Former Attorney General John Ashcroft violated the rights of U.S. citizens in the fevered wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when he ordered arrests on material witness warrants when the government lacked probable cause, a federal appeals court said in a scathing opinion Friday.
In a ruling that said Ashcroft could be sued for prosecutorial abuses, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the former attorney general immunity from liability for his misuse of the material witness warrants in national security investigations.
The panel, all appointees of Republican presidents, said they found the detention policy Ashcroft authorized “repugnant to the Constitution, and a painful reminder of some of the most ignominious chapters of our national history.”
Rights advocates cheered the ruling in the case brought by Kansas-born Muslim convert Abdullah Al-Kidd, saying it spotlighted excesses committed by the Bush administration in the post-9/11 scramble to thwart terrorist plots.
The ruling could allow Al-Kidd’s suit for damages to proceed to trial, if the government doesn’t appeal to a larger 9th Circuit panel or seek Supreme Court review.
Al-Kidd, a former University of Idaho running back whose birth name was Lavoni T. Kidd, sued Ashcroft after he was arrested at Dulles International Airport en route to a Saudi scholarship program in March 2003. He was handcuffed, strip-searched and shuttled among interrogations in Virginia, Oklahoma and Idaho, before being released 16 days later and ordered to surrender his passport and live with his wife and in-laws in Nevada.
The arrest led to Al-Kidd’s being denied a security clearance and losing his job with a government contractor.
In his 2005 complaint, Al-Kidd noted that then-FBI Director Robert Mueller, in an appearance before a congressional subcommittee during Al-Kidd’s detention, had pointed to his arrest and that of confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as evidence of government progress in reining in terrorists.
“To this day, the government has never explained why the director of the FBI would tell the United States Congress that the arrest of Mr. Al-Kidd – supposedly a witness – represented one of the government’s noteworthy recent successes in the war on terrorism,” the complaint stated.