1-27-2012By Melina Milazzo
Pennoyer Fellow, Law and Security Program
Today, the U.S. government exercised moral leadership when it argued before a full panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that private military contractors who commit torture should not be immune from civil suits.
The companion cases—Al Shimari v.CACI and Al-Quraishi v. Nakhla—were brought by 76 Iraqis who allege they were tortured and abused by U.S. private military contractors at Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-run prisons in Iraq. Among the alleged heinous acts: electric shocks, repeated brutal beatings, sleep and sensory deprivation, forced nudity, stress positions, sexual assault, mock executions, humiliation, hooding, isolated detention, and prolonged hanging by the limbs.
CACI International, Inc. and L-3 Services, Inc.—contracted to provide interrogation and interpretation services at Abu Ghraib—argued that they should be immune from civil suit. They relied on a “battlefield preemption” theory created by the D.C. Circuit in Saleh v. Titan, which held that where a civilian contractor engages in combat activities under the command of the military, a tort claim arising out of the contractor’s engagement is preempted.
On September 21, 2011, a 2-1 majority of the Fourth Circuit panel adopted that position, but in November the ruling was vacated so that a full panel could hear the case. Today, the full panel heard oral arguments from both parties as well as the U.S. government, which was invited by the Court to express its views.
In its brief, the United States says it has “significant federal interests at stake: ensuring that state-law tort litigation does not lead to second-guessing military judgments, protecting the primacy of existing tools for the government to regulate the conduct of contractors working on behalf of the United States (especially where civilian contractors work alongside service members in the military’s conduct of combat-related activities), and ensuring that military detention operations are conducted in a manner consistent with humane treatment obligations and the laws of war, and ensuring that contractors are held accountable for their conduct by appropriate means.” (emphasis added).
Taking all its interests into account, the U.S. government concludes that in circumstances where contractors have committed torture, they should not be immune from civil suits. By taking this position, not only does the United States meet its international human rights and law of war obligations but also advances its own interests. Specifically, it protects U.S. troops and civilians accompanying them abroad and bolsters national security.