The Justice Department has asked a federal appeals court to put tighter restrictions on the hundreds of lawyers who represent detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the request has become a central issue in a new legal battle over the administration's detention policies.
Saying that visits by civilian lawyers and attorney-client mail have caused "intractable problems and threats to security at Guantanamo," a Justice filing proposes new limits on the lawyers' contact with their clients and access to evidence in their cases that would replace more expansive rules that have governed them since they began visiting Guantanamo detainees in large numbers in 2004.
The filing says the lawyers have caused unrest among the detainees and have improperly served as a conduit to the news media, assertions that have drawn angry denials from some of the lawyers.
The dispute is the latest and perhaps the most significant clash over the role of lawyers for the detainees. "There is no right on the part of counsel to access to detained aliens on a secure military base in a foreign country," the Justice Department filing argued.
Under the proposal, filed this month in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the government would limit lawyers to three visits with a current client at Guantanamo; there is no limit now.
It would permit only a single visit with a detainee to have him authorize a lawyer to handle his case. And it would permit a team of intelligence officers and military lawyers not involved in a detainee's case to read mail sent to him by his lawyer.
The proposal would also reverse existing rules and permit government officials, on their own, to deny the lawyers access to secret evidence used by military panels to determine that their clients were enemy combatants.
Many of the lawyers say the restrictions would make it impossible to represent their clients, or even to persuade wary detainees - in a single visit - that they were really lawyers, rather than interrogators.
Jonathan Hafetz of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, a lawyer who has helped to coordinate strategy for the detainees, said the government was trying to disrupt relationships between the lawyers and their clients and to stop the flow of public information about Guantanamo.
"These rules," Hafetz said, "are an effort to restore Guantanamo to its prior [pre-2004] status as a legal black hole."
The dispute comes in a case in which detainees are challenging decisions by military panels that they were properly held as enemy combatants. The Justice Department's proposed rules could apply to similar cases that lawyers say are likely to eventually involve as many as 300 of the roughly 385 detainees now held at Guantanamo.
Some of the detainees' lawyers say the Justice Department proposal is only the latest indication of a long effort to blunt their effectiveness, which they say was evident in statements of a senior Pentagon official early this year.
The official, Charles D. Stimson, deputy assistant secretary for detainee affairs, resigned after he was criticized for suggesting that corporations should consider severing business ties with law firms that represented Guantanamo detainees.
Under current rules, legal mail is inspected for contraband but is not read. The lawyers, who have security clearances, are presumed to be entitled to review classified evidence used against their clients.
There is no limit on the number of times lawyers can visit their clients. Some say that they have been to Guantanamo 10 or more times and that they have needed the time to work with clients who are often suspicious and withdrawn.
Justice Department officials would not comment on the proposal, which is to be the subject of a court hearing May 15.
The filing used combative language, saying lawyers had been able to "cause unrest on the base" and mentioning hunger strikes, protests and disobedience. An affidavit by a Navy lawyer at Guantanamo, Cmdr. Patrick M. McCarthy, that accompanied the filing, said lawyers had gathered information from the detainees for news organizations. McCarthy said the lawyers had provided detainees with accounts of events outside Guantanamo, such as a speech at an Amnesty International conference and details of terror attacks.
"Such information," his affidavit said, "threatens the security of the camp, as it could incite violence among the detainees."
Several detainees' lawyers involved in some of the incidents denied they had caused security problems. Neil H. Koslowe, a lawyer at Shearman & Sterling in Washington, called the assertion a "McCarthy-era charge" that was not supported by the evidence.
The dispute over the lawyers' role is one of the first issues the appeals court in Washington will have to decide as it opens a new chapter of the legal battle over Guantanamo. In 2005, Congress designated that court as the forum for detainees to directly challenge decisions made by the Pentagon's combatant status review tribunals designating them as enemy combatants.
But many detainees' lawyers have resisted filing petitions to review those decisions because Congress narrowly defined the arguments the appeals court could consider. The law said the court could review whether a panel's decision "was consistent with the standards and procedures" set forth by the Pentagon.
Instead, many detainees' lawyers pursued habeas corpus petitions, using the centuries-old legal proceeding to ask a judge for release from imprisonment. But after a complex trip through the courts, Congress in 2006 passed a provision intended to strip courts of the authority to hear habeas corpus cases involving Guantanamo detainees.