NEW YORK -- A federal appeals court yesterday ordered the US government to turn over virtually all its information on Guantanamo detainees who are challenging their detention, rejecting an effort by the Justice Department to limit disclosures.
The decision set the stage for new legal battles over the government's reasons for holding the men indefinitely.
The ruling, which was made in one of the main court cases dealing with the fate of the detainees, effectively set the ground rules for scores of cases by detainees challenging the actions of Pentagon tribunals that decide whether terror suspects should be held as "enemy combatants."
It was the latest in a series of stinging legal challenges to the administration's detention policies that have amplified pressure on the Bush administration to find some alternative to Guantanamo, where about 360 men are now being held.
A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Washington unanimously rejected a government effort to limit the information it must turn over to the court and lawyers for the detainees.
The court said meaningful review of the military tribunals would not be possible "without seeing all the evidence, any more than one can tell whether a fraction is more or less than half by looking only at the numerator and not the denominator."
Advocates for detainees have criticized the tribunals since they were instituted in 2004, because the terror suspects held at Guantanamo have not been permitted lawyers during the proceedings and have not been allowed to see much of the evidence.
P. Sabin Willett, a Boston lawyer who argued the case for detainees, called the ruling "a resounding rejection of the government's effort to hide the truth."
A department spokesman, Erik Ablin, declined to comment on the decision, saying the department was "reviewing the decision's implications and evaluating our options."
The ruling was made in the first case under a 2005 law that provides for limited appeals court review of the military's Guantanamo hearings, known as combatant status review tribunals.
Pentagon efforts to try a small number of detainees for war crimes have been stalled since early June, when two military judges ruled there were defects in the procedures that had been followed in declaring the men to be enemy combatants.
Then, later last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal from detainees claiming a right to challenge their detentions in federal courts through habeas corpus cases, a contention the administration has fought with some success in the courts and Congress.
The cases in appeals court and the Supreme Court are both efforts by lawyers for the detainees to challenge the military's decisions to hold the men.
The lawyers are pursuing habeas corpus rights because it would give federal judges far more power to review the Pentagon's decision than the appeals court has to review the military tribunal actions. The lawyers have argued that in a 2005 law, Congress so limited the review permitted by the federal appeals court that the detainees need access to federal courts through habeas cases to get a fair review of their detentions.
The case in which the decision was made yesterday involved requests by eight detainees for review of decisions by tribunals.
When the Supreme Court said it would hear the Guantanamo case last month, its order made clear that the justices would be carefully watching the appeals court decision as they consider broader Guantanamo issues.
The ruling also included significant victories for the government, including a decision allowing the Pentagon to limit the subjects that the lawyers can discuss with detainees and authorizing special Pentagon teams to read the lawyers' mail and remove unauthorized comments.