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Federal Appeals Court: US Citizens Can’t Sue FBI Agents For Torture Abroad

A federal appeals court decision effectively grants FBI agents involved in terrorism investigations abroad immunity from lawsuits, which allege torture or other constitutional rights violations.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Amir Meshal, an American citizen who was detained and tortured by FBI agents in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, and declined to permit Meshal to pursue damages for what he endured.

According to the federal appeals court [PDF], allowing Meshal to pursue damages would extend Bivens into a new context: the “extraterritorial application of constitutional protections.”

Bivens is a case that created precedent for bringing cases against federal government officials. However, courts have been extremely reluctant to allow plaintiffs to pursue damages when a case may set a precedent or lead to a court intruding upon national security and foreign policy matters.

In Meshal’s case, U.S. agents and foreign officials are accused of working together. A decision would pass judgment on officials working under a “foreign justice system.” Such “intrusion,” the appeals court claimed, could have diplomatic consequences.

The appeals court quoted prior cases and stated:

Allowing Bivens suits involving both national security and foreign policy areas will “subject the government to litigation and potential law declaration it will be unable to moot by conceding individual relief, and force courts to make difficult determinations about whether and how constitutional rights should apply abroad and outside the ordinary peacetime contexts for which they were developed.” Even if the expansion of Bivens would not impose “the sovereign will of the United States onto conduct by foreign officials in a foreign land,” the actual repercussions are impossible to parse. We cannot forecast how the spectre of litigation and the potential discovery of sensitive information might affect the enthusiasm of foreign states to cooperate in joint actions or the government’s ability to keep foreign policy commitments or protect intelligence. Just as the special needs of the military requires courts to leave the creation of damage remedies against military officers to Congress, so the special needs of foreign affairs combined with national security “must stay our hand in the creation of damage remedies. [emphasis added]

Or, more succinctly, the appeals court claims “special factors counsel hesitation” in allowing Meshal to pursue “money damages.”

The appeals court additionally determined Meshal’s citizenship did not override these “special factors.”

In issuing this decision, the appeals court leaves the issue of remedies for torture to Congress or the Supreme Court and makes it virtually impossible for torture survivors to pursue justice when their rights are supremely violated.

Meshal is Detained Incommunicado, Threatened with Transfer to Israel

Meshal was in the Horn of Africa when, on January 24, 2007, Kenyan soldiers captured and interrogated him. He was “hooded, handcuffed and flown to Nairobi, where he was taken to the Ruai Police Station and questioned by an officer of Kenya’s Criminal Investigation Department” and was told that the police had to “find out what the United States wanted to do with him before he could send him back to the United States.” He remained in detention without access to a telephone or his attorney for a week, according to the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia’s decision.

On February 3, “three Americans,” who turned out to be FBI agents, interrogated Meshal and told him he would be handed over to the Kenyans and remain stuck in a “lawless country” if he did not cooperate. The agents also accused him of “having received weapons and interrogation resistance training in an al Qaeda camp.” Supervising Special Agent Chris Higgenbotham, one of the officials sued, threatened Meshal with being transferred to Israel where the Israelis would “make him disappear.” Meshal was informed that another U.S. citizen he had met in Kenya, Daniel Maldonado, who was also seized by Kenyan soldiers, “had a lot to say about” him and his story “would have to match.”

Meshal was flown by Kenyan officials to Somalia with twelve others on February 9. He was “detained in handcuffs in an underground room with no windows or toilets,” which was referred to as “the cave.” This was allegedly to prevent pressure from Kenyan courts to halt his detention and interrogation by FBI agents.

About a week later, Meshal was transported in handcuffs and a blindfold to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He was held there in incommunicado detention for a week before Ethiopian officials started regularly transporting him to a villa with other prisoners where he could be interrogated by FBI agents. He remained in detention for three months and was moved into solitary confinement twice.

Finally, on May 24, he was taken to the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa and flown back to the U.S. He was detained for four months and lost eighty pounds. US officials never charged him with a crime.

Appeals Court Skeptical of US Secrecy Arguments (But That Didn’t Matter)

Although the U.S. government did not invoke the “state secrets privilege,” it put forward a “laundry list of sensitive issues” that would allegedly be implicated if Meshal was able to pursue a lawsuit against FBI agents.

The government claimed it would involve “inquiry” into “national security threats in the Horn of Africa region,” the “substance and sources of intelligence,” and whether procedures relating to counterterrorism investigations abroad “were correctly applied.” Also, the government insisted it would require discovery “from both foreign counterterrorism officials, and U.S. intelligence officials up and down the chain of command, as well as evidence concerning the conditions at alleged detention locations in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya.”

The appeals court appropriately asked in their decision, “Why would an inquiry into whether the defendants threatened Meshal with torture or death require discovery from U.S. intelligence officials up and down the chain of command? Why would an inquiry into Meshal’s allegedly unlawful detention without a judicial hearing reveal the substance or source of intelligence gathered in the Horn of Africa?”

“What would make it necessary for the government to identify other national security threats?” the court additionally asked.

Despite recognizing the unfounded basis for claims about how the lawsuit would risk disclosure of sensitive information, the appeals court chose to be overly cautious and dismiss the case as the government urged.

Appeals Court Overlooks Affidavit from Former FBI Agent

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the suit on behalf of Meshal, obtained an affidavit from former FBI Agent Donald Borelli, who unequivocally made clear FBI agents are expected to follow the U.S. Constitution when in territories abroad.

“The FBI’s longstanding commitment to respect the Constitution—including when it acts abroad in respect of U.S. citizens—reflects and implements the long established rule that the Constitution applies to and constrains U.S. government action against U.S. citizens abroad,” Borelli maintained.

In fact, Borelli cited a Supreme Court decision in 1957 involving two U.S. citizens, “who were tried and convicted by court-martial based on allegations they murdered service member spouses on U.S. military bases.”

From the Supreme Court’s ruling:

At the beginning we reject the idea that when the United States acts against citizens abroad it can do so free of the Bill of Rights. The United States is entirely a creature of the Constitution. Its power and authority have no other source. It can only act in accordance with all the limitations imposed by the Constitution. When the Government reaches out to punish a citizen who is abroad, the shield which the Bill of Rights and other parts of the Constitution provide to protect his life and liberty should not be stripped away just because he happens to be in another land. This is not a novel concept. To the contrary, it is as old as government. It was recognized long before Paul successfully invoked his right as a Roman citizen to be tried in strict accordance with Roman law.

Citizens like Meshal are supposed to have protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, however, the lower courts are unwilling to check the power of the Executive Branch. They have chosen to wait until the Supreme Court or Congress acts and that gives someone like Meshal an exceedingly small chance of ever winning justice.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."