LATIF v. OBAMA No. 10-5319.
666 F.3d 746 (2011)
Adnan Farhan Abdul LATIF, Detainee, Camp Delta, et al., Appellees v. Barack OBAMA, President of the United States, et al., Appellants.
United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit.
Decided October 14, 2011.
Philip A. Scarborough argued the cause for appellees. On the brief were S. William Livingston, Roger A. Ford, and David H. Remes. Brian E. Foster entered an appearance.
Dissenting opinion filed by Circuit Judge TATEL.
BROWN, Circuit Judge:
The United States appeals the district court's grant of the writ of habeas corpus to detainee Adnan Farhan Abd Al Latif. Three errors in the district court's analysis require us to vacate that decision. First, the court failed to accord an official government record a presumption of regularity. Second, the district court failed to determine Latif's credibility even though the court relied on his declaration to discredit the Government's key evidence. See Al-Adahi v. Obama,
[Redacted] In a declaration filed with the district court in 2009, Latif denies ever being part of the Taliban and offers an innocent explanation for his journey. Latif says he left Yemen in 2001 on a quest for medical treatment for head injuries he suffered in a 1994 car accident. He went
The district court granted Latif's habeas petition following briefing and a hearing in which Latif declined to testify. Abdah v. Obama (Latif), 2010 WL 3270761, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83596 (D.D.C. July 21, 2010). [Redacted]
In a Guantanamo detainee case, we review the district court's "specific factual determinations" for clear error, and its ultimate grant or denial of habeas de novo. Almerfedi v. Obama,
At the heart of the Government's case is [redacted]
Ordinarily, at this point in our analysis, we would simply review the district court's comparison of the Government's evidence with the "detainee's facts and explanation," bearing in mind that the ultimate burden is on the Government to establish Latif's detention is legal. Id. We pause here, however, because the district court expressly refused to accord a presumption of regularity to the Government's evidence, and on appeal the Government continues to assert its Report is entitled to such a presumption.
"The presumption of regularity supports the official acts of public officers and, in the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, courts presume that they have properly discharged their official duties." Sussman v. U.S. Marshals Serv.,
Since the problems Latif cites are typical [redacted], the rule he proposes would subject all such documents to the he-said/she-said balancing of ordinary evidence.
Courts sensibly have anticipated that some sort of presumption is proper in the Guantanamo context, but until now we have not directly addressed the question. The dissent interprets our silence heretofore as disapproval and suggests that a presumption in favor of the Government's evidence in this case "inappropriately shift[s] the burden" of proof from the Government to the detainee. Dissenting Op. at 783. A Supreme Court plurality said just the opposite, however—and in a case involving the military detention of an American citizen, no less:
Hamdi v. Rumsfeld,
When the Supreme Court extended the habeas right to non-citizen detainees in 2008, it tasked the lower courts with developing a workable habeas remedy that would give detainees a "meaningful opportunity to demonstrate" the unlawfulness of their detention, Boumediene, 553 U.S. at 779,
In that spirit, the district court has operated under a case management order that specifically authorized reliance on evidentiary presumptions. See In re Guantanamo Bay Detainee Litig., 2008 WL
Confusion about the nature of the presumption may account for the district court's reluctance. In an order applicable to the present case, the district court held, "any evidence presented by the government that has been created and maintained in the ordinary course of business should be afforded a presumption of authenticity," Dist. Ct. Docket No. 606, but the court rejected the government's request for a presumption of accuracy "for the reasons stated by Judge Kessler in Ahmed v. Obama,
The confusion stems from the fact that intelligence reports involve two distinct actors—the non-government source and the government official who summarizes (or transcribes) the source's statement. The presumption of regularity pertains only to the second: it presumes the government official accurately identified the source and accurately summarized his statement, but it implies nothing about the truth of the underlying non-government source's statement. There are many conceivable reasons why a government document might accurately record a statement that is itself incredible. A source may be shown to have lied, for example, or he may prove his statement was coerced. The presumption of regularity—to the extent it is not rebutted—requires a court to treat the Government's record as accurate; it does not compel a determination that the record establishes what it is offered to prove.
Another reason the district court has denied the Government's motions for a presumption of accuracy may be that such a presumption is often unnecessary or irrelevant. The Government has frequently been able to prove its detention authority without relying on any presumption that
This case presents a different question because Latif's sole challenge is to the accuracy of the Government's [redacted]. When the detainee's challenge is to the evidence-gathering process itself, should a presumption of regularity apply to the official government document that results? We think the answer is yes.
To forbid a presumption of regularity in spite of Boumediene's implicit invitation to innovate, 553 U.S. at 795,
Just as principles of vertical comity and federalism justify presumptions in favor of state court judgments in ordinary criminal habeas proceedings, see Sumner v. Mata,
Our dissenting colleague concludes the presumption of regularity should not extend to official intelligence reports because he imagines the presumption of regularity is just a shortcut for crediting the work product of official processes we know to be "transparent, accessible, and often familiar," Dissenting Op. at 771, and because he thinks we know relatively little about how intelligence reports are created, id. at 771-72. Both premises are false. Courts regularly apply the presumption to government actions and documents that result from processes that are anything but "transparent," "accessible," and "familiar." The presumption of regularity is founded on inter-branch and inter-governmental comity, not our own judicial expertise with the relevant government conduct. In Riggs National, we presumed a foreign government entity's receipt to be reliable without pretending it was produced by a "familiar" or "transparent" process. Id. at 771; see 295 F.3d at 20-22. Likewise, federal courts need no expertise concerning the procedures of state courts, probation offices, and drug treatment centers to afford their official records a presumption of regularity. See cases cited supra note 2. Thanks to the explanatory declarations [redacted] which we discuss below, see infra at 780, we know far more about the personnel, process, and standards involved in producing intelligence records like the Report than we do about the foreign and state governmental organs whose records we also presume to be reliable, and we have no reason to suspect such documents are fundamentally unreliable.
Rather than cast doubt on the viability of the presumption of regularity in this context, our only pertinent post-Boumediene discussion of the presumption strongly suggests its continuing viability. In Al-Bihani, the detainee complained that the district court had "erred by . . . presuming the accuracy of the government's evidence." 590 F.3d at 875. Without isolating the components of Al-Bihani's multifaceted procedural argument—it included attacks on the standard of review, the denial of a full-blown evidentiary hearing, alleged burden-shifting, and the district court's discovery orders—we said that his "argument clearly demonstrate[d] [his own] error" and that Boumediene's holding had placed it on "shaky ground." Id. at 876. Without explicitly confirming that the district court had applied a presumption in favor of the Government's evidence in that case, we noted that its case management order "reserved the district court's discretion, when appropriate, to adopt a rebuttable presumption in favor of the accuracy of the government's evidence." Id. at 869-70. We implied that the district court had in fact exercised this discretion when we quoted the order with approval in our hearsay analysis. Id. at 880 ("[T]he Court will determine, as to any evidence introduced by the Government, whether a presumption of accuracy and/or authenticity should be accorded."). Consistent with this order, we noted, the district court had judged the "admissions presented
Although it was decided under the pre-Boumediene Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (DTA), our opinion in Parhat v. Gates,
Our dissenting colleague points to four more recent cases to defend his view that intelligence documents like the Report in this case are undeserving of a presumption of regularity. Dissenting Op. at 774-76 (citing Barhoumi,
In Barhoumi, we considered a Government intelligence report containing a translation of a diary. Although we affirmed the district court's favorable treatment of the Government's evidence, 609 F.3d at 428-31, we did not apply a presumption of regularity. The reason for that omission is simple. The district court had credited the Government's evidence without applying a presumption of regularity, and we were reviewing for clear error. See Brief of Respondents-Appellees at 52, Barhoumi,
For the same reason, we cannot extract from Bensayah, Al Alwi, or Khan the dissent's proposed bar on evidentiary presumptions for intelligence reports. As in Barhoumi, the Government did not request a presumption of regularity in any of these appeals. See Brief of Respondents-Appellees at 38-39, Bensayah,
Apart from its precedential argument, the dissent frets that "in practice" the presumption of regularity will compel courts to rubber-stamp government detentions because it "suggest[s] that whatever
A body of judge-made law is not born fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. It grows gradually, developing little by little in response to the facts and circumstances of each new case. Until now, we have not had to decide whether the common-law presumption of regularity applies in Guantanamo habeas proceedings. This case finally forces the issue because Latif challenges only the reliability of the Report, and because the Government persists in its request for a presumption of regularity on appeal.
Because the Report is entitled to a presumption of regularity, and because the Report, if reliable, proves the lawfulness of Latif's detention, we can only uphold the district court's grant of habeas if Latif has rebutted the Government's evidence with more convincing evidence of his own.
The district court issued its decision in this case a week after we published our opinion in Al-Adahi v. Obama,
Latif makes two main arguments in defense of the district court's decision to proceed without an explicit finding of credibility. First, he argues that the court did
The closest the district court's opinion comes to making a credibility determination is in its statements that Latif's story was "plausible" and "not incredible." Id., slip op. at 26-27. A story may be "plausible" or "not incredible" and yet be very unlikely. Cf. Uthman v. Obama,
By definition, a "plausible" statement is one "seeming reasonable, probable, or truthful"; it may in reality have only "a false appearance of reason or veracity." OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY ONLINE, http:// www.oed.com/view/Entry/145466 (definition 4.a) (emphasis added) (last visited June 16, 2011). A plausible explanation does not necessarily compel credence. See Zamanov v. Holder, No. 08-72340,
Likewise, to say Latif's tale is "not incredible" is not to imply its teller ought to be believed. At best, the district court's statement means a reasonable finder of fact could believe Latif's story, not that he has actually done so. Cf. United States v. Wooden,
Other statements in the district court's opinion confirm that it did not reach a decision on Latif's credibility. For example, the court rejected the Government's "contention that Latif must be lying," Latif, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83596, slip op. at 27 (emphasis added), while assiduously avoiding any determination that Latif was not lying. The court speculated more than once that the inconsistencies in his statements "may be the result of a misstatement or a mistranslation," without ever making a finding to that effect. Id., slip op. at 27 (emphasis added); id. ("The smaller inconsistencies . . . may be no more than misstatements or mistranslations." (emphasis added)). Likewise, the
The district court's decision gives us no reason to believe it would have reached the same result had it not relied on Latif's "plausible" version of the relevant events. The court said it could not "credit" [redacted] partly "because ... Latif has presented a plausible alternative story to explain his travel." Id., slip op. at 26. Instead of advancing from plausibility to a judgment about Latif's veracity, the court repeated its plausibility finding: [redacted] The district court clearly relied on Latif's alternate account of his trip as one basis for rejecting [redacted]
By forgoing a determination of credibility for one of plausibility, the district court replaced the necessary factual finding with a legal conclusion that some other reasonable factfinder might believe Latif's story. In other words, the district court took on the role of a reviewing court, assuming in effect that Latif already had been found credible and then applying a deferential standard of review to that imaginary finding. Cf. Awad, 608 F.3d at 7 ("[I]f the district court's account of the evidence is plausible in light of the record viewed in its entirety, the court of appeals may not reverse it."). We cannot allow the district court to bypass its factfinding role in favor of an appellate standard of review. Cf. United States v. Anderson,
United States v. Holmes,
On remand, the district court may consider any relevant, admissible evidence to aid its evaluation of Latif's credibility. If Latif again declines an opportunity to testify, that is another fact bearing on his credibility. Although the district court's factual findings may be supported
"[A] court considering a Guantanamo detainee's habeas petition must view the evidence collectively rather than in isolation." Salahi v. Obama,
Perhaps because it had already denied the Government's key evidence a presumption of regularity, the district court committed both errors, explaining away some of the individual contradictions and coincidences in Latif's story one by one, as if each stood alone, and ignoring other probative details altogether. In Al-Adahi, we reversed the district court's grant of habeas because the court had failed to consider all the evidence in context. Viewing the evidence as a whole, we concluded the Government had proven the detainee "was more likely than not part of al-Qaida." Id. at 1111. Although we do not reach an ultimate conclusion on the merits in this case, the district court's similar treatment of the evidence in this case provides an alternative basis for remand.
The district court's unduly atomized approach is illustrated by its isolated treatment (or failure to consider) several potentially incriminating inferences that arise from evidence Latif himself offers in support of his petition—namely, (a) striking similarities between Latif's exculpatory
What makes Latif's [redacted] story so hard to swallow is not its intrinsic implausibility but its correspondence in so many respects with [redacted] Latif's [redacted] account of what transpired bears a striking resemblance to [redacted]
Nor did the district court consider that Latif's admitted route to Afghanistan from his home in Yemen [redacted] We have held that "traveling to Afghanistan along a distinctive path used by al Qaeda members can be probative evidence that the traveler was part of al Qaeda." Uthman, 637 F.3d at 405 (citing Al Odah, 611 F.3d at 16). At Guantanamo, more than a year after his capture, Latif told his interrogators he flew from Sana'a, Yemen to Karachi, Pakistan in early 2001 with a plane ticket Ibrahim gave him. From there he took a bus to Quetta, Pakistan and a taxi to Kandahar, Afghanistan as Ibrahim had instructed. Then Ibrahim took him by taxi to Kabul, where Latif said he spent five months in the religious study center.
[Redacted] This is a welcome step toward the holistic approach to the evidence we called for in Al-Adahi. But as with the other evidence, the district court examined some contradictions in isolation from the rest of the evidence and overlooked others altogether.
[Redacted] The court observed, for example, that in Latif's 2009 declaration (in which he claimed to be too disabled to fight) Latif said he "spent three months at the Islamic Jordanian Hospital in Amman, Jordan," Petitioner's Decl., ¶ 3, but his own medical records reveal that he was released just five days after admission. The court made no explicit finding about the source of this inconsistency, and it failed to mention that Latif himself testified before the Combatant Status Review Tribunal that he was "treated ... for five days," ISN 156 CSRT Tr. at 8, a fact that is surely relevant to the credibility of Latif's recent declaration.
The court failed even to mention other incongruities among the stories Latif has told his interrogators. Latif has said that he stayed with a doctor in Kabul, but also that he stayed in a religious study center there; that Latif was arrested at the Pakistani border fleeing Afghanistan, but also that he was arrested at a hospital in Pakistan; that he paid for his medical treatment, but also that he could not pay; that Ibrahim's charitable organization is called Jamiat an-Nur, but also that it is called Gameiat al Hekma or, alternatively, Jameiah Islam. Even if some of the inconsistencies in Latif's story "may be," as the district court suggested about others, "no more than misstatements or mistranslations," Latif, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83596, slip op. at 27, viewed together with the rest of the evidence they undermine the credibility of Latif's declaration. "We do not say that any of these particular pieces of evidence are conclusive, but we do say that they add to the weight of the government's case against [the detainee] and that the district court clearly erred in tossing them aside." Al-Adahi, 613 F.3d at 1110.
In a recent case, we held "the location and date of [the detainee's] capture, together with the company he was keeping, strongly suggest that he was part of al Qaeda." Uthman, 637 F.3d at 405. The Yemeni detainee in that case was captured in December 2001 with at least five other Yemeni men, two of whom were confessed al-Qaida members, at the Afghan-Pakistani border near Tora Bora, a cave complex in Eastern Afghanistan that was, at that time, the site of a battle between al-Qaida and the United States. Id. Analogous details in the circumstances of Latif's capture should have been weighed in combination with the rest of the Government's incriminating evidence.
Latif admits that he was captured in "late 2001" after being led across the Afghan border into Pakistan, Appellee's Br. 7, and he confirmed to his Guantanamo interrogators that an Afghan guide led him across the border. The record contains no direct evidence about Latif's route from Kabul to the Pakistani border. [Redacted] But the district court concluded "the timing of [Latif's] departure from Kabul is not sufficient to create an inference that he was involved in fighting." Id., slip op. at 27 (emphasis added). This is exactly the formulation we criticized in Al-Adahi. In that case the district court concluded "Al-Adahi's attendance at an al-Qaida training camp `is not sufficient to carry the Government's burden of showing that he was a part' of al-Qaida." 613 F.3d at 1105 (emphasis added). We cited that statement as an example of the court's having "wrongly `required each piece of the government's evidence to bear weight without regard to all (or indeed any) other evidence in the case." Id. at 1105-06. The district court commits exactly the same "fundamental mistake" in this case by considering the time and place of Latif's capture in isolation from the rest of the evidence. Id. at 1106. The question to ask is not whether the circumstances of Latif's capture are sufficient by themselves to prove he was part of the Taliban, but whether, in combination with the rest of the evidence, they make that conclusion more likely than not.
The dissent admits the circumstances of Latif's flight from Afghanistan are helpful to the Government's case, but contends they may not be very helpful since, for all we know, his route was frequented by non-combatants too. Dissenting Op. at 785-86. This bold speculation is beyond our purview as an appellate court, and the district court did not suggest it had so much as considered the possibility. (Indeed, the record contains no evidence to support the dissent's theory.) At this juncture, all we can say is that the location and timing of Latif's exodus is relevant evidence, and the district court erred by considering his route in isolation and ignoring the similarly situated detainees' altogether.
To summarize, in addition to viewing Latif's own statements in isolation, the district court ignored the probative value of (1) Latif's familiar, four-leg route to Kabul; (2) Latif's CSRT testimony that he was hospitalized for just five days instead of three months as he now claims; (3) [redacted] One cannot gather from a fair reading of the district court's opinion that any of these facts informed its conclusion about the Government's evidence. In light of our application of the presumption of regularity, there can be no question on
The dissent makes much of the fact that, contrary to the usual practice, we do not assume the court considered all the evidence it failed to mention. Dissenting Op. at 789-90. If that is true, the result flows from the unusual posture of this case. Even in the typical he-said/she-said case—in which two people provide conflicting statements—the court must conduct a close and precise balancing of the evidence to reach a valid result. In detainee cases the difficulties are heightened because it is a he-said/he-said case—the same person provides both the incriminating and exculpatory statements. Thus the Al Adahi formulation becomes critical.
The district court's failure to address certain relevant evidence leaves us with no confidence in its conclusions about the evidence it did consider. For example, the district court implicitly rejected evidence that Latif's purported benefactor, Ibrahim Al-Alawi, is actually Ibrahim Ba'alawi, known as Abu Khalud, an al-Qaida facilitator. Other detainees have described Ibrahim Ba'alawi in much the same role [redacted]. Several detainees reported meeting Ibrahim Ba'alawi in Taiz. Yemen, near Ibb, [redacted] and being recruited by him to fight jihad. They report that Ba'alawi arranged their travel along the same route Latif took to Afghanistan, lived in Kandahar as Latif's benefactor did, and arranged for their attendance at military training camps. Although noting the similarities between Ibrahim Ba'alawi and the Ibrahim Al-Alawi who appears in Latif's current story [redacted] the district court implicitly concluded they were different men on the basis of exculpatory statements Latif made [redacted] Latif makes much of the fact that Al-Alawi is a different name from Ba'alawi, not just a variant spelling, and at least seven detainees reported their recruiter's name as Ba'alawi or some variant thereof. But such a minor phonetic mistake could easily result from a translation or transcription error.
Even if the district court had made a clear finding in Latif's favor about Ibrahim's identity, we could not affirm it on this record. Since the probability of one asserted fact is conditioned upon the likelihood that related facts are true, we cannot uphold the district court's evaluation of a particular piece of evidence that is susceptible to more than one interpretation when the court has ignored related evidence.
On remand, the district court has an opportunity to evaluate all the evidence as a whole. In the event of another appeal following that evaluation, we would have to decide whether, in light of all the evidence, we are left with "the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." Almerfedi, 654 F.3d at 9. In its current posture, this case does not require us to answer that difficult question.
Although the district court committed the same errors here as in Al-Adahi, the evidence before us presents a closer question than we faced in that case and our subsequent reversals. Cf. Almerfedi,
As the dissenters warned and as the amount of ink spilled in this single case attests, Boumediene's airy suppositions have caused great difficulty for the Executive and the courts. See 553 U.S. at 824-26,
In light of the district court's expertise as a fact finder and judge of credibility, I am reluctant to reach the merits before the district court has had an opportunity to apply the controlling precedent. But see Concurring Op. at 769 ("[F]urther factfinding will be a waste of time and judicial resources."). We therefore vacate and remand the district court's grant of habeas for further proceedings. On remand the district court must consider the evidence as a whole, bearing in mind that even details insufficiently probative by themselves may tip the balance of probability, that false exculpatory statements may be evidence of guilt, and that in the absence of other clear evidence a detainee's self-serving account must be credible—not just plausible—to overcome presumptively reliable government evidence.
KAREN LECRAFT HENDERSON, Circuit Judge, concurring in the judgment:
Although I agree with Judge Brown's analysis and therefore concur in the judgment of remand, I write separately to respond to the dissent and to explain that, in my view, the better course would be to simply reverse the district court's grant of habeas corpus relief to the detainee Adnan Farhan Abd Al Latif. The dissent attacks Judge Brown's majority opinion on three grounds. The first two grounds are related: the dissent claims that there is no clear error in the district court's opinion, Dissenting Op. at 770-71, 779-90 and that we have arrived at the contrary conclusion—finding clear error—only by "undertaking] a wholesale revision of the district court's careful fact findings," and "suggest[ing] [our] own story," Dissenting Op. at 770, 784; see id. at 784-88. As discussed below, however, the dissent misunderstands the clear error standard of review and its application to this case. The dissent also claims that our use of the
This appeal hinges on one question: did the district court correctly find the government's key piece of evidence unreliable? See Abdah v. Obama (Latif), No. 04-1254, 2010 WL 3270761, at *9, slip op. at 25 (D.D.C. July 21, 2010). "The question whether evidence is sufficiently reliable to credit is one we review for clear error," Al Alwi v. Obama,
The clear error standard requires us to reverse a factual finding if "`on the entire evidence'" we are "`left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.'" Anderson v. City of Bessemer,
The dissent seems to suggest that if Latif's story "on its own terms is not `intrinsic[ally] implausible,'" then we cannot review the district court's evaluation of the government's key piece of evidence or other pieces of evidence. Dissenting Op. at 783, 784-85. It is not enough, however, for the district court to base its factual findings on some evidence in the record. The clear error standard authorizes us to
With the clear error framework in mind, there is no difficulty in concluding that the district court clearly erred in failing to credit [redacted]
The dissent also asserts that application of the presumption of regularity to [redacted] "disturbs" the "careful and conscious balance of the important interests at stake" we have struck in past detainee decisions for admitting and assessing the reliability of hearsay evidence. Dissenting Op. at 775. Judge Brown thoroughly disposes of the assertion—laying out in detail that, while we have not heretofore enunciated the presumption of regularity, we have all but done so. See Majority Op. at 752-56. And we most assuredly are not "discarding] the unanimous, hard-earned wisdom" of district courts that have assessed hearsay evidence in detainee cases. Dissenting Op. at 776. To the contrary, sound evidentiary considerations warrant incorporating the presumption of regularity—in the careful manner we expressly do today—into the district court's overall reliability assessment of these records as we routinely do with others, including the point that the facts supporting the presumption of regularity have significant probative force in their own right, as discussed below.
Moreover, our holding does nothing to disturb the existing framework for hearsay evidence. All hearsay evidence "must be accorded weight only in proportion to its reliability." Barhoumi v. Obama,
The Federal Rules of Evidence, which carve out exceptions to the general rule against hearsay on the ground that "some kinds of out-of-court statements are less subject to . . . hearsay dangers," Williamson, 512 U.S. at 598, 114 S.Ct. 2431, make certain public records admissible, using "the assumption that a public official will perform his duty properly" as well as "the reliability factors underlying records of regularly conducted activities generally." Fed.R.Evid. 803(8) advisory committee's notes (1972 Proposed Rules). Granted, in detainee habeas cases, the Rules do not decide the admissibility of hearsay evidence. Barhoumi, 609 F.3d at 422 (rejecting as "counter to this court's [precedent]" the claim of error in admission of hearsay evidence "absent a demonstration by the government that they fall within an established hearsay exception in the Federal Rules of Evidence"). But because the presumption of regularity is based on much the same rationale as the public records exception, see United States v. Chem. Found.,
Nor does the requirement that a challenger offer "clear or specific evidence" to defeat the presumption of regularity,
Based on the considerations outlined above—as well as Judge Brown's comprehensive opinion—I believe the district court clearly erred in failing to credit [redacted] Unlike my colleague, however, I also believe remanding the case for further factfinding will be a waste of time and judicial resources. Judge Brown believes remand—with the possibility that Latif might choose to testify—is necessary to allow the district court to correctly weigh Latif's credibility. See Majority Op. at 758-59. While I agree that the district court erred in failing to assess Latif's credibility, Majority Op. at 756-59—for "[a]t no point did the court make any finding about whether [Latif's narrative] was more likely than the government's explanation," Al-Adahi v. Obama, 613 F.3d at 1110—I also believe remand is unnecessary because "the record permits only one resolution of the factual issue," Pullman-Standard v. Swint,
The apparent premise behind Judge Brown's argument for remand is that Latif might offer testimony so compelling that it would shake our confidence [redacted] and overcome any doubt about Latif's credibility. But what testimony could possibly accomplish so much? If Latif were to repeat on the stand the same unpersuasive assertions he made in his declaration—assertions that are inconsistent with his earlier statements [redacted] the district court would have no choice but to disbelieve him. "Credibility involves more than demeanor" and instead "apprehends the over-all evaluation of testimony in light of its rationality or internal consistency and the manner in which it hangs together with other evidence." United States v. McCoy,
TATEL, Circuit Judge, dissenting:
The government's "primary" piece of evidence, Appellants' Br. 10, is a single report: [redacted] (the Report) [redacted] After carefully laying out the parties' arguments about the Report's internal and external indicia of reliability, the district court found it "not sufficiently reliable to support a finding by a preponderance of the evidence that Latif was recruited by an Al Qaeda member or trained and fought with the Taliban." Abdah (Latif) v. Obama, No. 04-cv-01254, slip op. at 25 (D.D.C. July 21, 2010). According to the district court, "there is a serious question as to whether the [Report] accurately reflects [redacted] the incriminating facts in the [Report] are not corroborated, and Latif has presented a plausible alternative story to explain his travel." Id. at 26. The government concedes that its case for lawfully detaining Latif "turn[s]" on the Report. Appellants' Br. 5. This, then, represents a first among the Guantanamo habeas appeals in this circuit: never before have we reviewed a habeas grant to a Guantanamo detainee where all concede that if the district court's fact findings are sustained, then detention is unlawful. Cf. Almerfedi v. Obama,
But rather than apply ordinary and highly deferential clear error review to the district court's findings of fact, as this circuit has done when district courts have found the government's primary evidence reliable, the court, now facing a finding that such evidence is unreliable, moves the goal posts. According to the court, because the Report is a government-produced document, the district court was required to presume it accurate unless Latif could rebut that presumption. Maj. Op. at 750-51. In imposing this new presumption and then proceeding to find that it has not been rebutted, the court denies Latif the "meaningful opportunity" to contest the lawfulness of his detention guaranteed by Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723, 779,
Compounding this error, the court undertakes a wholesale revision of the district court's careful fact findings. Flaws in the Report the district court found serious,
In Part I, I explain why the district court committed no error in declining to apply a presumption of regularity to the Report. In Part II, I apply the deferential clear error standard this circuit has used throughout these Guantanamo habeas cases. Finding no clear error, I would affirm the district court's grant of the writ of habeas corpus.
All agree that this case turns on whether the district court correctly found that the government's key piece of evidence, the Report, was unreliable. And all agree that the "question whether evidence is sufficiently reliable to credit is one we review for clear error." Al Alwi v. Obama,
The presumption of regularity stems from a humble proposition—that "[public officers] have properly discharged their official duties." Sussman v. U.S. Marshals Serv.,
These cases—in fact every case applying the presumption of regularity—have something in common: actions taken or documents produced within a process that is generally reliable because it is, for example, transparent, accessible, and often familiar. As a result, courts have no reason to question the output of such processes in any given case absent specific evidence of error. Such a presumption rests on common sense. For instance, courts have no grounds to credit a defendant's allegation that "the state court trial docket" or "the waiver of trial by jury form" contain inaccurate information when that defendant has no support other than a self-serving allegation. See Thompson v. Estelle,
By contrast, the Report at issue here was produced in the fog of war by a clandestine method that we know almost nothing about. It is not familiar, transparent, generally understood as reliable, or accessible; nor is it mundane, quotidian data entry akin to state court dockets or tax receipts. Its output, a [redacted] intelligence report, was, in this court's own words, "prepared in stressful and chaotic conditions, filtered through interpreters, subject to transcription errors, and heavily redacted for national security purposes." Maj. Op. at 748. Needless to say, this is quite different from assuming the mail is delivered or that a court employee has accurately jotted down minutes from a meeting.
To support its approach here, this court invokes presumptions of regularity for state court fact-finding and for final judgments in criminal habeas proceedings. See id. at 751-52. Aside from the abstract and uncontroversial proposition that courts should be sensitive to the separation of powers as well as to federalism, id. at 751, the analogy makes little sense. State court judgments and fact findings arise out of a formal and public adversarial process where parties generally have attorneys to zealously guard their interests, and where neutral state court judges, no less than federal judges, pledge to apply the law faithfully. That federal courts give a presumption of regularity to judgments and fact findings that emerge from such a process, where criminal defendants have ample opportunity to challenge adverse evidence, see Lackawanna Cnty. Dist. Att'y v. Coss,
In its analysis, this court ignores a key step in the logic of applying a presumption of regularity, namely, that the challenged document emerged from a process that we can safely rely upon to produce accurate information. Reliability, not whether an official duty was performed, cf. Maj. Op. at 748, is the touchstone inquiry in every case this court cites. For example, in a probation revocation decision by the Seventh Circuit—which, incidentally, never uses the term "regularity," see United States v. Thomas,
To be sure, the government in this case has produced a declaration stating [redacted] see Maj. Op. at 756 (quoting this [redacted]). But we have no idea what the [redacted] is, nor anywhere near the level of familiarity or experience with that course of business that would allow us to comfortably make presumptions about whether the output of that process is reliable. Cf. Bismullah v. Gates,
This is not to say that reports similar to the one at issue here are necessarily unreliable. Perhaps after careful scrutiny district courts will conclude that many are reliable. See, e.g., Khan v. Obama,
Nor am I suggesting that district courts should give no weight to sworn declarations by government officials that such reports are [redacted] because [redacted] Up to a point, the declaration does provide support for the Report's reliability. For one thing, it suggests that the Report is in fact authentic, i.e., that really is an [redacted]
But this court goes well beyond these modest conclusions—and well beyond what the government actually argues in its briefs—when it relies on the bare fact that government officials have incentives to maintain careful intelligence reports as a reason to require district courts to presume that such reports are not only authentic, but also accurate, despite circumstances casting their reliability into serious doubt. See Appellants' Br. 30-31 (arguing in passing that the district court in this case erred by failing to give any weight to the general presumption that government officials carry out their duties properly but never urging adoption of a categorical, burden-shifting presumption of regularity); Appellants' Reply Br. 22-24 (same). One need imply neither bad faith nor lack of incentive nor ineptitude on the part of government officers to conclude that [redacted] compiled in the field by [redacted] in a [redacted] near an [redacted] that contain multiple layers of hearsay, depend on translators of unknown quality, and include cautionary disclaimers that [redacted] are prone to significant errors; or, at a minimum, that such reports are insufficiently regular, reliable, transparent, or accessible to warrant an automatic presumption of regularity.
It is thus not at all surprising that our court has never before applied the presumption of regularity in Guantanamo Bay habeas cases despite numerous opportunities to do so. For instance, in Barhoumi, the government, seeking to establish that the petitioner was "part of" an al Qaida associated militia, relied on an intelligence report that included an English translation of a diary allegedly authored by a member of that militia. Barhoumi v. Obama,
We followed exactly the same playbook in Bensayah and Al Alwi, two cases in which we reviewed district court reliability determinations about [redacted] government intelligence [redacted] Bensayah v. Obama,
And most recently, in Khan v. Obama, we reviewed the district court's finding that the government's informant reports were reliable. Again, rather than applying a presumption of regularity, we spent page after page carefully evaluating the reliability of the reports. In affirming the district court's determination that the documents were reliable, we emphasized external indicia of reliability, such as photographs and items seized from petitioner's home, as well as detailed government declarations explaining why the reports were reliable. Khan, 655 F.3d at 23-25.
Our approach in Barhoumi, Al Alwi, Bensayah, and Khan reflects a careful and conscious balancing of the important interests at stake. While federal courts typically exclude hearsay unless it falls within a specific exception, see Fed.R.Evid. 803, we understand that in the context of enemy combatant proceedings such evidence may be the best available. Barhoumi, 609 F.3d at 427. Thus, rather than acting on our deep, historically rooted skepticism of hearsay by excluding such evidence altogether, we admit it but are careful to assign it no more weight than it is worth as measured by any available indicia of reliability. See id. (holding that hearsay evidence is "always admissible" in such proceedings, but that it "must be accorded weight only in proportion to its reliability"); see also Al-Bihani v. Obama,
To be clear, I make no claim that anything in Barhoumi, Bensayah, Al Alwi, Khan, or any of our other Guantanamo habeas cases affirmatively rules out the possibility of applying a rebuttable presumption of accuracy to certain kinds of government evidence in some circumstances. My point is only that our cases, proceeding in the very common-law-like fashion that my colleagues describe, see Maj. Op. at 755, have endorsed and applied a careful and fine-grained approach to the assessment of reliability. We have applied that approach to claims that a document was mistranslated (Barhoumi) and to claims that a document is insufficiently corroborated (Al Alwi, Khan)—two of the issues in this case. We have applied that approach to a [redacted] (Bensayah, Al Alwi), and to government interrogation summaries (Al Alwi) [redacted] Following that approach, we have both upheld (Barhoumi, Al Alwi, Khan) and overturned (Bensayah) district court findings that a government document is reliable. The only feature of this case not previously encountered is that here the government lost: the district court found the dispositive government Report unreliable and granted a writ of habeas corpus.
Moreover, the presumption discards the unanimous, hard-earned wisdom of our district judges, who have applied their fact-finding expertise to a wide array of government hearsay evidence. In doing so, they have developed a uniquely valuable perspective that we ought not so quickly discard. These judges, including the district judge in this case, have unanimously rejected motions to give government evidence a presumption of accuracy. See, e.g., Alsabri, 764 F.Supp.2d at 66 (noting "ample reason" to decline to presume the accuracy of the government's exhibits and explaining that circuit precedent supported its approach); Al Kandari, 744 F.Supp.2d at 19 ("Simply assuming the Government's evidence is accurate and authentic does not aid [the reliability] inquiry."); Ahmed, 613 F.Supp.2d at 55 ("[T]here is absolutely no reason for this Court to presume that the facts contained in the Government's exhibits are accurate."); see also Benjamin Wittes, Robert M. Chesney & Larkin Reynolds, The Emerging Law of Detention 2.0, at 52 (May 12, 2011) (indicating that "none of the publicly available rulings on the issue have favored the government"), available at http://www.brookings. edu/papers/2011/05_guantanamo_wittes. aspx. Rather than ignoring serious doubts about government evidence by presuming its accuracy, our district courts have instead done exactly what we expect of careful factfinders and precisely what our case law demands: scrupulously assess the reliability of each piece of evidence by applying "a long, non exclusive list of factors. . . such as: consistency or inconsistency with other evidence, conditions under which the exhibit and statements contained in it were obtained, accuracy of
Brushing aside these district court rulings, my colleagues think that those courts "may" have been denying a presumption of accuracy because they "[c]onfus[ed]" it for a presumption of truth, Maj. Op. at 750, the difference being that the latter presumes the content of a report is true, whereas the former presumes that the government official filling out the report did so accurately—i.e., [redacted] The district courts have suffered from no such confusion, nor do I, for the core question presented in this case is whether the Report accurately reflects [redacted] Unsurprisingly, my colleagues cite not a single case where a district court refers to a presumption of truth or, for that matter, a single instance in which the government argued for a presumption of truth rather than a presumption of accuracy. They cite Ahmed, but nowhere did the district court there say that "the requested presumption would go to the truth of `the facts contained in the Government's exhibits.'" Maj. Op. at 750 (citing Ahmed, 613 F.Supp.2d at 55). Rather, the district court denied a presumption of accuracy, doing so for several reasons, including the need to assess the "accuracy of translation and transcription," and not just because of alleged torture, as this court now implies. 613 F.Supp.2d at 55; see also Al Mutairi v. United States,
In support of a presumption of regularity, this court relies on the plurality opinion in Hamdi, which, applying Due Process analysis, states that "the Constitution would not be offended by a presumption in favor of the Government's evidence" in enemy combatant proceedings for citizen detainees "so long as that presumption remained a rebuttable one and fair opportunity for rebuttal were provided." Hamdi v. Rumsfeld,
This court believes that our decisions in Al-Bihani,
In sum, given how and where we typically apply the presumption of regularity, and given the balance this circuit has already struck on how to deal with hearsay evidence in Guantanamo Bay cases, and given the seasoned observations of our district courts about the reliability of such evidence, the question still unanswered to my satisfaction is "Why?" Why does this court now require district courts to categorically presume that a government report—again one created in a [redacted] near an [redacted] with multiple layers of hearsay, and drafted by unidentified translators and scriveners of unknown quality—is accurate? Whether the presumption can be overcome by a preponderance of the evidence or by clear and specific evidence—this court never says which—I fear that in practice it "comes perilously close to suggesting that whatever the government says must be treated as true," see Parhat, 532 F.3d at 849. In that world, it is hard to see what is left of the Supreme Court's command in Boumediene that habeas review be "meaningful." 553 U.S. at 783,
But the court's assault on Boumediene does not end with its presumption of regularity. Not content with moving the goal posts, the court calls the game in the government's favor. Instead of remanding to give Latif an opportunity to rebut the presumption of regularity, this appellate court engages in an essentially de novo review of the factual record, providing its own interpretations, its own narratives, even its own arguments, see Maj. Op. at 755-64, and finds that "neither internal flaws nor external record evidence rebuts that presumption in this case," id. at 749. But see Pullman-Standard v. Swint,
Rather than adopting a presumption of regularity, I would apply clear error review to the district court's findings of fact just as we have consistently done throughout our Guantanamo cases. See, e.g., Almerfedi, 654 F.3d at 1-2 (reviewing district court fact findings for clear error); Al-Madhwani v. Obama,
The starting point, of course, is the Report itself. See Awad, 608 F.3d at 6-7 (holding that the same clear error standard applies to fact findings based on documentary evidence and inferences drawn from that evidence). The district court's primary concern about the Report related to the circumstances under which it was produced, circumstances that, according to the district court, increased the likelihood that mistakes had been made. In particular, the court emphasized the [redacted] summarized in the Report and another report produced around the same time. Latif, slip op. at [redacted] In addition, [redacted] The Report's heavy redactions—portions of only [redacted] out of [redacted] pages are unredacted—make evaluating its reliability more difficult. The unredacted portions nowhere reveal whether the same person [redacted] or whether someone else performed each of these tasks. And because all the other [redacted] in the Report are redacted, the district court was unable to evaluate the accuracy of [redacted] by inquiring into the accuracy of the Report's [redacted]. In view of all these concerns, the district court found it especially troubling that neither the Report nor any of the Government's other evidence "provide[s] any information with which to confirm [redacted] Id. at [redacted]
"[F]actual errors" in the Report reinforced the district court's concerns. Id. Specifically, although the Report states [redacted] Id. at [redacted] In addition, the Report erroneously states that [redacted] Lastly, in what even my colleagues concede is an "obvious mistake," Maj. Op. at [redacted] the Report's first page states that [redacted]
Also troubling the district court was the lack of "corroborating evidence for any of the incriminating statements in the [Report]." Latif, slip op. at 26. As the district court explained: [redacted]
The district court properly weighed the cumulative effect of these subsidiary findings. See Al-Adahi, 613 F.3d at 1105-06. According to the district court, those findings [redacted] resulted in an incorrect [redacted] Latif, slip op. [redacted]
All of the concerns just described are obviously relevant to evaluating the Report's accuracy. It goes without saying that the circumstances under which the Report was produced and the evidence, or lack of evidence, of care taken to avoid mistakes when the Report was produced shed light on that question. Likewise, it is undoubtedly probative of the Report's reliability that it contains factual errors, for the presence of a known error increases the likelihood that other information in the Report is inaccurate as well. And of course, it is also relevant that the government has offered no independent corroboration for any of the Report's incriminating facts. After all, skepticism about the
Moreover, none of the subsidiary fact findings the district court made about the Report itself were clearly erroneous. As this court acknowledges, "the [district] court cited problems with the Report itself, including [redacted] Maj. Op. at [redacted] And this court agrees that "[t]he inconsistencies in the Report may suggest a document produced [redacted]
Nonetheless, this court insists, "[i]t is almost inconceivable," id. at [redacted], that the [redacted] information in the Report could have resulted from [redacted] According to the court, there is too high a [redacted] in the Report for it to have resulted from [redacted] And because the [redacted] the court believes, [redacted]
My colleagues' interpretation of the evidence is undoubtedly plausible. Yet when one accounts for all of the Report's various problems, the fact that admittedly true facts [redacted] with contested inculpatory ones also supports another plausible explanation, akin to what happens in the children's game of telephone. In that game, one child whispers a phrase to another, who in turn whispers it to a third, and so on, until the last child announces what he or she has heard. As anyone who has played well knows, the whole point of the game is that what the final child hears is both recognizably similar to the original statement and yet amusingly transformed. Cf. Carol D. Leonnig & Josh White, An Ex-Member Calls Detainee Panels Unfair, WASH. POST, June 23, 2007 (reporting former-Combatant Status Review Tribunal member, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Abraham, as "equat[ing] the government hearsay presented [to the CSRTs] about detainees with a game of telephone" (internal quotation marks omitted)).
Now imagine the game when, as may have happened here, [redacted] and the Report produced [redacted] with the assistance of [redacted] And imagine further, as may also have happened here, that the [redacted] may have [redacted] or the [redacted] may have [redacted] or the [redacted] may have [redacted] precisely what was [redacted] or that whoever [redacted] based on [redacted] may have failed to [redacted] or that some combination of all those things may have occurred. This problem is all the more exacerbated when—again as may have happened here—the same [redacted] and fails to [redacted] until [redacted] As Latif's [redacted]—as so often occurs in the game of telephone [redacted] And so, [redacted] may have become [redacted] may have transformed [redacted] may have turned into [redacted] just as [redacted] became [redacted] Indeed my colleagues nowhere disagree that all of the [redacted] sound similar to [redacted] And, although only [redacted] that appear to have been [redacted] are in the record and unredacted, both contain details that also appear in [redacted] details which an [redacted] might have [redacted] if they were having trouble understanding [redacted] say [redacted] Obviously, moreover, we have no way of knowing whether the redacted [redacted] likewise contain [redacted] Given that the circumstances under which the Report was produced increased the probability of mistakes, given that the Report contains other "factual errors," and given that the government has failed to corroborate any of the Report's incriminating information, Latif, slip op. [redacted] this explanation is at least plausible—the only
The district court did not stop with the Report. It also "consider[ed] the explanation of events Latif has offered"—again in service of the critical question of whether the Report was "sufficiently reliable." Latif, slip op. at 27. According to Latif, with the help of a charitable worker, he left Yemen in 2001 seeking free medical treatment for the lingering effects of a serious head injury suffered in a 1994 car accident. Although the government challenges Latif's claim that he left Yemen in 2001 seeking medical treatment, it never disputes that "in 1994, [Latif] sustained head injuries as the result of a car accident and [that] the Yemeni government paid for him to receive treatment" in Jordan at that time. Id. at 5.
Besides his own narrative, Latif also offered documentary evidence to corroborate his account. Three documents are particularly noteworthy. The first, "a letter, dated August 21, 1994, from a doctor at the Islamic Hospital in Amman, Jordan," confirms "that Latif `was admitted' on July 9, 1994 `following a head injury.'" Id. at 23 (quoting letter). The second, "a letter dated August 18, 1999 from Yemen's Ministry of Public Health," states "that `[w]e recommend that [Latif] return to the previous center outside for more tests and therapeutic and surgical procedures at his own expense.'" Id. (alterations in original) (quoting letter, which also states that Latif "is hard of hearing" and that "a wide circular hol[e] was detected in [Latif's] left eardrum"). And the third—the most important—is Latif's intake form [redacted] Filled out when Latif was taken into United States custody, the intake form states that Latif was in possession of "medical papers" when seized traveling from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Id. at 23 & n. 12.
This documentary evidence, the district court found, "corroborat[ed]" Latif's "plausible" story. Id. at 26-27. The district court also rejected the government's contention that Latif's exculpatory account was a "cover story" and found the government's "attack[s]" on the "credibility of [the] story . . . unconvincing." Id. at 26. This too was an obviously relevant evidentiary consideration. A petitioner's version of events, should he choose to provide one, can be relevant when assessing the government's evidence. After all, the more believable the petitioner's exculpatory account, the greater the reason to doubt the government's inculpatory one. Cf., e.g., Al-Adahi, 613 F.3d at 1107 (weighing petitioner's "false exculpatory statements" in the government's favor). Having thus assessed Latif's story positively, and given that the story contradicts incriminating information contained in the Report, the district court relied on the story to support its finding that the Report is "not sufficiently reliable." Latif, slip op. at 25.
Although agreeing that Latif's story is relevant, my colleagues nonetheless conclude that by describing it as "plausible" and "not incredible," the district court never actually credited that account. But "reading the district court's explanation in [such] a parsed manner that overlooks its meaning in context" is inconsistent with clear error review. United States v. Brockenborrugh,
Latif, slip op. at 27-28. What else could the district court have meant other than that it found Latif's account convincing enough, plausible enough, consistent enough, and corroborated enough to give it at least some weight against the government's evidence? And as we have held, "[m]erely because a particular piece of evidence is insufficient, standing alone, to prove a particular point does not mean that the evidence `may be tossed aside and the next [piece of evidence] may be evaluated as if the first did not exist.'" Salahi, 625 F.3d at 753 (alteration in original) (quoting Al-Adahi, 613 F.3d at 1105). After all, it is the government that bears the burden to demonstrate the lawfulness of detention, and here the district court concluded that the government had failed to meet that burden because (1) "there is a serious question as to whether the [Report] accurately reflects [redacted]" given (1a) the circumstances under which it was produced and (1b) the "factual errors" it contains; (2) "the incriminating facts in the [Report] are not corroborated[;] and [(3)] Latif has presented a plausible alternative story to explain his travel." See Latif, slip op. at [redacted] It is in just this circumstance—where doubts about the government's evidence and confidence in the detainee's story combine with other evidence to fatally undermine the government's case—that a detainee may prevail even without the district court needing to credit the detainee's story by a full preponderance of the evidence. To require otherwise would, in effect, inappropriately shift the burden of proof to Latif.
Given that the district court found Latif's story entitled to at least some weight and given that such a finding could properly guide its evaluation of the government's evidence, the only remaining question for us is whether that finding was clearly erroneous. It was not. As this court itself acknowledges, Latif's story, on its own terms, is not "intrinsic[ally] implausib[le]." Maj. Op. at 759-60. And that observation is reinforced by corroborating evidence showing that Latif needed to leave Yemen for medical care in 1994, that Yemen's Ministry of Public Health recommended he do so again in 1999, and that Latif had medical papers with him when seized crossing into Pakistan. That a trip abroad for medical care had been necessary, not once but twice, makes it more likely that Latif would have needed to travel abroad for medical care in 2001 as well. And the fact that Latif's condition was still serious enough to require such a trip in 1999, five years after he was first injured, increases the odds that the injury continued to be
Attempting to cast doubt on the district court's favorable assessment of Latif's account, this court insists that the district court "toss[ed] . . . aside" inconsistencies in Latif's account. Id. at 761; see also id. at 760-61. But the district court did no such thing. It expressly recognized those inconsistencies, Latif, slip op. at 24-25 (summarizing the alleged inconsistencies); id. at 27 ("Latif's story is not without inconsistencies and unanswered questions."), ultimately finding the government's "attack[on] the credibility of Latif's story" based on those inconsistencies "unconvincing." Latif, slip op. at 27. Particularly significant to the district court was the fact that the "fundamentals [of Latif's story] have remained the same." Id. As Latif points out, those fundamentals—appearing in more than a dozen interrogation summaries and statements from [redacted] until [redacted]—"include [Latif's] adamant denials of any involvement with al Qaida or the Taliban; his serious head injury from a car accident in Yemen; his inability to pay for the necessary medical treatment; and his expectation and hope that Ibrahim Alawi would get him free medical care." Appellee's Br. 57. Indeed, at least some in the government apparently agree. The commanding officer of the Defense Department's Criminal Investigative Task Force noted in a June 16, 2004 memo that Latif's statements [redacted] had "been relatively consistent." Ex. 80, Memorandum from Criminal Investigative Task Force to General Counsel, Department of Defense (June 16, 2004). Moreover, before making too much of smaller inconsistencies it is important to remember that they appear not in verbatim transcripts prepared by a court reporter with the aid of an audio or video recording, but rather in [redacted] it would be unsurprising to discover that minor errors crept in as [redacted] passed from [redacted] to an [redacted] to the [redacted] and finally to the [redacted] of those [redacted]—the last of which represents the only evidence in the record of what [redacted] actually [redacted] in each of [redacted] As we remarked in another Guantanamo Bay habeas case, "[t]he task of resolving discrepancies among the various accounts offered into evidence is quintessentially a matter ... for the district judge sitting as the fact-finder." Al-Madhwani, 642 F.3d at 1076 (internal quotation marks omitted).
Rather than applying clear error review to the district court's resolution of such discrepancies, this court suggests its own story—a story not found by the district court, never argued by the government, and based on its own review of the raw evidence—about how [redacted] Exhibiting heretofore unknown expertise in al Qaida recruitment strategies, the court posits that [redacted] But see United States v. Microsoft,
The government points to several additional pieces of evidence that, it believes, buttress its argument [redacted] is reliable. The district court considered all of this evidence. Some items it found insufficient to outweigh its concerns [redacted]
First, consider the circumstances leading up to Latif's seizure by Pakistani authorities—circumstances to which the district court gave less weight than the government would have liked. Latif left Kabul in November 2001 and then traveled through [redacted] before eventually arriving at the Pakistani border where Pakistani authorities detained him. According to the government, this path mirrors that of Taliban soldiers retreating from Kabul. Although not contending that this evidence is dispositive, the government argues that because Latif's admitted route is consistent with that of Taliban soldiers [redacted] it is a helpful piece in the puzzle, bolstering its claim that the Report's [redacted] are accurate.
Fair enough, but how helpful? If this route is commonly used by innocent civilians, then the evidence is not that helpful at all. To understand why, consider a simple hypothetical. Suppose the government were to argue in a drug case that the defendant drove north from Miami along 1-95, "a known drug route." Familiar with 1-95, we would surely respond that many thousands of non-drug traffickers take that route as well. Given what we know about our own society, the 1-95 inference would be too weak even to mention. Cf. Almerfedi, 654 F.3d at 6 n. 7 (noting that some conduct such as possessing an AK-47 is so "commonplace in Afghanistan [that it] does not meaningfully distinguish an al Qaeda associate from an innocent civilian"). On the other hand, if the alleged drug trafficker had driven along an infrequently traveled country road, then a contention that that road was "a known drug route" would carry more weight. The burden of proof is on the government to demonstrate whether travel on a particular route to the Pakistani border, when considered in context, is more like the lonely country road and thus worthy of consideration when it comes to distinguishing between enemy combatants and innocent civilians.
Based on nothing more than a few anecdotes, this court suggests that Latif's route was akin to the country road. It asserts that the details of Latif's post-Kabul travels are "analogous" to those we found "strong[ly] suggest[ive]" of al Qaida membership in Uthman. Maj. Op. at 762. But how analogous are they really? Uthman was captured "in the vicinity of Tora Bora" at a time when "most, if not all, of those in the vicinity of Tora Bora . . . were combatants." Uthman, 637 F.3d at 404. By contrast, the record in this case contains no evidence that Latif ever traveled through the Tora Bora mountains, and the city we know he did travel through—[redacted]—has over 160,000 residents most of whom were presumably not combatants, see [redacted] In Uthman, the detainee had not only taken a particularly suspicious route, but also was captured with a "small group" that included two "confessed. . . bodyguards for Osama bin Laden" and another admitted Taliban fighter, all three of whom Uthman had studied with at the Furqan Institute, "a religious school at which other men were recruited to fight for Al Qaeda." Uthman, 637 F.3d at 404-05 (internal quotation marks omitted). One of the bodyguards "described the group as `brothers' retreating from battle.'" Id. at 405. Here, Latif told interrogators that his Afghan guide was the only person who accompanied him to the Pakistani border, Ex. 25, Summary Interrogation Rep. [redacted] and the only evidence to the contrary are [redacted] My colleagues accuse the district court of
Second, consider the government's argument that "Latif was recruited by an al Qaeda member" in Yemen, a theory the district court found the government had failed to prove. Latif, slip op. at 25. To support its theory, the government pointed to evidence allegedly showing that Latif's charitable benefactor, Ibrahim Alawi, is actually an al Qaida facilitator known as Abu Khalud, whose real name is Ibrahim Ba'alawi. Some of this evidence could certainly have led a reasonable factfinder to accept the government's interpretation, including that "Ba'alawi" and "Alawi" have similar spellings and that the route Latif took to Afghanistan at Ibrahim's urging was the same path reportedly taken by other detainees who, unlike Latif, admit to having taken that trip to fight alongside the Taliban and some of whom have also admitted, again unlike Latif, to being Abu Khalud-recruits. That evidence, however, hardly forecloses the district court's contrary finding that the government had failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Ibrahim Alawi was Abu Khalud. To repeat, although we have treated evidence that a petitioner reached Afghanistan along a "route similar to the paths of admitted al Qaeda members now in U.S. custody" as a plus factor in determining whether that petitioner was "part of al Qaida, Uthman, 637 F.3d at 405, we have never suggested nor has the government shown that this particular path is so uniquely associated with al Qaida recruits that a district court clearly errs when it treats such evidence as more akin to traveling along 1-95 than a lonely country road.
The record contains ample additional evidence that supports the district court's finding. Latif introduced expert declarations explaining that "Ba'alawi" and "Alawi" are distinct Arabic names and that both are common in Yemen. Latif, slip op. at 18-19. Notably, therefore, Latif's interrogation summaries all refer to some variation of the name Ibrahim Alawi but none include the "Ba," and none mention Abu Khalud. By contrast, interrogation summaries for seven of the eight detainees mentioning the al Qaida facilitator named Abu Khalud refer either to "Abu Khalud" or "Ibrahim Ba'alawi" but never "Ibrahim Alawi," id., and the eighth, who apparently used the name "Alawi," is a detainee this very district court, in a different case, found not credible because his statements conflicted with those of several other detainees, id. at 19 n. 10 (citing Abdah v. Obama,
Next, consider record evidence that, according to this court, shows "that Latif stayed at al-Qaida guesthouses." Maj. Op. at 761. That evidence consists of [redacted] which the government claims include [redacted] The [redacted] contain [redacted] along with [redacted] Seeking to connect these [redacted] to [redacted] the government argues that the [redacted] to the [redacted] and the [redacted] The government also points to an [redacted] Finally, the government contends that the fact that [redacted] buttresses its [redacted] given its theory that the [redacted] contain [redacted]
But the district court found that the [redacted] the government point to "is not [redacted] The district court based that finding on the differences between [redacted] and the [redacted] as well as the fact that [redacted] is not [redacted] The district court also noted Latif's innocent explanation for not having his passport—that he "gave it to Ibrahim to use in arranging his stay at a hospital." Id.
Ample record evidence supports the district court's factual analysis. At the most basic level, as the district court noted, [redacted] Moreover, [redacted] exaplaining that even the apparent [redacted] between the [redacted] is misleading given that [redacted] Indeed, [redacted] implying [redacted] In addition, as [redacted]
This court nonetheless accuses the district court of overlooking the government's expert evidence that [redacted] By that theory, Latif could be any [redacted] and maybe he goes [redacted] But the district court committed no clear error when, after considering the [redacted] it concluded that [redacted]
Finally, the district court's reliance on Latif's explanation for not having his passport is plausible in light of other record evidence about the practice of at least one hospital, the Islamic Hospital in Jordan, of taking foreign patient's passports "to guarantee that [those] patients will not leave the country before settling their bills." Pet'r Trial Ex. No. 7. Moreover, although leaving behind one's passport with an al Qaida operative at an al Qaida run guesthouse might suggest al Qaida affiliation, see Al Alwi, 653 F.3d at 14-15, such a scenario is several inferential steps removed from the only relevant fact we know about Latif—that he did not have his passport with him when seized. To be sure, a reasonable factfinder might have interpreted this evidence differently. Yet again, the record contains enough evidence to support "two permissible views of the evidence," Awad, 608 F.3d at 7 (quotation omitted), meaning that "the factfinder's choice between [those two views] cannot, [therefore,] be clearly erroneous." Id.
The court groups many of its criticisms about the district court's fact finding under the catch-all header of Al-Adahi. According to my colleagues, the district court took an "unduly atomized" approach to the evidence. Maj. Op. at 759. The district court did no such thing.
Absent some affirmative indication to the contrary, we "presum[e] that the district court knew and applied the law correctly." United States v. Mouling,
Al-Adahi, 613 F.3d at 1105 (emphasis added) (quoting district court opinion). By contrast, here the district court placed the Report, which the government concedes represents its "primary" piece of evidence, Appellants' Br. 10, and on which the government admits its "case turned," Appellants' Br. 5, at the center of its analysis. The district court devoted two and a half pages to analyzing the Report and then another fifteen pages to summarizing other evidence introduced by the parties to prop it up or knock it down. Finally, the district court examined the cumulative effect of various evidentiary concerns on the Report's reliability. When read in its full context, the district court's opinion suffers from nothing like the flaws that we reviewed in Al-Adahi.
This court uses Al Adahi to turn the presumption of district court lawfulness on its head. Rather than giving the district court the benefit of the doubt, it seems to assume that the district court considered the evidence in isolation and ignored key facts. Take, for example, the contention that the district court tossed aside and considered in isolation alleged inconsistencies between statements attributed to Latif in different interrogation reports. Maj. Op. at 760-61. This argument fails to recognize the leeway we have afforded district courts to resolve discrepancies among various accounts in other Guantanamo cases. In Al-Madhwani, we found no error in the district court's decision to credit two different detainees' interrogation summaries even though the detainees' statements contradicted each other in certain respects, reasoning that the "task" of "resolving" such discrepancies "quintessentially" belonged to the district court. Al-Madhwani, 642 F.3d at 1074. Yet the only indication that the district court in that case had actually resolved the relevant contradictions between the two reports is its bald assertion that those reports are reliable; the discrepancies are never mentioned, let alone analyzed. By contrast, as this court concedes, the district court here expressly noted that it had "taken into consideration the explanation of events Latif has offered" in assessing the Report and expressly acknowledged that Latif's story is not without "inconsistencies and unanswered questions." Maj. Op. at 760. The district court then specifically assessed the two primary inconsistencies the government relied on, as my colleagues implicitly acknowledge. Id. at 760-61. Finally, the district court explained that any concern about "smaller inconsistencies," most of which it had earlier summarized, was outweighed by the possibility that they had resulted from translation or transcription errors and by the fact that the "fundamentals [of Latif's story] have remained the same." Latif, slip. op. at 27. For its part, this court reluctantly recognizes all this as "a welcome step toward the holistic approach to the evidence we called for in Al-Adahi." Maj. Op. at 760. But it is in fact more than that. If the district court's implicit resolution of discrepancies in Al-Madhwani was adequate, then it follows a fortiori that so too was this district court's far more explicit treatment. My colleagues acknowledge that their approach is in tension with "the usual practice" of "assuming] the [district] court considered all the evidence," but nonetheless find this justified by the "unusual posture of this case"—i.e., a he-said, she-said
The only affirmative indication this court identifies allegedly showing that the district court took an unduly atomized approach to the evidence relates to the circumstances of Latif's capture and to [redacted] The court makes much of the fact that in weighing the former, the district court employed language similar to the language used at one point by the district court in Al-Adahi—specifically that "the timing of [Latif's] departure . . . is not sufficient to create an inference that he was involved in fighting." Latif, slip op. at 27 (emphasis added). The court, however, neglects to mention that this sentence appears in the middle of a paragraph evaluating the credibility of Latif's account, which itself appears in the middle of an extended assessment of the combined impact of multiple pieces of evidence on the Report's reliability. This "pars[ing]" of the district court's words "overlook[s]" what those words "mean in context," an approach that is, again, inconsistent with clear error review. See Brockenborrugh, 575 F.3d at 741.
As for the district court's decision [redacted] my colleagues offer no convincing explanation for why the district court should have considered evidence that it found does not implicate Latif—unless, of course, that finding was clearly erroneous, something they never claim. Suppose, for example, that a witness in a burglary case testifies to having seen a man with a similar build as the defendant walk away from the site of the crime. If the factfinder concludes that the person the witness saw was not the defendant, then surely the factfinder can reasonably set aside the witnesses' testimony in assessing whether the defendant was the burglar. So too here. Once the district court had determined that [redacted] did not implicate Latif, it was entirely proper for it to put them aside when evaluating the rest of the evidence.
The remainder of the court's Al Adahi critique rests entirely on the claim that the district court "ignore[d] relevant evidence." Maj. Op. at 759. Not so. The district court expressly considered virtually all the evidence this court points to— including every single item of evidence the government claims is of primary or even secondary relevance. Compare id. at [redacted] with Latif, slip op. at [redacted] compare Maj. Op. at 760 (Latif's travel route from Yemen to Afghanistan), with Latif, slip op. at 10-11 (discussing same); compare Maj. Op. at 760-61 (purported inconsistencies in Latif's statements), with Latif, slip op. at 27-28 (discussing same); compare Maj. Op. at [redacted] compare Maj. Op. at 762-63 (circumstances of Latif's departure from Kabul and subsequent seizure by Pakistani authorities), with Latif, slip op. at [redacted], 25, 27 (discussing same); compare Maj. Op. at 763-64 (evidence that Latif's benefactor, Ibrahim Al-Alawi, is in fact the Al Qaida facilitator Abu Khalud), with Latif, slip op. at 17-21, 23-28 (discussing same). As for the claim that Latif may have (or may not have) traveled across the Pakistani border with Taliban-affiliated men, the district court's silence is easily explained: [redacted] both of which [redacted] But see Maj. Op. at 761 [redacted]
To determine, as this court apparently does, that an experienced district court
The district court's opinion is by no means perfect. But clear error review demands a good deal less than perfection. See Microsoft, 253 F.3d at 118. That said, had the district court otherwise committed legal error or made some other mistake requiring remand, then I would have asked it to clarify whether it had indeed considered this evidence holistically. See, e.g., Salahi, 625 F.3d at 753 (noting that "the district court generally" considered all the evidence together but that "its consideration of certain pieces of evidence may have been unduly atomized" and that "since we [were] remanding" we would encourage the district court to clarify (emphasis added)). But nothing in our case law requires, nor would I now hold, that the mere fact that a district court that obviously and carefully considered the entire record failed to mention a couple items of tertiary importance reflects undue atomization of the evidence.
For the foregoing reasons, I would affirm the grant of the writ of habeas corpus.
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