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Court ruling could protect top Bush officials from terror lawsuits

The Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a suit holding FBI Director Robert Mueller and former Attorney General John Ashcroft responsible for wrongful detention of Muslims after 9/11.

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Kennedy used his opinion to poke holes in the Iqbal complaint. Discrimination is not the most plausible explanation for many of the government's actions, he said. "On the facts respondent alleges the arrests Mueller oversaw were likely lawful and justified by his nondiscriminatory intent to detain aliens who were illegally present in the United States and who had potential connections to those who committed terrorist acts," he wrote.

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"The complaint does not show, or even intimate, that petitioners purposefully housed detainees in [harsh prison conditions] due to their race, religion, or national origin," he wrote.

"All it plausibly suggests," Kennedy added, "is that the nation's top law enforcement officers, in the aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack, sought to keep suspected terrorists in the most secure conditions available until the suspects could be cleared of terrorist activity."

Systematic mistreatment?

Many of the allegations in Iqbal's suit are consistent with the findings of an April 2003 report by the Department of Justice's Inspector General. The report criticized officials for establishing a system that punished detainees and treated them as guilty until proven innocent. The report said that many Muslim men were held under harsh conditions on baseless leads that the FBI took months to investigate and disprove.

The suit alleges systematic mistreatment, including being held 23 hours-a-day in a solitary-confinement cell with the windows painted over and the lights always on. Iqbal was given minimal bedding. The air conditioning was run in the winter, the heat turned on in the summer. He was subject to daily strip and body-cavity searches. The guards once forced him to submit to three consecutive body-cavity searches in a row. When he protested a fourth search, he was punched and kicked by the guards. By the time he was released, he'd lost 40 pounds.

Lawyers for Ashcroft and Mueller challenged their inclusion in the lawsuit, saying they had no personal involvement in the alleged mistreatment and no knowledge of Iqbal.

The complaint identified Ashcroft as a "principal architect" of the harsh detention policy and said that Mueller was instrumental in adopting and carrying out the policy.

Lawyers for Ashcroft and Mueller countered that Iqbal had failed to identify specific facts demonstrating their direct, personal involvement in the alleged unconstitutional actions.

A federal judge refused to dismiss the suit, permitting the initial stages of discovery to move forward. A panel of the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York upheld that decision.

In reversing the Second Circuit on Monday, the high court remanded the case to allow the lower courts to decide whether to permit Iqbal to file a new, more precise complaint.

Kennedy was not entirely dismissive of Iqbal's complaint. "Respondent's account of his prison ordeal could, if proved, demonstrate unconstitutional misconduct by some government actors," he said. But he added that the current pleadings were insufficient with respect to Ashcroft and Mueller.

Joining Kennedy's majority opinion were Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito.

In addition to Souter, Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer dissented.