Secrecy News

US to Detainee: The Government “Regrets Any Hardship”

In an unusual gesture, the U.S. Government last week apologized to Abdullah al-Kidd, a U.S. citizen who was arrested in 2003 and detained as a material witness in connection with a terrorism-related case.

Mr. Al-Kidd, represented by American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt, challenged his detention as unconstitutional and inhumane. Now the case has been settled, with an official apology and a payment of $385,000.

“The government acknowledges that your arrest and detention as a witness was a difficult experience for you and regrets any hardship or disruption to your life that may have resulted from your arrest and detention,” wrote U.S. Attorney Wendy J. Olson in a January 15 letter.

This sort of admission of regret is rare. The government apologizes much less frequently than it perpetrates injuries that are inappropriate or unwarranted. So, for example, the recent Senate report on post-9/11 CIA interrogation practices noted that at least 26 individuals had been “wrongfully detained.” But legal attempts to recover damages are typically foreclosed by courts based on “separation of powers, national security, and the risk of interfering with military decisions.”

Why not apologize and compensate those who have been abused and mistreated, starting with those individuals who by all accounts are innocent of any wrongdoing? It would be the just and honorable thing to do, both for the intelligence community and for the country. And it would be most powerful (and most “therapeutic”) if the IC undertook this step at its own initiative, rather than waiting to be compelled by others.

“Personally I agree,” a senior U.S. intelligence community legal official said privately, “for the reasons you say and some others. [But] getting it done is a lot harder.”

And so it is. Even as it apologized to Abdullah al-Kidd, the U.S. Government insisted on a stipulation that the settlement of the case “is not, is in no way intended to be, and should not be construed as, an admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States.”