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Torture Lawsuits against Rumsfeld Move Forward

on August 9, 2011

In the last week, two different federal courts have demonstrated a commitment to accountability for torture perpetrated by US officials. 

The DC District Court allowed a lawsuit for damages to go forward against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other high-ranking officials, including Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and FBI Director Robert Mueller. At the heart of the case is a US citizen and army veteran who went to Iraq as a civilian employee of an American defense contractor. The man, John Doe, claims that as he was on his way home for leave, he was abducted by the American military, handcuffed, blindfolded, held in solitary confinement for 72 hours, and then detained in a military jail and subject to abuse for several months. Doe alleges that US prison guards tortured him using “psychologically-disruptive tactics designed to induce compliance” and exposed him to extreme cold and continuous artificial light, blindfolded and hooded him, and subjected him to “intolerably” loud music and noises. In his lawsuit, the army veteran claims that Rumsfeld personally approved torture on a case-by-case basis and did not allow him an attorney or access to US courts.

Although the Department of Justice sought to dismiss the case altogether, arguing that Rumsfeld cannot be sued personally for official conduct and that the courts should not be inquiring into wartime decisions, Judge James Gwin rejected those arguments. Gwin said that American citizens are protected by the Constitution at home or when detained in a conflict zone abroad.

Similarly, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit also refused to dismiss a torture case against Rumsfeld. The plaintiffs — both American citizens — claim they were tortured while in US military custody after blowing the whistle on alleged illegal activities by their employer, a private contracting company. They say they were subjected to sleep deprivation, blasting music, hunger, and various threats. They also allege that Rumsfeld personally took part in approving the methods for use by the US military in Iraq.

In a 2-1 opinion, the court found that damages could be “available for the alleged torture of civilian US citizens by US military personnel in a war zone." The court also saw no justification for the defendants' arguments, which would “deprive civilian US citizens of a civil judicial remedy for torture or even cold-blooded murder by federal officials and soldiers, at any level, in a war zone."

In light of previous court decisions involving torture by US officials of non-US citizens, the decisions are a welcomed and important step toward holding the United States accountable when it engages in torture and abuse — even in wartime. As retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor stated in Hamdi v Rumsfeld, “A state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation’s citizens.” 

Despite the human rights victory the judicial opinions bring, the fundamental human right to be free from torture and abuse is guaranteed, if just barely, for US citizens only. Accountability for misconduct should be the standard when any human being is tortured, regardless of citizenship.

Places: United States