By now, most readers are familiar with the wide-sweeping Patriot Act and a bevy of other laws and regulations that have granted to the U.S. Government and Military wide-sweeping powers and immunities. Now it appears that the government’s power and authority is beginning to stretch even further. In recent days the U.S. Court of appeals denied two American citizens, the right to sue former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for alleged tortures and abuses relating to a whistle-blower case. This decision reverses the landmark 1971 Supreme Court ruling, entitled “Belvins”, which states that U.S. government officials can be sued for torturing U.S. citizens, even in a warzone.
For those unfamiliar with the case, it revolves around two whistle-blowers, Donald Vance and Nathan Ertel, who had previously worked for Shield Group Security in Iraq. During their work the two men discovered that Shield Group was involved in a range of illegal dealings, including the sale of American firearms to militant groups and terrorists. Among other tactics, Shield Group allegedly smuggled booze into Iraq and traded it with soldiers for weapons.
The men approached the FBI with information and became informants. At some point, however, Shield Group’s management became suspicious and seized their travel documents. With no where left to turn, the two men asked the U.S. Embassy for help. The Embassy sent a team to “rescue” the men and brought them back to the Embassy to stay overnight. When Vance and Ertel awoke, however, they were blind folded and shipped to Camp Cropper, the same military facility that once held Saddam Hussein.
The two men were then subject to brutal treatment. They were left to freeze in intentionally over air-conditioned rooms with no blankets or other coverings and were exposed to up to twenty hours a day of painfully loud rock music. These tactics result in extreme discomfort and sleep deprivation. The two men also allege that their interrogators slammed them into walls. Further, Vance and Ertel were refused access to a lawyer and were held without being charged.
Interestingly, both Vance and Ertel were cooperating with the FBI at the time, and the FBI even informed the military that the two were FBI informants. Unfortunately this brought them no relief. To be clear, it does not appear that the military tortured them for blowing the whistle, but instead because officials believed that Vance and Ertel were a part of the developing scandal.
Ertel would be cleared of wrong-doing after being held for approximately one month. Even after he was cleared of wrong doing, the military held Ertel for an additional 18 days without informing him of their decision. Vance, on the other hand, would spend a total of 97 days in detention before finally being released. Upon release both men were pressured to keep quiet about their incarceration.
The above scenario, if true, clearly demonstrates the violation of numerous civil rights, including the right to due process, right to an attorney, and right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. An on-going legal debate centers around whether or not U.S. citizens are extended these rights and protections from the U.S. government while overseas. Many legal experts and judges have argued, however, that there are no legal grounds to unduly revoke American citizen’s their Constitutional rights, even if they are overseas.
So far the Obama Administration, along with the Bush administration before it, has argued against the extension of such rights in war zones and against the United States military. According to the Obama administration, the necessities of war and the pressures exerted on the U.S. military make it essentially necessary to suspend constitutional rights while overseas. While the Obama administration is correct in pointing out the realities of war, the stripping of any recourse for the violation of Constitutional Rights can be viewed as a serious challenge to the foundations of American society.
While the Executive Branch has generally been trending towards consolidating power in recent years, what is more surprising is that the U.S. Court of Appeals has essentially sided with the Obama administration. The 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago has ruled that Vance and Ertel can not sue Donald Rumsfeld, whom they argue should be held responsible as the ultimate leader of the U.S. military. This is especially shocking, given that the Supreme Court already ruled in the Belvins case that Americans could sue government officials when their rights are violated, even overseas.
Vance and Ertel seem to have little other recourse. Under United States law the Federal government is essentially granted immunity from being sued. While there are notable exceptions to immunity, torture is not one of them. So while two citizens may have had their Constitutional Rights violated, there appears to be few options for recourse, or obtaining justice. For a country that was founded on the principles of freedom from the tyranny of government, this is both sad and shocking news.