I-Team Report: The Dark Side

June 10, 2009 (CHICAGO) A well-known Chicago lawyer gives us a look inside the most controversial corner of that world: Guantanamo.

There are several lawyers named Tom Durkin working Chicago courtrooms. But only Thomas Anthony Durkin has been to Guantanamo six times to meet with and defend accused enemy combatants and 9/11 terrorists.

On each occasion, Durkin says he's seen with his own eyes "the dark side" of American intelligence: the notorious Guantanamo prison camp.

For two decades in Chicago, this Tom Durkin has been impossible to overlook on the Chicago legal scene.

The one-time federal prosecutor-turned defense attorney has represented some of the city's most infamous accused.

"I think I've been involved in some pretty wild stuff around here but I've never been involved in anything as wild as this," said Thomas A. Durkin, criminal defense lawyer.

Durkin is talking about: the Guantanamo Bay naval base terror detention camps, operating since 2002 and currently home to more than 250 captives.

Most of them were removed from battlefield in Afghanistan, including about two dozen high value detainees who are accused of being involved in terrorist plots and attacks.

Three years ago, Durkin was enlisted by the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York to represent several of the so-called regular detainees who were Taliban fighters.

"They were just young kids, they were no more terrorists than the man in the moon," said Durkin.

Durkin succeeded in getting them released and sent home to the Sudan and Algeria.

In his Lincoln Park office, next to an outdoor bar, Durkin then received a call from the American Civil Liberties Union to defend one of the accused 9/11 terrorists whose treatment he says was one of the biggest mistakes America ever made.

"It's the worst thing I've ever seen and I think I've seen a lot," said Durkin.

Even as President Obama works to close the Guantanamo prison, there is disagreement with Durkin's assessment of what happened there.

Most notably of late: from former vice president Dick Cheney who coined the phrase "the dark side" to describe where American intelligence has to work to prevent future attacks.

"To call this a program of torture is to libel the dedicated professionals who have saved American lives, and to cast terrorists and murderers as innocent victims. What's more, to completely rule out enhanced interrogation methods in the future is unwise in the extreme," said former Vice President Cheney.

Among the accused terrorists are Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemenese national charged as a top Al Qaeda planners of the 9/11 attacks.

Binalshibh was captured in Pakistan after a fierce gun battle; turned over to American authorities and locked up at Guantanamo where he is asking to be executed.

His lawyer? Tom Durkin.

"When I first called his brother, he literally broke down sobbing. He said he couldn't believe that there were Americans willing to represent his brother," said Durkin.

In December, Binalshibh and the four other 9/11 detainees appeared before a military judge; announced they wanted execution and to become martyrs. Then Durkin says 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad began singing the Qur'an.

"There was a great scene with one of the defendants. The judge was explaining how he would get a free military lawyer and the defendant shot back at the judge 'well I'd hope you would give me a free lawyer, you tortured me for free'," said Durkin.

On Tuesday in Washington, Durkin and the other 9/11 defense lawyers met with President Obama's Guantanamo team to discuss whether Gitmo prisoners will be moved into the federal court system.

"The government admitted to water boarding three people...most people want to believe that we are a fair people because they realize that this wasn't fair. This was wrong," said Durkin.

Initially, Durkin volunteered to represent Guantanamo detainees.The ACLU's John Adams' Project pays lawyers a bit better than a public defender's fee, which is far less than what they usually receive. And in an odd twist to "the dark side" story: one of the major funding organizations for the ACLU's Guantanamo project was the Bernard Madoff foundation. Of course, Madoff is himself is in federal court, charged in a massive fraud scheme. His contribution is no more.

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