Writing a book about a case that works its way to the U.S. Supreme Court poses inherent problems for an author. Perhaps the most difficult is putting the story in terms the average reader can understand while not bungling or giving too short shrift to legal complexities. This is especially so when the author is not law-trained and the case involves a variety of procedural machinations and areas of law with which most lawyers have little familiarity.
In what he calls "primarily a book of reporting," Jonathan Mahler masters that fine line in The Challenge: How a Maverick Navy Officer and a Young Law Professor Risked Their Careers to Defend the Constitution - and Won. Mahler, a journalist, gives us an inside look at Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the decision that found the military commissions established by the Bush Administration to try Guantanamo Bay detainees were illegal. Given that it explores a civil lawsuit from beginning to end, it isn't the type of narrative that keeps readers on the edge of their seat. Yet Mahler creates a highly readable exploration of a landmark decision on presidential powers and the rule of law. In addition, the paperback edition released this week contains a new epilogue that brings readers up to date on what transpired after the Supreme Court's ruling.
The story begins, of course, with Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni who was recruited to jihad. Mahler gives the impression that Hamdan saw being a jihadist more as steady employment than a political or religious mandate. He did, though, end up being Osama bin Laden's driver in Pakistan, where he was captured by local militia after the U.S. invasion. After being turned over to the U.S. military, he was held at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan and a prison in Pakistan before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay in 2002. Although we get glimpses of Hamdan's life at Guantanamo and his claims of abuse, the story is told more from the legal perspective and the two lawyers who led the legal efforts on his behalf.
Charlie Swift, a member of the Navy Judge Advocate General's Corp (JAG), was assigned to the Office of Military Commissions in 2003. His job was to assist and defend detainees who would be tried in front of military commissions created by the Bush Administration for that purpose. Shortly after being assigned and before Hamdan became his client, Swift questioned the wisdom and legality of the commissions. Yet any challenge to them presented its own problems. How likely are military commissions to declare themselves illegal? But could a JAG officer sue the nation's commander in chief?