When Faiz Mohammed Ahmed al-Kandari appeared before the federal government’s Periodic Review Board (PRB) last week, it was the Kuwaiti Guantanamo Bay detainee’s second hearing after being rejected for release last June.
The multiple appearances in front of the PRB, which President Barack Obama created by executive order in March 2011, puts the 40-year-old al-Kandari in rare company. Only one other detainee out of the 54 eligible for the PRB has had more than one shot at parole since the panel began hearing cases in November 2013.
The purpose of the board, which is comprised of senior officials from the Departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, as well as the Joint Staff and the Office of the Director of National Security, is not to decide whether a detainee is guilty or innocent of terrorist acts. Instead, it decides whether a detainee poses a “continuing significant threat” to the U.S.
Did al-Kandari, who has been at Gitmo since 2002 and is believed to have been an adviser to Osama bin Laden, get lucky? Or did a massive lobbying, legal and public relations push help bring his case to the forefront?
Records maintained under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) show that since 2005, a Kuwaiti law firm called the International Counsel Bureau (ICB), which operates the group Kuwaiti Counsel for the Families of Kuwaiti Citizens at Guantanamo Bay, has paid $14 million to seven different law, lobbying and PR firms as part of an aggressive, multi-front effort to free the 12 Kuwaiti detainees who have passed through Gitmo.
According to government records reviewed by The Daily Caller:
- The Kuwaiti law firm ICB has paid the international law firm Lewis Baach $1.5 million since 2012 to provide legal services for al-Kandari and a recently released Kuwaiti detainee, Fouzi al-Odah. Lewis Baach founder Eric Lewis represented al-Kandari at his recent PRB hearing. He has also met personally with Clifford Sloan and Paul Lewis, the special envoys for Guantanamo closure at the Departments of State and Defense, respectively.
- The D.C.-based law firm NewinCo. Inc. has been paid $608,000 since 2012. Representatives of the firm met with State Department’s Sloan, the Defense Department’s Lewis, and other officials within the agency. In 2012, NewinCo lawyers discussed Gitmo policy with the staff of Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security who was at the time the top attorney at the Defense Department.
- Potomac Square Group has received $1,112,000 since 2011. The public relations firm was in contact with federal officials, members of Congress and news outlets like The New York Times and CNN.
- ICB has paid Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw and Pittman more than $5 million since 2006 to lobby members of Congress and to meet with reporters from major national publications and TV networks.
- The PR firm Levick Strategies was paid nearly $3.5 million between 2005 and 2012 by the Kuwaiti consortium. Records indicate Levick embarked on an aggressive public relations campaign by coordinating interviews about Gitmo detainees. Representatives of the firm also sought to place op-eds at various publications.
- Arnold & Porter has been paid more than $1.5 million between 2005 and 2008. The international law firm met frequently with lawmakers and with congressional committees.
- Shearman & Sterling was paid $1,050,000 in 2005 and 2006. Thomas Wilner, a partner at the international law firm, conducted numerous interviews with national media and wrote several op-eds about Gitmo policy, especially as it pertained to the Kuwaiti detainees.
ICB’s media and lobbying blitz is an unusual approach to the question of Guantanamo Bay policy and its handling of detainees.
In a 2007 Wall Street Journal article entitled “Gitmo’s Guerrilla Lawyers,” Debra Burlingame, the sister of Charles “Chic” Burlingame, the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which was hijacked and flown into the Pentagon on 9/11, detailed ICB’s push to free the Kuwaiti detainees.
Burlingame, who is the co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America, showed that Shearman & Sterling helped manage various oil accounts on behalf of ICB, which was founded in 1994 by Abdul Rahman al-Haroun, a former manager at the Kuwaiti National Petroleum Co.
Helping the organization obtain release for the Kuwaiti detainees served Shearman & Sterling’s financial interests, Burlingame argued.
ICB also worked the media to portray the Kuwaitis in a sympathetic light, Burlingame argued. The Kuwaiti consortium hired Levick Strategies to create a sympathetic “human face” for the detainees to get the media and general public on their side. Levick and other PR firms pitched “phonied-up stories” to reporters who regurgitated them with little investigation, she asserted, adding that “all of this may be legal, but it is hardly ethical.”
“The Kuwaiti 12 case is a primer on the anatomy of a guerrilla PR offensive, packaged and sold to the public as a fight for the ‘rule of law’ and ‘America’s core principles,'” Burlingame wrote.
Burlingame tells TheDC that little has changed since she first documented ICB’s effort. In a phone interview she said that the lobbying push is another example of “dirty politics” in which national security is compromised because of “the government’s need to mollify what is a very good ally in the Middle East.”
“The lawyers, meanwhile, are making good money from it,” she added.
ICB’s push has been a near complete success. One Kuwaiti had been freed in 2002, before the concerted lobbying push got underway. But seven were released in 2005, at the onset of the blitz. Another was repatriated in 2006 as was one more in 2009.
That left two Kuwaiti detainees, Fouzi al-Odah and al-Kandari. As FARA disclosures show, ICB continued paying law and PR firms to push the two detainees’ case on lawmakers and the media. But with most legal efforts stalled, there was little traction. That is, until the implementation of the PRB hearings.
Both detainees went before the PRB last June. While al-Odah, who was represented by Eric Lewis, was granted parole — and handed over to the Kuwaitis in November — al-Kandari was not so lucky.
The board unanimously determined that al-Kandari did still pose a danger to the U.S.
“The Board considered that the detainee almost certainly retains an extremist mindset and had close ties with high-level al-Qaeda leaders in the past,” the PRB ruled in al-Kandari’s case, noting “the detainee’s susceptibility for recruitment due to his connections to extremists and his residual anger at the US.”
NEXT PAGE: Al-Kandari Has ‘Voiced Support For His Mujahidin ‘Brothers’ Overseas’
Al-Kandari’s detainee profile notes that he is believed to have served as a recruiter and propagandist for al-Qaida in Afghanistan before 9/11 and for several months after. He is also believed to have fought in Bosnia in the 1990s.
While in confinement, al-Kandari has reportedly expressed anti-American sentiments and “voiced support for his mujahidin ‘brothers’ overseas,” his profile reads.
So what is the rationale for granting al-Kandari a second shot at the PRB in such a short period of time?
A spokeswoman for the office of the secretary of Defense said that the timing of a detainee’s PRB is a “function of many variables.”
Those variables include, but are not limited to, “the quantity and type of information available about a detainee and the length of time a detainee, his Personal Representative and Private Counsel (if any) need to prepare for the PRB.”
The spokeswoman also said that a detainee can be granted an additional full hearing if, during a file review, “a significant question is raised as to whether the detainee’s continued detention is warranted.”
In making the case for al-Kandari’s release during his second hearing, which was conducted Monday in Crystal City, Va., via closed-circuit television, his attorney, Eric Lewis, argued that the Kuwaitis have developed a rehabilitation program that will ensure that al-Kandari does not revert back to extremism.
Lewis also argued that al-Kandari has gained hope and lost his “defensive cynicism” since al-Odah’s release.
“[Al-Kandari] knows you will listen to him; you will inquire into his mind and spirit and take a fair and honest measure of him,” Lewis said in the hearing.
The only other detainee to have had two PRBs is Abdel al-Rahabi, who was believed to have been bin Laden’s bodyguard. He was denied parole following his first hearing, held in January 2014. He was approved for release following his second hearing, which was held in November.
Another detainee, Muhammad al-Shamrani, a Saudi, has been approved for a second hearing, which will be held Tuesday.
According to the government watchdog group Judicial Watch, which attended al-Kandari’s second hearing, a decision will be handed down in the next several weeks.
As the group notes: “If the board commits an about-face by releasing this terrorist, it has some serious explaining to do.”
Eric Lewis did not respond to a request for comment.