Bush White House turns its back on Gulf War vets

The Supreme Court represents the last chance for a group of Gulf War POWs to be compensated for their suffering at Saddam's hands. The Bush administration wants the case thrown out.

Published April 22, 2005 11:00PM (EDT)

A case brought by Gulf War veterans who were imprisoned and tortured by Saddam Hussein's regime in 1991 arrived before the U.S. Supreme Court Friday, and it has the potential to set a significant precedent. The group of veterans was awarded almost a billion dollars in damages by a federal district judge in 2003, but the Bush administration intervened, arguing that the Emergency Wartime Supplemental Appropriations Act of April 2003 gave the President the right to have the suit dismissed. The idea was that the newly liberated Iraq could no longer be held accountable for Saddam's crimes (and, from the perspective of an otherwise free-spending White House, couldn't afford to lose big money). Commenting on the case not long after the U.S. military took Baghdad, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said, "These resources are required for the urgent national security needs of rebuilding Iraq."

Last year, the U.S. District Court of Appeals in Washington sided with the Bush administration and dismissed the veterans' case. The court didn't throw out the case on the basis of the Bush administration's arguments, per se, but ruled that, according to its interpretation of the law, the POWs do not have the right to sue the state of Iraq -- only specific officials, employees and agents.

So far, nobody outside the White House appears to agree with the district court's finding against the POWs -- in fact, a number of legal groups (subscription required), including the conservative Washington Legal Foundation, have filed amicus briefs insisting that the veterans do have the right to sue Iraq. These groups, along with the attorneys for the POWs, argue that, under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, states that sponsor terror can be sued for damages and held liable just as individual officials and agents can. Because the U.S. government declared Iraq a terror state in 1990, they say, Iraq can be held liable for its 1991 war crimes.

The veterans' attorneys also argue that this case isn't just about the POWs -- if the district court's ruling stands, it will set a precedent preventing all other torture victims from filing suit against a foreign state.

Stamping out torture at the hands of brutal regimes has proven to be anything but one of this administration's authentic priorities. Nevertheless, last year Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued for compensation for victims of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. "I am seeking a way to provide appropriate compensation to those detainees who suffered grievous and brutal abuse and cruelty at the hands of a few members of the U.S. military," Rumsfeld told a Senate committee after the scandal erupted.

"It is the right thing to do," he said.

So why should the Bush administration, which professes to support U.S. troops and acknowledges the need to compensate torture victims from other countries, apply a different standard for its very own war heroes? According to a report in the L.A. Times earlier this year, a lawyer for the POWs said that they were willing to settle the case for "pennies on the dollar" -- but that lawyers for the U.S. government refused even to discuss a settlement.

The Supreme Court, which will soon decide whether to hear the case, "Acree v. Republic of Iraq and United States of America," represents the veterans' last resort. If the court does decide to preside over it, maybe Rummy would be willing to testify -- and to clear up the Bush administration's hypocritical stance on compensating the victims of state-sponsored torture.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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