The Center for Constitutional Rights announced today that it was suing Iraq contractors CACI and Titan under the RICO racketeering law for violations relating to the torture at Abu Ghraib. This is the first time any private contractor has been threatened with legal punishment for the torture their employees oversaw, largely because Bush signed an executive order declaring that no private American company working for the US govt in Iraq could be held responsible, legally, for anything it did that may have contravened either domestic or international law.
Racketeering charges may seem like a stretch but hang in there for a minute: CCR is basically arguing that RICO is relevant because the companies engaged in patently illegal activities for the purpose of making money–precisely what RICO forbids.
CACI and TITAN are publicly traded corporations that provide interrogation and translation services to U.S. government agencies. According to the complaint, beginning in January 2002, and continuing to the present, the two companies began providing services ranging from interrogation and interpretation to intelligence gathering and security. The complaint reveals that both companies were increasingly dependent on government contracts for revenue. Titan, for example, developed a unit known as “National Security Solutions,” which added 21 percent to its revenue growth in 2003.“We believe that CACI and Titan engaged in a conspiracy to torture and abuse detainees, and did so to make more money,” said Susan Burke of Montgomery, McCracken, Walker and Rhoads, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “It is patently clear that these corporations saw an opportunity to build their businesses by proving they could extract information from detainees in Iraq, by any means necessary. In doing so they not only violated a raft of domestic and international statutes but diminished America’s stature and reputation around the world.” (emphasis added)
In other words, the assumption here is that the Bush Admin had made it clear to the companies that if they didn’t get the information that was wanted, by whatever means necessary, their contracts would be in jeopardy and they would lose a fifth of their revenue–or more. Faced with the choice of losing business or breaking the law to keep it, CCR is arguing, CACI and Titan made a deliberate corporate decision to break the law, bringing RICO into force.
It’s a brilliant legal strategy in a way because it could force the companies to defend themselves by admitting that the BA pressured them into illegal activity and that they had government approval of their tactics. It’s also a dicey legal strategy because unless the companies provide proof of such pressure in their defense, a direct connection between company business decisions and govt policy is going to be hard to prove in court.
To make it as easy as possible for the companies to mount such a defense, and to provide evidentiary support for its own position, CCR has obtained a copy of the internal Pentagon report outlining the new rules on torture.
CCR President Michael Ratner stated, “This memo and others show there was planning far up the chain of command to torture detainess; the atrocities at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere cannot be swept under the rug by going after low-level soldiers. Apparently highly placed U.S. officials were willing to approve interrogation methods that violate every convention on torture the United States has ever signed. But they needed to find cover for their actions and a defense to possible criminal prosecution. Government lawyers writing this report wildly distorted the law in an effort to exempt officials from potential criminal prosecution.”
A pdf. facsimile of the full Pentagon report is available here.
This suit is bound to run head-on at some point into the question of whether or not Bush had the authority to declare American companies legally untouchable for any illegal activities in which they may have taken part while carrying out their contracts. In this connection, the Bush directive looks like little more than the equivalent of a DA on the Mafia payroll telling his attorneys that no matter what the Mafia did, it was not to be prosecuted. Such an order would have the appearance of making Mafia activities exempt from prosecution but the order itself would be illegal. Imagine that that DA had requested that illegal activity, making the directive a device to cover his own ass, and the metaphor is complete.
I don’t know how far these guys are going to get with this suit, but one certainly hopes they get as far as calling into serious question the power of the US president to place himself above the law just by issuing an order that says he is.
(Tip courtesy of MoJo)