US defends its harsh treatment of an American citizen
The administration offers its legal rationale for the long detention of Jose Padilla.
US officials did not violate any clearly established constitutional rights when they held a US citizen in isolated military detention without charge for nearly four years and subjected him to harsh interrogation techniques.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
That's the legal position staked out by Justice Department lawyers who are urging a federal judge in Charleston, S.C., to dismiss a lawsuit filed on behalf of Jose Padilla against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and nine other current or former US officials. Mr. Padilla was held in military custody from 2002 to 2006 as a suspected Al Qaeda operative and enemy combatant.
The 55-page motion, filed this week, offers the first detailed defense of the government's aggressive treatment of Padilla during his three years and seven months in military custody. Padilla's suit says he endured isolation, stress positions, extreme cold, sleep deprivation, and reportedly was subjected to five months of severe sensory deprivation, including near total isolation from human contact.
Mental-health experts who have examined Padilla say the experience has left him with severe mental disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
Government lawyers made no reference to Padilla's diagnosed psychological problems. They told US District Judge Henry Floyd that such a lawsuit, if allowed to progress, would interfere with military decisionmaking, aid the enemy, and make the US more vulnerable to terrorist attack.
"It would be difficult to devise a more effective fettering of executive branch officials than to allow enemy combatants to trade a battlefield in Afghanistan for a battlefield in the US legal system," Barbara Bowens, civil chief of the US Attorney's Office in South Carolina, says in her brief.
After nearly four years in military custody, Padilla was transferred to the criminal-justice system in January 2006. He was convicted in August in a Miami terror-conspiracy trial and is set to be sentenced in December. An appeal is expected.
Although Padilla was placed on trial and convicted in Miami, no court has fully assessed the legality of Padilla's earlier detention and interrogation in military custody. Government lawyers say such an assessment is unwarranted.
"Padilla's designation, detention, and interrogation as an enemy combatant did not violate any clearly established constitutional rights," Ms. Bowens says in her brief.
"It cannot be said that there were any constitutional 'bright lines' applicable to Padilla's case which the [government] could be held liable for transgressing," Bowens writes.
The issue of "clearly established" rights is important because government officials are protected by immunity from such lawsuits even when rights may have been violated. They lose that immunity, however, if the violated rights are so obvious to a reasonable person that they are considered "clearly established."