In unusual move, human rights groups sue Rumsfeld and others for abuse of prisoners.
Human rights organizations are attempting to take accountability for the US military's alleged use of torture to a place government officials have so far failed to go - the top of the chain of command.
In a case that raises significant moral as well as legal questions about the Bush administration's conduct of the war on terror, a coalition of human rights groups, aided by former military officials, is suing to pin blame for the interrogation abuses in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere at the highest level of government.
Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights First filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Illinois on behalf of eight men who they say were subjected to torture and abuse by US forces under the command of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
"Secretary Rumsfeld bears direct and ultimate responsibility for this descent into horror by personally authorizing unlawful interrogation techniques and by abdicating his legal duty to stop torture," says Lucas Guttentag, lead counsel in the lawsuit and director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project. "He gives lip service to being responsible but has not been held accountable for his actions. This lawsuit puts the blame where it belongs, on the secretary of Defense."
The suit charges Mr. Rumsfeld with violations of the US Constitution and international law prohibiting torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment. The lawsuit also seeks compensatory damages on behalf of the eight individuals allegedly tortured and abused by US military forces.
Although a civil case, it is building on a legal doctrine of holding top officials accountable for treatment of detainees in times of war, according to Scott Horton, chairman for the committee on international law at the New York City Bar Association. The legal rationale is rooted in the Nuremberg trials of 1946, he says, in which top officials were held responsible for establishing an "environment" permissive of abuse.