Photo courtesey Kristine Huskey
Kristine Huskey and her son Luke.
Like Interlochen itself, our alumni are dynamic. In CODA, we revisit previous Crescendo profiles to highlight how recent events impact their stories.
In 2009, as Barack Obama took office vowing to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, we profiled Interlochen Arts Academy alumna Kristine Huskey (IAA 82-85), who had represented Guantanamo detainees and defended their rights before the Supreme Court in Rasul v. Bush.
Eight years later, Obama’s presidency has ended, Guantanamo Bay is still active (as of Jan. 26) and Huskey has transitioned from representing these detainees to representing American veterans in her role as Director of the Veterans’ Advocacy Law Center at the University of Arizona. We checked in with Huskey to learn about her own career changes, and to get her thoughts on the past, present and future of Guantanamo Bay.
Although President Obama reduced the number of detainees held at Guantanamo from 242 to its current number, Huskey reflects on his failure to close the prison with disappointment. “Fifteen years after the prison opened, it is still open, and there are still detainees there with no real resolution,” she says. “I think it is very sad for President Obama to have that as part of his legacy.”
Her frustration stems from the discrepancy between Obama’s promises and his actions. In Huskey’s view, Obama “held himself up to be very human rights-friendly,” but has fallen short. She could use Obama’s own words against him, as he said of Guantanamo in 2013: “History will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it.”
Segueing from talking about a president who failed to meet her high expectations to one for whom she has low expectations from the outset, Huskey points out that on the campaign trail, President Donald J. Trump vowed to “load up Guantanamo.” Having tirelessly advocated for Guantanamo prisoners’ right to challenge their detentions in court, Huskey considers their prospects by saying: “It’s very disheartening in terms of the people there and what it says about America and human rights.”
Despite her palpable frustration, Huskey still believes that a balance between national security and American ideals is attainable. At times like these, when our national security is particularly precarious, Huskey says, “People are going to be tempted to detour from human rights and the rule of law, but I think we still have to stick to those values, and we can’t let terrorism define us.”
Huskey’s professional and personal life has changed as much as the country’s politics since 2008. She got married that year to Bryan di Lella, and in 2014 they welcomed their son, Luke. Professionally, Huskey now channels her disappointment—and her passion for working at the intersection of national security and civil liberties—by fighting for veterans’ rights at the University of Arizona. While her shift from representing America’s suspected enemies to advocating for its veterans may seem drastic to some, Huskey says, “I support people who don’t have a voice and who have legal rights that are not being pursued. So, I actually see it as very continuous.”
In particular, she and her students advocate for discharge upgrades so veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can access their benefits. A recent congressional investigation found that more than 22,000 post-9/11 service members have received a less-than-honorable discharge for misconduct even though they were diagnosed with PTSD or other mental health illnesses. As Huskey explained in a recent opinion piece, because of their less-than-honorable discharges, these veterans are “denied access to benefits they truly need in order to address the health challenges they acquired while defending the nation.”
Her students also represent veterans in Veterans Treatment Court. In Huskey’s words, veterans “get treatment for PTSD and substance abuse, and they go to counseling and get treatment. And if they’re successful and they comply, then the charges are dismissed.”
Huskey’s work and that of her students provides the veterans with a fresh start. “You see veterans who have drug and alcohol problems, who are estranged from family,” but after their time in Veterans Treatment Court, “they’re cleaned up, sober, back with their families,” and contributing to society and the economy in meaningful ways, Huskey says. She estimates that 70 percent of the veterans she and her students represent are successful, “and that’s a really rewarding thing to see. The students are changed by it, they’re so impacted when they see someone who served, and they see the physical change, the impact that their representation makes in a short period of time.”
While some may assume that Huskey’s most drastic transition is the profile of whom she represents, she sees the feedback loop as the biggest change. Her Guantanamo work was a marathon, “about upholding the rule of law over a long period of time,” whereas her current work is a sprint that involves “seeing success in a short period of time. It’s just different.”
Huskey takes a moment to reflect on her former clients, still detained at Guantanamo, and on her constant goal to strike a balance between national security and freedom—whether defending suspected terrorists or veterans. In her current post in academia, she recognizes that she has the power to spread this message in a new way. “The question I try to ask my students is: ‘How do we do our best to uphold the law, given the reality?’”
In our initial profile of Huskey, she said the reason she pursued law in the first place was her realization that it “can be a true mechanism for change and that attorneys and judges are part of that process.” Eight years later, there is little doubt that Huskey continues to pursue and achieve meaningful change through her ever-evolving work.
From MTV to the Supreme Court
As a dance major at the Academy, Kristine Huskey (IAA 82-85) never aspired or expected to go into law. Yet after a number of twists and turns in her career, Huskey found herself working as a lawyer on a landmark case that went to the Supreme Court.
After leaving the Academy, Huskey traveled, modeled and worked as a bartender before finally deciding to attend Columbia University. In a class on civil liberties, she studied famous cases including Brown v. Board of Education and found herself unexpectedly captivated by the subject. “I realized that law can be a true mechanism for change and that attorneys and judges are part of that process,” said Huskey. “And more importantly, they are part of a process of change that directly impacts real people's lives. I wanted to be part of that kind of process and help people."
She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor’s degree in political science and soon had her eyes set on law school. Before enrolling at the University of Texas, however, she used her dance skills to land key roles in several high-profile MTV videos by artists including H-Town and Buster Poindexter.
After law school she clerked for Justice Bea Ann Smith of the Third District Court of Appeals in Texas, then joined the law firm of Shearman & Sterling. A partner with whom she had been working asked Huskey if she would like to help on an “interesting” case; soon she was at work on a case that made headlines around the world and raised fundamental questions about the balance between core American ideals and the need for security.
Several families from Kuwait had approached the firm to help find their sons, who were missing. They suspected that the men were being held by the U.S. government, which refused to release any details about the men they were holding. These initial inquiries sparked several years of debate about the rights of detainees and the role of the courts in what was being called the war on terror.
In March of 2002, many recoiled when they learned Huskey was representing men who were labeled as “suspected terrorists” but she found herself motivated by the same ideals that had convinced her to study law in the first place. “I felt that I was standing up for the rule of law, which is most important in times of crises and conflict. Those are the times when we need to hold fast to fundamental principles, such as due process and adherence to the law even when our national security is threatened.”
On June 29, 2004 a 6-3 ruling reversed a District Court decision and won the right of the detainees to challenge their detentions in federal court. Rasul v. Bush established that the U.S. court system has the authority to decide whether foreign nationals held in Guantanamo Bay were wrongfully imprisoned. This decision made it possible for Huskey to actually meet her clients.
Over the next several years, Huskey made at least a dozen trips to Guantanamo to meet face to face with detainees. Initially she worried that they would not accept a woman as their lawyer, but this proved not to be a problem as the detainees were given the opportunity for the first time, to share their own stories. She soon learned about the hunger strikes and the number of attempted suicides and accusations that the detainees’ Korans had been desecrated. In the weeks and months that followed, Huskey tried to improve the living conditions at Guantanamo.
Huskey is convinced that her training at Interlochen formed a strong foundation for her career by teaching her to connect with others. “I have to be very sensitive to whom my audience is when advocating on behalf of suspected terrorists and use creative messaging to reach my audience.” Her audiences have included law classes, courtrooms, media personalities, the general public and political leaders.
This year, Huskey completed a book based on her experience called “Justice at Guantanamo: One Woman's Odyssey and Her Crusade for Human Rights.” She now teaches in the National Security Clinic, which she established at the University of Texas in 2007.
-- Originally published in Crescendo in Sept. 2009 --