WASHINGTON — Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cannot be tried on allegations of torture in overseas military prisons, a federal judge said Tuesday in a case he described as “lamentable.”
U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan threw out a lawsuit brought on behalf of nine former prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said Rumsfeld cannot be held personally responsible for actions taken in connection with his government job.
The lawsuit contends the prisoners were beaten, suspended upside down from the ceiling by chains, urinated on, shocked, sexually humiliated, burned, locked inside boxes and subjected to mock executions.
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights First had argued that Rumsfeld and top military officials disregarded warnings about the abuse and authorized the use of illegal interrogation tactics that violated the constitutional and human rights of prisoners.
Hogan appeared conflicted during arguments last year. On one hand, he said he was hesitant to allow allegations of torture to go unheard. On the other hand, he said the case was unprecedented.
“This is a lamentable case,” Hogan began his 58-page opinion Tuesday.
No matter how appealing it might seem to use the courts to correct allegations of severe abuses of power, Hogan wrote, government officials are immune from such lawsuits. Additionally, foreigners held overseas are not normally afforded U.S. constitutional rights.
“Despite the horrifying torture allegations,” Hogan said, he could find no case law supporting the lawsuit, which he previously had described as unprecedented.
Allowing the case to go forward, Hogan said in December, might subject government officials to all sorts of political lawsuits. Even Osama bin Laden could sue, Hogan said, claiming two American presidents threatened to have him murdered.
“There is no getting around the fact that authorizing monetary damages remedies against military officials engaged in an active war would invite enemies to use our own federal courts to obstruct the Armed Forces’ ability to act decisively and without hesitation,” Hogan wrote Tuesday.
Had the Rumsfeld lawsuit been allowed to go forward, attorneys for the ACLU might have been able to force the Pentagon to disclose what officials knew about abuses such as those at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and what was done to stop it.
“The court ruled that innocent civilians tortured by the United States cannot seek recourse in the federal courts to hold responsible U.S. officials legally liable,” said ACLU attorney Lucas Guttentag. “We believe that the law and Constitution require more, and that the former secretary of defense must be held accountable for his policies that led to this abuse.”
The Justice Department had no immediate comment.
Hogan also dismissed the charges against other officials named in the lawsuit: retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, former Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski and Col. Thomas M. Pappas.
Karpinski, whose Army Reserve unit was in charge of the Abu Ghraib prison, was demoted and is the highest-ranking officer punished in the scandal. Sanchez, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, retired from the Army and said his career was a casualty of the prison scandal.