Convicted Al Qaeda operative Jose Padilla is seeking to hold former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and 59 other US officials responsible for what his lawyers say were abusive and unconstitutional tactics used against Mr. Padilla while he was held in military custody as an enemy combatant from 2002 to 2006.
Lawyers working on Padilla's behalf filed the civil lawsuit earlier this year in federal court in South Carolina. It was publicly disclosed by the lawyers this week.
"Mr. Padilla suffered gross physical and psychological abuse at the hands of federal officials as part of a scheme of abusive interrogation intended to break down Mr. Padilla's humanity and his will to live," the 30-page complaint says.
"The grave violations suffered by Padilla were not isolated occurrences by rogue lower-level officials," the suit says. Besides Mr. Rumsfeld, it names Defense Secretary Robert Gates, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and former Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lowell Jacoby, among others, who "personally ordered and/or approved Mr. Padilla's detention and interrogation program."
Last week, Padilla was found guilty by a Miami jury of conspiring with Al Qaeda to engage in violent jihad. Federal prosecutors said he attended a training camp in Afghanistan. He faces a potential life sentence in prison.
Some analysts have pointed to Padilla's conviction as vindication of the Bush administration's alleged harsh treatment of him at the US Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C., prior to his transfer to the criminal justice system in early 2006. But other analysts say that regardless of the guilty verdict in Miami, significant constitutional and other legal issues surrounding Padilla's treatment by the military remain unresolved.
Chief among them is whether a US citizen, like Padilla, who was arrested on American soil, can be stripped of most of his constitutional rights while being held in military custody and interrogated as an enemy combatant. Padilla was held at the brig for 43 months.
According to the court docket, a Justice Department lawyer is representing each of the named defendants. Andrew Ames, a Justice Department spokesman, said the government would have no comment on the pending case.
The defendants have been ordered to respond to the suit by Oct. 15.
A Defense Department spokesman also offered no specific response to the lawsuit, but repeated earlier statements that all detainees in the war on terror are treated humanely.
Padilla's lawyers are asking US District Judge Henry Floyd to declare Padilla's treatment in the brig unlawful and in violation of the Constitution. They are also asking the judge to award damages of $1 against each of the potential 60 defendants.
Although Padilla's lawyers are not asking for millions of dollars in damages, the case raises landmark constitutional issues dealing with the scope of the president's power as commander in chief to sweep aside many of the constitutional rights of citizens whom he determines are enemy combatants. The suit is also significant because it is the only means available of subjecting Padilla's military detention to the independent scrutiny of the federal judiciary.
"This is the American people's last chance to know what happened behind the closed doors in Charleston, and the last chance for a court to determine if what happened is consistent with our Constitution and values," says Jonathan Freiman, one of Padilla's lawyers who also works with the National Litigation Project at Yale Law School.
Unlike the Abu Ghraib scandal, which has involved the prosecution of a few low-level individuals, the Padilla lawsuit seeks to hold the chain of command accountable. In addition to cabinet-level officials, it seeks to identify and hold accountable key brig staff members, military and other government lawyers, medical and psychological staff members, brig guards, and Padilla's interrogators. Most of the prospective defendants have not yet been identified by name in the suit.
Padilla was subjected to sleep deprivation, stress positions, prolonged isolation, and sensory deprivation, among other interrogation techniques, the suit says. "These procedures were calculated to and actually did disrupt profoundly his senses and personality," the complaint says. It was done to "destroy Mr. Padilla's ordinary emotional and cognitive functioning and break his will, in order to extract information from him and punish him."
The government held Padilla for two years without any outside contact, including with his lawyers. When that policy changed, government officials warned Padilla not to reveal any conditions of his confinement to his lawyers. They told Padilla that his lawyers were not trustworthy and were actually working for the government, the suit says.
If true, this would amount to a government effort to undermine the ability of Padilla's lawyers to learn of Padilla's actual conditions of confinement and effectively challenge them in court.
Padilla was denied access to mental health care, the complaint says. Military officials "deliberately caused Mr. Padilla to undergo extreme psychiatric stress without providing any psychiatric care," the suit says. They denied this access even after Padilla's lawyers reported "signs of psychiatric distress in Mr. Padilla, such as involuntary twitching, and self-inflicted scratch wounds on his body."
The suit also says that two years into his military detention brig staff grew so concerned about Padilla's psychological distress from his prolonged isolation that they asked for permission to at least allow him to eat his meals with another prisoner. The request was denied.
One major hurdle for Padilla's civil suit is whether the government will ask Judge Floyd to dismiss it on grounds that any open-court discussion of Padilla's interrogation and treatment in the brig would reveal state secrets.
Legal analysts are divided on whether a judge would throw out Padilla's case should the government invoke the so-called state secrets privilege. A lawsuit filed by a German citizen mistakenly held and interrogated in secret locations overseas by the Central Intelligence Agency was dismissed on those grounds by a federal judge in Virginia. In March, the action was upheld by the Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals, which also has jurisdiction over cases in South Carolina. That case has been appealed to the US Supreme Court.