The DC Appeals Court has just come to an unfortunate conclusion: because terrorism exists, your rights as a citizen will not be upheld if you travel outside of the United States. This summary of the case is from Lawfare's David Ryan, whose article claims this is a "victory" for the DOJ, rather than a loss for the American public.
The plaintiff, Amir Meshal, is a U.S. citizen and resident of New Jersey. According to the allegations in his complaint, he traveled to Somalia in 2006 to broaden his understanding of Islam, but fled to Kenya soon after because of violent unrest. In January 2007, a joint U.S.-Kenyan-Ethiopian law enforcement operation apprehended him and transported him to Nairobi. Over the next four months, the defendants allegedly violated Meshal’s Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights by secretly detaining and interrogating him, threatening him with torture and death, denying him access to counsel, and moving him across the borders of three African countries without legal process. The FBI eventually released Meshal, and the U.S. never charged him with any crime.
Meshal sued the FBI for violating his rights, bringing a Bivens action
against the involved agents. This action is supposed to remedy unlawful searches and seizures that occur during criminal investigations. Meshal's case, however, raised previously-unaddressed issues. First, Bivens
has never been applied to extraterritorial incidents. Second, the tort -- while addressing actions taken during criminal investigations -- has never been raised in the context of criminal investigations with national security implications. Because of this, the court (somewhat reluctantly) found
that Meshal could not seek damages under Bivens.
As we understand it, the Supreme Court has taken a case-by-case approach in determining whether to recognize a Bivens cause of action. We therefore need not decide, categorically, whether a Bivens action can lie against federal law enforcement officials conducting non-terrorism criminal investigations against American citizens abroad. Nor do we decide whether a Bivens action is available for plaintiffs claiming wrongdoing committed by federal law enforcement officers during a terrorism investigation occurring within the United States. Our holding is context specific.
Unfortunately, this means Meshal cannot seek redress under any existing judicial precedent.
Once we identify a new context, the decision whether to recognize a Bivens remedy requires us to first consider whether an alternative remedial scheme is available and next determine whether special factors counsel hesitation in creating a Bivens remedy. See Wilkie, 551 U.S. at 550.
Meshal has no alternative remedy; the government does not claim otherwise. See Meshal, 47 F. Supp. 3d at 122 (“The parties agree that Mr. Meshal has no alternative remedy for his constitutional claims.”). Meshal, backed by a number of law professors appearing as amici curiae, argues that, when the choice is between damages or nothing, a Bivens cause of action must lie. The Supreme Court, however, has repeatedly held that “even in the absence of an alternative” remedy, courts should not afford Bivens remedies if “any special factors counsel[ ] hesitation.”
The lower court, along with the dissent in this decision, finds this situation unsatisfactory. But as the appeals court sees it, the lack of a remedy for the violation of Meshal's rights under these specific circumstances is a problem that must be solved by other government entities
There are no definitive answers to these competing visions of congressional action. We are not foreclosing either interpretation, but in a case where the thumb is heavy on the scale against recognizing a Bivens remedy, uncertain interpretations of what Congress did in 1973 and 1988 cannot overcome the weight of authority against expanding Bivens. In any event, if the courts, as amici argue, have radically misunderstood the nature and scope of Bivens remedies, a course correction must come from the Supreme Court, which has repeatedly rejected calls for a broad application of Bivens. Because we follow its lead, we will ship our oars until that Court decides the scope of the remedy it created.
If people like Meshal are to have recourse to damages for alleged constitutional violations committed during a terrorism investigation occurring abroad, either Congress or the Supreme Court must specify the scope of the remedy.
The court doesn't appear thrilled with the conclusions it has reached. "Our hands are tied" decisions are seldom satisfactory, especially for plaintiffs.
The dissenting opinion -- written by Judge Cornelia Pillard -- points out just how bizarre the court's conclusion is.
Had Meshal suffered these injuries in the United States, there is no dispute that he could have sought redress under Bivens. If Meshal’s tormentors had been foreign officials, he could have sought a remedy under the Torture Victim Protection Act. Yet the majority holds that because of unspecified national security and foreign policy concerns, a United States citizen who was arbitrarily detained, tortured, and threatened with disappearance by United States law enforcement agents in Africa must be denied any remedy whatsoever.
But the decision stands. And for the DOJ, it means its agencies will have a lot of leeway in the handling of US citizens it detains in other countries. Americans' rights are effectively nullified if the detainment is declared to be in the interest of national security. The majority opinion -- while dismissing Meshal's case -- states its sympathy for his situation and agrees that US citizenship has "inherent value." Unfortunately, its conclusion here appends a national security asterisk to that assertion, furthering the notion that civil liberties should nearly always grant the right of way
to the War on Terror.