DC Court Confirms That Government Agents Can Abuse US Citizens' Rights With Impunity If They Leave The Country
from the the-problem-is-that...-no-one's-ever-told-them-'no' dept
Your rights as an American citizen are null and void if you happen to be outside the nation’s borders when those rights are violated. That’s the gist of a ruling handed down by the DC district court last Friday.
A federal court on Friday dismissed an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit on behalf of a U.S. citizen who was illegally detained and mistreated by American officials in three east African countries in 2007. After fleeing unrest in Somalia, New Jersey resident Amir Meshal was arrested, secretly imprisoned in inhumane conditions, and harshly interrogated by FBI agents over 30 times before ultimately being released without charge four months later.
The ACLU had argued that Meshal’s Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights were violated by these FBI agents, but the court has found that there’s no legal recourse available for Meshal. It even admitted that the allegations, along with the legal questions the decision itself raises, are “deeply troubling.” Unfortunately, the district court finds itself unable to do anything more than dismiss the case.
The defendants have moved to dismiss his case, alleging that even if Mr. Meshal’s allegations are true, he has no right to hold federal officials personally liable for their roles in his detention by foreign governments on foreign soil.
Except that it wasn’t just foreign governments. It also involved US FBI agents who operated extraterritorially, operating in an area where they had no true legal authority to pursue or detain suspects. Any imprisonment was courtesy of local governments in three East African nations. The alleged torture, however, was All-American.
Despite it being held that Americans are not stripped of their rights when they leave the country, the court finds that earlier precedent finds in favor of the government thanks to the always-useful evocation of “national security” and “terrorism.” (The FBI agents believed Meshal was connected with al-Qaeda.)
[I]n the past two years, three federal courts of appeals, including the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, have expressly rejected a Bivens remedy for citizens who allege they have been mistreated, and even tortured, by the United States of America in the name of intelligence gathering, national security, or military affairs.
The decision notes that courts have been reluctant to insert themselves in matters of national security, either in terms of military detainment or actions resulting from executive orders. This court is no different, although Judge Emmet Sullivan at least has the modicum of decency to note how truly screwed up this whole situation is.
The facts alleged in this case and the legal questions presented are deeply troubling. Although Congress has legislated with respect to detainee rights, it has provided no civil remedies for U.S. citizens subject to the appalling mistreatment Mr. Meshal has alleged against officials of his own government. To deny him a judicial remedy under Bivens raises serious concerns about the separation of powers, the role of the judiciary, and whether our courts have the power to protect our own citizens from constitutional violations by our government when those violations occur abroad.
This is another win for the unsavory side of our government, which uses fear of terrorism as an excuse for all sorts of malfeasance and overreach. Rather than buck precedent, Judge Sullivan cites and follows, creating even more precedent that will make attempts to reverse this trend less and less likely.
As it stands now, the government need only claim it suspects you of terrorism to treat you however it wants once you leave the relative safety of the United States. No one is allowed to question actions performed under the color of national security. The State knows best and if you try to challenge its actions, you’ll find that route has been blocked by bad precedent set in deference to executive branch FUD.
The ACLU completely understates its opinion of this ruling.
“It is a sad day for Mr. Meshal and for all Americans, who have a right to expect better of their government and their courts than immunity for terrible government misconduct.”
Oh, we certainly have the right to expect better. We just don’t have any way of demanding it. That decision currently lies in the hands of legislators, a group that has also shown an appalling tendency to defer to national security fearmongering. Judge Sullivan knows this is terribly wrong but can’t find a way to get out from under bad precedent. Here’s hoping judges in the future can do better.