The Challenge (Hardcover)

Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and the Fight over Presidential Power

By Jonathan Mahler

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 9780374223205, 352pp.

Publication Date: August 5, 2008



An inspiring legal thriller set against the backdrop of the war on terror, The Challenge tells the inside story of a historic Supreme Court showdown. At its center are a Navy JAG and a young constitutional law professor who, in the aftermath of 9/11, find themselves defending their nation in the unlikeliest of ways: by suing the president of the United States on behalf of an accused terrorist in order to prevent the American government from breaking the law and violating the Constitution.  

Jonathan Mahler traces the journey of their client, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, from the Yemeni mosque where he was first recruited for jihad in 1998, through his years working as a driver for Osama bin Laden, to his capture in Afghanistan in November 2001 and his subsequent transfer to Guantanamo Bay. It was there that Hamdan was designated by President Bush to be tried before a special military tribunal and assigned a military lawyer to represent him, a thirty-five-year-old graduate student of the Naval Academy, Lieutenant Commander Charles Swift.                      

No one expected Swift to mount much of a defense. Not only were the rules of the tribunals, America’s first in more than fifty years, stacked against him, his superiors at the Pentagon were pressuring him to persuade Hamdan to plead guilty. But Swift didn’t believe that the tribunals were either legal or fair, so he enlisted a young Georgetown law professor named Neal Katyal to help him sue the Bush administration over their legality. In the spring of 2006, Katyal, who had almost no trial experience, took the case to the Supreme Court and won. The landmark ruling has been called the Court’s most important decision ever on presidential power and the rule of law. 

Written with the cooperation of Swift and Katyal, The Challenge follows the braided stories of Swift’s intense, precarious relationship with Hamdan and the unprecedented legal case itself. Combining rich character portraits and courtroom drama reminiscent of Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action with sophisticated yet accessible legal analysis, The Challenge is a riveting narrative that illuminates some of the most pressing constitutional questions of the post-9/11 era.

Praise For The Challenge: Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and the Fight over Presidential Power

“Mahler’s account of Hamdan’s treatment at Guantanamo Bay makes The Challenge an important book.”—Carol A Sigmond, The Federal Lawyer

“With an engaging writing style and eye to detail, Mr. Mahler…takes the reader through Mr. Hamdan’s evolution from a street urchin to one of a handful of “high value” enemy combatants…If “The Challenge” offers a good account of the making of an implausible warrior jihadi, it provides an excellent account of the making of equally implausible warrior lawyers…“The Challenge” is not just a very readable account of an important case. It is also an intimate account of the lawyers who overcame personal conflicts, animus and flaws to produce a decision for the ages. It is an intriguing tale of how a unique convergence of personalities propelled an unlikely dabab driver from Yemen to international prominence.”—Jonathan Turley, The New York Times

“The work of lawyers for a detainee is brilliantly explored in Jonathan Mahler’s The Challenge: Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and the Fight over Presidential Power.  But it is much more than a book about law and lawyers.  It tells the story of a captive who gave his name to a great constitutional decision; and it describes the personal struggles of his lawyers, their courage, and their faults.  The result is a work of rare drama.”—Anthony Lewis, New York Review of Books

“Mahler’s fluent account of events is essential reading for students of constitutional law-and anyone concerned with civil rights.”—Kirkus

“[W]hat Mahler chronicles -- the seesaw process of constitutional challenges to the military commissions -- is of more than historical interest: It is part and parcel of all that has transpired in recent weeks and a portent of the future as well.”—Art Winslow, Los Angeles Times

“One recalls the ethically simple Gideon's Trumpet when reading the latest great-case narrative, Jonathan Mahler's The Challenge: Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and the Fight Over Presidential Power….A riveting read.”—Michael O’Donnell, San Francisco Chronicle

“[Mahler] excels at telling the story of a talented, fractious team coming together for a greater goal: Charles Swift, a naval officer whose passionate commitment to the case scuttled his career and his marriage; Neal Katyal, a brilliant scholar whose arrogance alienated his allies; and Hamdan, a desperate, furious cipher.”—The New Yorker

“I was in the Pentagon on 9-11, and in its aftermath, I witnessed the most remarkable and chilling attempt to consolidate and abuse executive power, circumvent and ignore the rule of law, and reverse engineer due process and the rules of evidence to deny our newest enemies a fair trial. The Challenge is the riveting and very inside story of an unlikely coupling of two lawyers from two very different legal worlds, one military and one academic, who joined forces to restore our jurisprudential values. Jonathan Mahler captures the essence of their personalities and the truly heroic battles that they fought in a way that is both informative and fascinating. Do not get too comfortable though. This struggle—of epic constitutional proportions--continues, and every American who holds freedom dear must be educated about the dangers of executive power run amok. The Challenge is the book that will anchor that education.”   —Donald Guter, retired Admiral and former Judge Advocate General, U.S. Navy; Dean, Duquense Law School

“This is the definitive work on an epic Supreme Court case—and on the human beings behind the headlines.”   —Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

“The Challenge is a rare achievement—a book as involving as it is important. The characters (real people, powerfully sketched) and the narrative (gripping as a movie) make Jonathan Mahler’s book impossible to put down. And yet beneath the turning pages there’s a firm spine: a profound meditation on what patriotism means and how durable our Constitution is. The classic American story: upholding the rules, meeting the standard, at high personal cost. This book has the great legal drama of an entertainment—the charge, the defender, the filing-in to the courtroom—but it ends as an inspiration.”   —David Lipsky, author of Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point

“Out of a great Supreme Court case Jonathan Mahler has made a riveting story.  Here are the Guantanamo prisoner who challenged the President, the lawyers, the judges. I could not stop reading.”   —Anthony Lewis, author of Gideon’s Trumpet

"The Challenge is the definitive insider’s account of how a law professor and a military lawyer won a historic Supreme Court case against military commissions established by the Commander in Chief. Jonathan Mahler tells this improbable but important story in a gripping, accessible narrative that reveals both the promise and the limitations of judicial review in the age of terrorism.”   —Jack Goldsmith, Henry L. Shattuck Professor of Law, Harvard law School, and author of The Terror Presidency