The John Adams Project (JAP), whose name derives from the American founder who defended a British soldier on trial for his role in the Boston Massacre, began in 2008 as a joint effort between the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL). Its purpose was to provide legal defense for “high value detainees,” then called “enemy combatants,” who were being held by the United States government at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. The project was spurred by Congress’ passage of the Military Commissions Act, which authorized the use of military tribunals for these detainees. Both the ACLU and the NACDL argued that such tribunals abridged the due-process rights of detainees and facilitated prisoner abuse. The organizations further contended that the U.S. criminal-justice system was the only appropriate forum in which to adjudicate the cases of terrorist suspects. In agreement with those positions, the JAP pursued legal action designed to give detainees the same due-process rights as American citizens.
The JAP filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits against the federal government on behalf of military-tribunal defendants. In April of 2008, for instance, the Project tried, unsuccessfully, to hold former Attorney General John Ashcroft personally liable for wrongful detention of prisoners. Attorneys for the JAP consistently maintained that not only had Guantánamo detainees been denied fair judicial treatment but, furthermore, that they had been physically “tortured.”
In May of 2008, the JAP petitioned the U.S. government for permission to represent 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM). Mohammed and other detainees later refused any representation and asked to be put to death as jihadi martyrs. The ACLU attributed this request to the the fact that the detainees had been “held in solitary confinement for five years” and “subjected to torture.”
In June 2008, the JAP assembled a legal team to represent Abd Al-Rahim Hussain Mohammed Al-Nashiri, who was on trial for his alleged involvement in the USS Cole bombing of 2000. JAP attorney Nancy Hollander argued that the government could not use certain information against Al-Nashiri because it had been obtained by means of torture. In November of 2008, the ACLU placed a full-page advertisement in The New York Times calling on then-President-elect Barack Obama to close down the Guantánamo Bay facility as a first order of business when he took office.
In August 2009, the JAP celebrated the release of Mohammed Jawad, a Pakistani national who was accused of attempting to murder members of an American convoy in 2002. The ACLU called the decision a “tremendous victory” which had freed an “innocent” man.
The JAP and the ACLU came under fire in 2009 when they were accused of: (a) having hired investigators to photograph CIA officers thought to have been involved in enhanced interrogations of terror suspects detained in Guantanamo, and then (b) showing the photos to the attorneys of those suspects; some of of the suspects were senior al-Qaeda operatives. The CIA expressed concern that if such detainees were to learn the identities of the people in the photos, they (the detainees) might seek retribution against the CIA officials and their families.
According to Bill Gertz of the Washington Times, the JAP engaged in this photo-leak “in an attempt to have the terrorism suspects identify the interrogators in order to call [the latter] as witnesses in future trials.” Moreover, the JAP wanted to try not only the terror suspects in civilian courts; it also sought to put the Bush administration and the CIA on trial.
The JAP and the ACLU denied that any of the lawyers representing detainees had done anything inappropriate or illegal. In response to the allegation that the JAP was putting CIA agents in danger, JAP attorney Nina Ginsberg quipped: “CIA agents put a lot of people in danger.”
The JAP again found itself under scrutiny when Keep America Safe, an organization headed by Elizabeth Cheney, called for the names of the “al-Qaeda Seven” attorneys who had represented terror suspects before being appointed to positions in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Under the direction of Attorney General Eric Holder, the DOJ eventually released the identities of those lawyers. They included Jonathan Cedarbaum and Eric Columbus, who had assisted with the Boumediene v. Bush case, and Joseph Guerra, who had assisted with a brief urging the Supreme Court to consider the case of Jose Padilla.
In November 2009, following the Obama administration’s decision to try five 9/11 defendants in federal civilian courts, the JAP was formally discontinued. As of 2010, Republicans in Congress remained unsatisfied that the JAP had been investigated properly for its CIA photo scandal and supported an amendment calling for an investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general.
For a list of all the attorneys involved in the JAP, click here.
Some of JAP’s funding was directly traceable to large philanthropic foundations. In June of 2008, for instance, the ACLU began an ambitious fundraising campaign seeking $355 million to expand its organizational infrastructure. The Open Society Institute and the Sandler Foundation each donated $12 million. Funds from this campaign were used to bankroll the JAP.