Last week, as Barack Obama warned that a threatened Koran barbecue in Florida might spark a wave of anti-American violence, his administration was quietly celebrating a court victory tied to equally incendiary actions that have more seriously sullied America’s reputation in recent years.
In a six-to-five ruling last Wednesday, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco rejected a lawsuit against Jeppesen Dataplan, a Boeing subsidiary accused of knowingly assisting in the transport of CIA prisoners to be tortured in other countries.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought the case on behalf of five former prisoners, who claim they were tortured by intelligence agents in Afghanistan, Egypt and Morocco after being delivered there by CIA planes reliant on Jeppesen’s logistical support.
The Ninth Circuit’s majority said that it dismissed the case (which was earlier approved for advancement by a three-judge panel) because forcing Jeppesen into court would create “an unacceptable risk of disclosure of state secrets”.
Dissenting judges scoffed at that reasoning. They argued that throwing out the case buried all relevant non-secret evidence as well (such as a former Jeppesen worker’s willingness to testify about “torture flights”).
Allegations made by the case’s lead plaintiff, Ethiopian citizen Binyam Mohamed (who now lives in Britain), are widely-known in the UK, where he’s part of a lawsuit alleging British Government complicity in the torturing of US-controlled prisoners.
However, the Ninth Circuit’s ruling means that the gruesome details of the abuse Mohamed claims to have suffered during his seven-year captivity (including interrogators slicing open his penis to pour a stinging liquid inside) won’t soon be beaming from TV sets across America.
And, given the conservative majority on the US Supreme Court, it’s highly unlikely that the ACLU’s appeal of the ruling will succeed.
The big winner in all this is the office of the US President, which has had its executive authority in secretive matters greatly buttressed — no doubt to the |great satisfaction of hawks |within the administration who |espouse more aggressive counter-terrorism tactics.
Amidst the media frenzy surrounding Pastor Terry Jones’ nutty Koran escapades, the Ninth Circuit ruling hadn’t a prayer of topping the news agenda last week.
But, unlike Jones’ attention-seeking ‘spectacular’, the Ninth’s ruling is no flash-in-the-pan event.
By expanding the sphere in which state secrets can be evoked (from areas such as nuclear weapons technology, to scenarios where US agents stand accused of human rights abuses), the Ninth’s ruling could profoundly impact American democracy.
Ben Wizner, the ACLU lawyer who argued the plaintiffs’ case, said that, if the Supreme Court ultimately upholds the Ninth Circuit’s judgment, “the United States will have closed it courts to torture victims while providing complete immunity to their torturers”.
As furious as many Muslims around the world were at Terry Jones’ threatened Koran-burning gimmick, his self-aggrandising stunt will soon fade away.
By contrast, the Ninth Circuit’s ruling signals that, however well-intentioned any given Oval Office occupant may claim to be, the architecture of America’s burgeoning security infrastructure will continue to terraform the country’s political landscape for many years to come.