WASHINGTON -- March 1 -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld bears direct responsibility for the torture and abuse of detainees in U.S. military custody, the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights First charged today in the first federal court lawsuit to name a top U.S. official in the ongoing torture scandal in Iraq and Afghanistan that has tarnished America's reputation.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Illinois on behalf of eight men who were subject to torture and abuse at the hands of U.S. forces under Secretary Rumsfeld's command. The parties are seeking a court order declaring that Secretary Rumsfeld's actions violated the U.S. Constitution, federal statutes and international law.
"Secretary Rumsfeld bears direct and ultimate responsibility for this descent into horror by personally authorizing unlawful interrogation techniques and by abdicating his legal duty to stop torture," said Lucas Guttentag, lead counsel in the lawsuit and director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project. "He gives lip service to being responsible but has not been held accountable for his actions. This lawsuit puts the blame where it belongs, on the Secretary of Defense."
The groups are joined as co-counsel in the lawsuit by Rear Admiral John D. Hutson (Ret. USN), former Judge Advocate General of the Navy; Brigadier General James Cullen (Ret. USA), former Chief Judge (IMA) of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals; and Bill Lann Lee, Chair of the Human Rights Practice Group at Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, LLP and former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Department of Justice. Admiral Hutson and General Cullen are "of counsel" to Human Rights First.
"Since Abu Ghraib, we have vigorously campaigned for an independent commission to investigate U.S. policies that have led to torture and cruel treatment of detainees. These calls have gone unanswered by the administration and Congress, and today many of the illegal polices remain in place," said Michael Posner, Executive Director of Human Rights First. "We believed the United States could correct its policy without resort to the courts. In bringing this action today, we reluctantly conclude that we were wrong."
The men represented in the lawsuit were incarcerated in U.S. detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they were subjected to torture and other cruel and degrading treatment, including severe and repeated beatings, cutting with knives, sexual humiliation and assault, mock executions, death threats, and restraint in contorted and excruciating positions. None of the men were ever charged with a crime. All have been released.
"One of the greatest strengths of the U.S. military throughout our history has been strong civilian leadership at the top of the chain of command," said Admiral Hutson. "Unfortunately, Secretary Rumsfeld has failed to live up to that tradition. In the end, that imperils our troops and undermines the war effort. It is critical that we return to another military tradition: accountability."
In legal papers, the groups charged Secretary Rumsfeld with violations of the U.S. Constitution and international law prohibiting torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment. The lawsuit also seeks compensatory damages for the harms suffered as a result of torture and other abuse.
According to the complaint, Secretary Rumsfeld "authorized an abandonment of our nation's inviolable and deep-rooted prohibition against torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees in U.S. military custody." The complaint further charges that brutal and illegal interrogation techniques were personally approved by Secretary Rumsfeld in December 2002. Those techniques included the use of "stress positions," 20-hour interrogations, the removal of clothing, the use of dogs, isolation, and sensory deprivation.
Although some of these techniques were later rescinded, Rumsfeld personally approved a new list in April 2003, which included dietary manipulation, sensory deprivation and "false flag" (leading detainees to believe that they have been transferred to a country that permits torture). He also made clear that harsher techniques could be used with his personal authorization.
"Human rights law and military rules prohibit torture at all times and in every circumstance, a principle that applies to the highest commander as well as the lowest subordinate," said co-counsel Lee, the former Justice Department official.
Official government reports have documented many horrific abuses inflicted on detainees in U.S. custody. They have shown that the abuse was ongoing and was not limited to the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. The ACLU and other advocacy groups have obtained over 23,000 pages of documents concerning abuses through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, online at http://www.aclu.org/torturefoia. As these documents indicate, the FBI began to complain about the interrogation techniques used by the military on detainees in Guantanamo as early as 2002, techniques that spread to Afghanistan and Iraq. Media reports have also brought many disturbing incidents to light, including the deaths of detainees in custody.
The ACLU and Human Rights First have created a detailed timeline of the various actions that Secretary Rumsfeld took and the points at which he was informed of the abuses that resulted, online at http://www.aclu.org/rumsfeld and http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/lawsuit.
"The effects of Rumsfeld's policies have been devastating both to America's international reputation as a beacon of freedom and democracy, and to the hundreds, even thousands of individuals who have suffered at the hands of U.S. forces," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero.
Details about the clients in the case can be found in the legal complaint and in individual biographical statements online at http://www.aclu.org/rumsfeld and http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/lawsuit. Due to safety and privacy concerns, the individuals named in the complaint are not currently available for interview.
The ACLU has also filed three similar complaints against Colonel Thomas Pappas, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski and Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez on behalf of the torture victims who were detained in Iraq. These three additional complaints were filed in federal courts in Connecticut, South Carolina and Texas, respectively, due to court requirements regarding jurisdiction.
The case is Ali et al., v. Rumsfeld, filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Illinois. In addition to Guttentag, Adm. Hutson, Gen. Cullen, Posner and Lee, the attorneys in the case are: Steven R. Shapiro, Cecillia Wang, Amrit Singh and Omar Jadwat of the ACLU; Deborah Pearlstein and Fiona Doherty of Human Rights First; Chimene I. Keitner and Nirej S. Sekhon of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP; Paul Hoffman of Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris & Hoffman LLP; Erwin Chemerinsky of Duke University School of Law; David Rudovsky of Kairys, Rudovsky, Epstein & Messing LLP; and Harvey Grossman, Legal Director of the ACLU of Illinois.
All counsel are representing the plaintiffs on a pro bono basis.