The Obama administration has picked the worst possible case for its first torture trial.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Dec. 14 2009 6:38 PM

Torture Roulette

The Obama administration has picked the worst possible case for its first torture trial.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Click image to expand.
Waleed bin Attash and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

For close to a year now, the Obama administration has been playing judicial Whac-a-Mole over accountability for Bush administration torture policies. Each time an opportunity arises to assess the legality of Bush-era torture, the Obama administration shuts it down. When another case pops up, the administration slaps it down. This all started last February when the Justice Department invoked the alarming "states secrets" privilege in an effort to shut down an ACLU lawsuit against Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen DataPlan Inc. for its role in Bush's "extraordinary rendition" program. (That case will be reheard at the 9th Circuit tomorrow).

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

Since then, Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department has worked tirelessly to shutter or pre-empt torture litigation in cases ranging from a civil suit against former Bush lawyer John Yoo filed by Jose Padilla, (in which the Obama administration has now taken the position that Justice Department lawyers' advice on torture issues should have absolute immunity from lawsuits) to shifting its position on the release of torture photos.

Advertisement

This morning, and with the blessing of the Obama administration, the Supreme Court declined to revisit an appeals court ruling dismissing a lawsuit filed by four British citizens released from Guantanamo in 2004. The men sued former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and 10 military officials for alleged acts of torture and religious abuse. The Obama Justice Department urged the court not to hear the appeal, claiming the lower court got it right when it determined, among other things, that Guantanamo detainees were not "persons" for purposes of American law and that "torture is a foreseeable consequence of the military's detention of suspected enemy combatants." Lawyers for the detainees asked the court to hear the appeal because, "[l]eft in place, the court of appeals' decision will be a final assertion of judicial indifference in the face of calculated torture and humiliation of Muslims in their religion."

No luck. That means today yet another path to accountability for government-sanctioned torture was blocked at the starting gate. To be clear, it's not that torture victims are losing these trials. They can't even find their way into a courtroom. And, time after time, it's the Obama administration barring the door.

In a conference call with reporters late last week, ACLU lawyers pointed out that, as of this month, not a single torture victim has had his day in court, and that no court has yet ruled on the legality of the Bush-era torture policies. Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's National Security Project, put it bluntly: "On every front, the [Obama] administration is actively obstructing accountability. This administration is shielding Bush administration officials from civil liability, criminal investigation and even public scrutiny for their role in authorizing torture." Jaffer added that "The Bush administration constructed a legal framework for torture. Now the Obama administration is constructing a legal framework for impunity."

There's been a good deal of speculation as to why the Obama administration has worked so hard to keep courts from scrutinizing Bush-era torture policies. In its pleadings, the Justice Department continues to take the position that courts shouldn't usurp executive authority over national defense. But the practical effect of this effort will be to ratify such policies and the legal architecture that supports them. As Scott Horton explains, "the path to a renewal of the criminal misconduct of the Bush years is being prepared right now. And Obama Justice Department lawyers are doing the work." Christopher Anders, ACLU senior legislative counsel, also noted in last week's conference call that because the statute of limitations for prosecuting torture is eight years, those pushing for accountability will begin to bump up against the stature for acts committed in 2002 as soon as this spring.

There's one other practical result of foreclosing every possible effort to litigate the legality of torture: The Khalid Sheikh Mohammed trial in New York will now become the only forum in which we consider it. That possibility is already being used by Dick Cheney, Rudy Giuliani, and other torture cheerleaders to discredit the New York trials. The Obama stance on torture litigation has only strengthened their argument.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.