A 13-month legal saga ended quietly last week when an American citizen accused of joining ISIS went free. For more than a year, the U.S. military had held him in Iraq without charging him. At one point, the government offered to release him somewhere in Syria with a cellphone and a few thousand dollars, an outcome his lawyers said would amount to a death sentence. In the end, he was transferred to a third country and let go.
One case, then, is settled. The larger questions underlying it—the same ones three successive presidents have failed to resolve—are very much not. What, exactly, are the limits on the U.S. government’s authority to detain “enemy combatants,” including U.S. citizens? More fundamentally, what are the limits on America’s wartime powers in a war on terror that never seems to end?
The case of the man court documents identify only as John Doe “was a really, really important opportunity for clarification, and it ended after 13 months with none,” said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas who has followed the case closely.
The case began last fall, when, according to a government court filing, a dual American-Saudi citizen turned himself in to Kurdish forces in northern Syria—his lawyers dispute this, saying he was captured fleeing violence. He was carrying around $4,000, two thumb drives, a GPS device, and, oddly, a scuba mask and snorkel. The Kurds handed him over to the Americans. Within days of the man’s detention in September, The Daily Beast reported that an American citizen was being held incommunicado by American forces, and the ACLU promptly mounted a challenge, declaring that he was entitled access to a lawyer.