Can Ex-Detainee Sue Ashcroft, Mueller?

Supreme Court to weigh future of Pakistani man's alleged abuse case.

WASHINGTON, Dec. 10, 2008— -- Bush administration lawyers will go to the Supreme Court today and argue that top government officials such as FBI Director Robert Mueller and former Attorney General John Ashcroft cannot be sued in their personal capacity by former detainees alleging mistreatment in the days and months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The case stems from claims by Javaid Iqbal, a Muslim Pakistani who says he was beaten and abused in a Brooklyn jail after 9/11.

He is suing Mueller and Ashcroft, among others, claiming they approved of policies that led to his alleged mistreatment.

Iqbal claims he was detained solely because of his race and his religion and was kept in solitary confinement, in a constantly lit, freezing cell. He says he was beaten and strip-searched.

Iqbal was picked up in November 2001 and was later transferred for 150 days to a maximum security unit within the jail . He was held as a detainee of "high interest" and later pleaded guilty to charges of document fraud. After serving his sentence he was sent back to Pakistan.

When he returned to Pakistan, he decided to file suit in the U.S. courts system. A lower court dismissed many of Iqbal's original claims, but allowed his case to proceed.

The government has appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, arguing that high-ranking officials -- like Mueller and Ashcroft -- have a "qualified immunity" from such lawsuits. Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine meant to protect government officials from liability for civil charges if their actions don't violate clearly established law.

In court papers, the government says that after 9/11, more than 4,000 FBI special agents and 3,000 support personnel were assigned to work on the investigation of the attacks.

"This case arises from the government's response to an unprecedented national-security crisis," government lawyers write, when officials "headed the largest investigation in American history."

Qualified Immunity

The government argues that high government officials are entitled to "qualified immunity" from damage suits because "there is a strong public interest in protecting public officials from the costs associated with the defense of damage actions."

Qualified immunity, the government argues, "ensures that able candidates for government office are not deterred from entering public service by the threat of damages suits."

The case has attracted the attention of several former government officials who have filed a brief in support of the government.

In their court papers, attorneys for former Attorney generals William Barr, Edwin Meese, Richard Thornburgh, Benjamin Civiletti and Griffin Bell write, "The qualified immunity doctrine is designed to ensure that public officials can carry out their governmental functions without fear that their time and reputations will later be squandered by vexatious lawsuits brought by those wishing to second-guess their good-faith decisions."