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.
There are parallels to the situation in Germany, where the United States stations about 70,000 troops. In 2002, Germany enacted the Code of Crimes Against International Law. It grants German courts “universal jurisdiction,” or the power to hear war-crimes complaints regardless of where the war crimes are supposed to have taken place.
This law is the basis for the Center for Constitutional Rights’ picking Germany to file its complaint against Mr. Rumsfeld. Also named in the complaint are former CIA Director George J. Tenet; Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence; Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the former top commander in Iraq when abuses at Abu Ghraib occurred; and Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who ran the prison.
Under the German code, the country’s general prosecutor, who is akin to the U.S. attorney general, now must decide whether the case has merit and should be forwarded to the courts for a criminal investigation.
Asked to respond to Pentagon complaints, a spokeswoman at the German Embassy said, “German courts are independent of the government and this is an important part of a democratic system.
“Secondly, the international code of crimes deals with crimes against humanity and crimes punishable following international conventions,” she said on the condition of anonymity.
The spokeswoman also said that after the law took effect in 2002, a “handful” of complaints were filed and the general prosecutor rejected them all.
Center for Constitutional Rights President Michael Ratner personally filed the Rumsfeld complaint in Berlin.
“From Donald Rumsfeld on down, the political and military leaders in charge of Iraq policy must be investigated and held accountable,” Mr. Ratner said. “It is shameful that the United States of America, a nation that purports to set moral and legal standards for the world, refuses to seriously investigate the role of those at the top of the chain of command in these horrible crimes.”
The Pentagon has started a number of administrative and criminal investigations that have resulted in criminal charges against personnel who abused Iraqi detainees.
The center’s mission statement reads, “CCR uses litigation proactively to advance the law in a positive direction, to empower poor communities and communities of color, to guarantee the rights of those with the fewest protections and least access to legal resources, to train the next generation of constitutional and human rights attorneys, and to strengthen the broader movement for constitutional and human rights.”