving democracy, and he's not shy about saying so.
"Give me a soapbox, and I'll stand on it," said Wax, who has written a book called "Kafka Comes to America: Fighting for Justice in the War on Terror." It goes deep inside two cases: the 2004 arrest of Mayfield, a Portland lawyer held as a material witness for more than two weeks after a mistaken fingerprint identification by the FBI linked him to terrorist bombings in Spain, and the less-publicized detainment of Hamad, who spent more than five years in prison before being released last year.
Wax's office took seven Guantanamo cases. Four men have been released, and three remain there. The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that prisoners at Guantanamo have the right to petition a judge for their release, upholding the right of habeas corpus. "I love that word," Wax told the Powell's crowd.
"I was relieved to see the majority of the court understood the importance of habeas corpus to our structure of government and to the core liberties we enjoy," Wax said Friday from Washington, D.C., where he was on a book tour.
As important as the 5-4 decision was, Wax said he thought it might "spawn yet another procedural morass" as the government decides what to do with the 270 men held at Guantanamo. He thought there might be a rapid release of prisoners to their home countries and said "the last thing the government wants to see is a public hearing with protestations of innocence" that might expose why prisoners were sent to Guantanamo and how they were treated.
At his 17th-floor office across from the federal courthouse the morning after the Powell's event, Wax was relaxed and expansive about his life. His grandfather was smuggled out of Russia in 1910 after attacking a lieutenant in the czar's army who taunted him about being a Jew. A great-uncle was arrested in the Palmer Raids of 1919-20, when thousands of suspected radicals and Communists were arrested and held without trial. Wax came to Portland from New York, where he worked first in the Brooklyn district attorney's office, helping prosecute cases that included the "Son of Sam" murders, and then as a public defender in Binghamton, N.Y.
Wax started writing "Kafka Comes to America" after his second trip to Guantanamo. He envisioned it as a magazine article and said the book "came pouring out of me. I loved it. I couldn't stop." He got early advice from Portland defense lawyer-turned-author Phil Margolin and eventually worked with a writing coach to expand his style away from the terse language of legal briefs and toward adjectives, action verbs and colorful descriptions.
Wax called Mayfield's case "the most intense 19 days of my legal career." He described visiting Mayfield in the Multnomah County Detention Center in 2004 and telling him that it was possible the government might remove him from the legal system and put him in military detention, the way it had to two other U.S. citizens, Jose Padilla and Yaser Hamdi, who were accused of terrorist activities and declared illegal enemy combatants.
"This is the new reality," Wax said he told Mayfield, who was in the audience at Powell's and confirmed Wax's account.
"It was a little odd, being on the other side in that situation," Mayfield said. "I'm used to listening to clients telling me they're innocent. I just had to have faith in his abilities."
Mayfield said that while in custody he met regularly with Wax and Chris Schatz, an assistant federal public defender, and usually was "escorted in shackles and chains. They did a full strip search before I was brought in. It usually wasn't on the phone, but we had to sit like this" -- Mayfield moved closer -- "and talk like this" -- he lowered his voice.
After his release, Mayfield and Wax became friends. Mayfield, who read Wax's book before publication, described Wax as "very calm, cool and collected, the consummate professional." Mayfield filed suit against the U.S. government and won a $2 million settlement in 2006. A federal judge ruled in 2007 that two provisions of the Patriot Act used to detain him are unconstitutional. The government has appealed.
Mayfield, 41, politely greeted people after Wax's event and posed for pictures with Wax. He continues to practice law and said his life has pretty much returned to normal, "but it'll never be quite the same. I used to be somewhat idealistic, but I got a big dose of reality."
Hamad was released in December, after the Sudanese foreign minister wrote a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The charges against him, principally that he worked for organizations that had some association to terrorism and that he might have met suspected terrorists in refugee camps, "absolutely" amounted to guilt by association, Wax said.
Wax closed his Powell's presentation by reminding the audience that in no other country would Hamad have received the kind of legal representation he did, paid for by the government that imprisoned him. Some people might not understand how the Sixth Amendment right to counsel applies to those captured on foreign soil, he said later, but most would see that it's the American way, and he's proud to be an American.
Jeff Baker: 503-221-8165; email@example.com
Mayfield tells Congress that oversight important
Posted by The Associated Press November 16, 2007 12:26PM
Don Ryan/The Associated PressPortland attorney Brandon Mayfield, left, shared a smile with public defender Steven Wax as they announced May 24, 2004, that a federal judge had dismissed the case against Mayfield, who had been detained in connection with the Madrid train bombings investigation.
An Oregon lawyer who won a ruling that provisions of the USA Patriot Act are unconstitutional has urged Congress to resist Bush administration efforts to overhaul a law requiring oversight of government surveillance.
Brandon Mayfield challenged the Patriot Act over secret surveillance and searches of his home and office after the FBI misidentified a fingerprint in the Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people in 2004.
The FBI publicly apologized to Mayfield for the mistake and settled a lawsuit for $2 million. In September, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken ruled on his challenge to the searches, issuing a sharply worded rebuke to the administration that warned the Patriot Act allows the government to sidestep Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The White House since has been pushing for a rewrite of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which requires court oversight of surveillance. On Thursday, the House approved a bill to strengthen that oversight, drawing an immediate veto threat from President Bush.
The Democratic bill also stopped short of providing legal immunity to telecommunication companies that help the government eavesdrop on phone calls and e-mail. Mayfield wrote a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee members Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., urging them to protect FISA from amendments that could weaken it.
"The Patriot Act weakened the requirements the government needed under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in order to bug my home and office," Mayfield wrote.
"When legislation is written that waters down the standard of the Fourth Amendment, it is not the guilty who suffer, but the innocent," he said. The letter was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Mr. Mayfield's case is a cautionary tale," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU legislative office in Washington, D.C. "Mr. Mayfield's experience has taught us that expanding government powers without checks and balances can actually affect and ruin people's lives."