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Richard Kammen was a defense attorney at Guantanamo Bay. Now he's written a novel


Over the past two decades, hundreds of lawyers have represented prisoners at the U.S. military court in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Now one of them has written a novel about the experience. Rick Kammen was the lead defense attorney for an inmate accused in the USS Cole warship bombing. His book is called "Tortured Justice, Guantanamo Bay." And although it's labeled fiction, it can seem autobiographical to people like me who've reported on Guantanamo. So I asked Kammen why he didn't go the nonfiction route.

RICHARD KAMMEN: I want readers to see this as true fiction in the sense that much of what I tried to describe is what really occurs in Guantanamo. I've just set this with fictional characters.

PFEIFFER: Well, but even some of your fictional characters I can recognize from real life. So why not write a memoir? Why did you write a novel?

KAMMEN: Quite honestly, because trying to deal with issues - direct issues of classification, attorney-client privilege, confidentiality within the defense - all of that made it virtually impossible to write a memoir. It was my judgment, after experimenting with nonfiction, to fictionalize Guantanamo, trying to take the truth of the place and add fictional characters to it.

PFEIFFER: Rick, the main character, whose name is Connor Mendelson, I think is clearly you. So as we talk right now, am I allowed to think of Connor Mendelson as you, as channeling your own experiences?

KAMMEN: Well, certainly I drew on my experiences, but Connor Mendelson is thinner, younger, shrewder than I could ever hope to be. And he's also smarter than I could ever hope to be.

PFEIFFER: So this novel has some drama, some mystery, some humor. It's got some legal lessons, some philosophizing. It's kind of a morality tale. What was your goal writing it?

KAMMEN: Well, I had three goals. First, what I wanted to describe was what it's like to litigate in that milieu and in this dysfunctional court system. The second was to describe how the relationship between Mendelson and his client morphed from I don't like you, I don't want to see you, why are you here? - to, over time, thank you very much for helping me, I love you. And I think that's an important part of Guantanamo representation, is how these relationships morph over time. The third thing I wanted to try and do was describe what a trial in Guantanamo might actually look like if there happens to be trials.

PFEIFFER: Although - and I don't want to give any spoilers here - in this fictional trial, you depict a system that you basically believe fails your client, and I'm wondering what that says about your overall view of Guantanamo and what might happen to your client, your former client, if he ever does go to trial.

KAMMEN: My view of Guantanamo is that it is a failed court system, and if there are trials, they will look nothing like what Americans think of as a trial.

PFEIFFER: In real life, there are people who despise you for defending a Guantanamo prisoner. And in the novel, you show this character, your character, being raged at by a victim family member. Why did you want to include that?

KAMMEN: Well, certainly I wanted the world to understand that the lawyers who represent people in Guantanamo are very committed to the American ideals of justice. And also the victims' grief is a very real part of this process. Their pain and their anger is a very real consideration in this process. Both legally and as a practical matter, it's there in the courtroom, and it would not have been realistic to write about a death penalty trial without writing about victims' grief.

PFEIFFER: There's a part in the book where defense attorneys find listening devices in the room where they meet with their clients, so they suspect prosecutors had been listening to their private conversations. That actually happened in real life. It's why you eventually left the case, although it sounds so almost farcically fictional that it's hard to believe it was real. But it was. What does that tell us about Guantanamo?

KAMMEN: Well, on so many levels, it is a system that operates in a way that Americans simply wouldn't recognize it. And the listening devices that we found were just the tip of the iceberg. There were countless other intrusions over the time I was there, from monitoring computers, probably listening to phone - some phone calls. There were defense teams where the government tried to infiltrate with informants. To talk about Guantanamo as it really exists is really to talk about governmental intrusions into the defense function.

PFEIFFER: Did writing this novel help you feel like you had a sense of closure for a case you had to leave?

KAMMEN: It helped me put in words some of the things that I felt that if Rick Kammen says them, they sound pretentious, but when they're coming from, in this case, the protagonist's wife, who says, you know, sometimes I think you guys are fighting for the soul of the country - I think there's some truth to that. I think what the lawyers who are involved are doing is really what lawyers - what we're taught in law school lawyers should do, is we're - you know, is we're standing up for the people who can't stand and speaking for the people who can't be heard. And writing that, it made me feel quite good.

PFEIFFER: Rick Kammen is a former Guantanamo defense attorney who's written a novel about that experience. It's called "Tortured Justice, Guantanamo Bay." Rick, thank you.

KAMMEN: Thank you, Sacha.


PFEIFFER: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, I speak with former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson about his change of heart on Guantanamo's military court, which he now calls, quote, "doomed from the start." Olson is also calling for the September 11 case, which has still not gone to trial, to be settled with plea deals.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.