‘Frivolous lawsuit’ irks Pentagon

The Pentagon expressed concern yesterday about a “frivolous” complaint filed against Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld by a leftist group that is using a new German law that claims the right to investigate war crimes anywhere in the world.

The reaction was in response to a Nov. 30 lawsuit filed in Berlin by the Center for Constitutional Rights, whose founders include liberal activist William Kunstler.

The New York-based center filed the German complaint against Mr. Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials on behalf of four Iraqis who, the complaint says, were abused by U.S. guards at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

“Generally speaking, these cases are of concern, these frivolous lawsuits filed by activist groups on behalf of people making very unsubstantiated charges and probably not able to be substantiated charges,” Larry Di Rita, chief Pentagon spokesman, said in an interview yesterday. “These kind of frivolous lawsuits are troubling.”

Mr. Di Rita said the Pentagon has raised the issue with the State Department.

“State is engaged in this,” he said. “Obviously, it’s something that we’re focused on and very concerned with and are going to pursue with purpose to make sure this does not become part of a pattern.”

German-U.S. relations have been strained over the Iraq war, which the Berlin government adamantly opposed.

The Pentagon’s concerns resemble a dispute last year between Mr. Rumsfeld and another NATO country, Belgium. Mr. Rumsfeld traveled to Brussels for a NATO meeting and used the visit to bluntly chastise Belgium for a law that has made the nation a favored venue for accusations of war crimes against American leaders.

Lawyers cited Belgium’s law to file a number of lawsuits, including one against retired Gen. Tommy Franks, who commanded the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein. Previously, a complaint was filed against former President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.

Activists also filed cases against former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Mr. Rumsfeld said the law could force U.S. officials to shun NATO headquarters in Brussels. He also threatened to block funding for a new NATO building.

“We will have to seriously consider whether we can allow our civilian and military officials to come to Belgium,” Mr. Rumsfeld said at a news conference last year.

As the lawsuits and complaints piled up, Belgium gutted the law.

Republicans in Washington take a dim view of U.S. service members being subjected to international courts, fearing that anti-U.S. groups will use such courts as a vehicle to carry out a vendetta against American forces throughout the world.

On a global scale, President Bush has refused to submit a treaty to the Senate that would make Washington a party to a new International Criminal Court.

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