Military Decision Makers Immune from Personal Liability, Rules US Court

An American federal appeals court has ruled that two American whistle-blowers cannot sue Donald Rumsfeld for alleged torture.  The court found that individuals along the chain of military command are immune from liability in cases like this one.

Donald Vance and Nathan Ertel claim they were imprisoned and tortured by the US military in 2006 after they reported that the Iraqi-owned company they worked for was illegally running guns.  Their lawsuit argues that since Rumsfeld personally approved methods of interrogation used by the US military, he should be held responsible for what happened to Ertel and Vance during their several weeks of detainment.

In a majority ruling, the Court of Appeal found that holding those up the chain of military command liable would expose them to fault for the actions of their subordinates.  The bureaucracy is simply too vast to hold the Secretary of Defense liable for the actions of the more than one million soldiers under his command.  This is an instance of the classic ‘floodgates’ argument – if Ertel and Vance’s lawsuit were to be successful, what other suits might follow?

The court’s ruling establishes sweeping immunity all the way up the military chain of command.  The  decision essentially ensures that even the president and his or her cabinet will be protected from liability in military decisions after they leave office.  Rumsfeld’s lawyer, David B. Rivkin, says the ruling ensures that decision makers can effectively deal with national security issues “without having to worry they will be sued for decisions they made after they leave office.”

The majority opinion also added that the ruling allows decision makers to remain fully independent and engaged with their office, instead of worrying about how the actions of their subordinates may affect their personal pocketbook in the future.

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