U.S. military officials who engaged in ordering or carrying out the torture of individuals in custody can now rely upon an across-the-board legal defense that protects them from being sued for committing what amounts to an international crime, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling on Monday.

The court affirmed an earlier ruling by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which held in 2012 that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld could not be sued for personally approving torture techniques used against prisoners held during the Bush administration's terror war.

The earlier ruling was so broad that it applied to all military officials, including the individuals who carried out torture. The Supreme Court rejected an appeal of that ruling on Monday without comment, solidifying the lower court's opinion that military officials are immune to civil lawsuits over torture.

The lawsuit sprang from the internment of two Americans, Donald Vance and Nathan Ertel, who worked for an Iraqi-owned contractor in occupied territory. Vance reported the contractor, Shield Group Security, to the FBI in 2006 for allegedly running illegal guns and trading U.S. troops booze for ammunition.

Shortly after filing that report, Vance and Ertel were arrested and placed in a U.S. military prison in Baghdad, then subjected to torture techniques that proponents, like the Seventh Circuit Court, preferred to call "harsh interrogation" methods. Both men were ultimately released without charge after about three months.

An earlier ruling by the Seventh Circuit Court let the lawsuit progress, and was hailed by The New York Times as "courageous." That preliminary finding was overturned in November by Chief Justice Frank H. Easterbrook, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, who worried that giving the Secretary of Defense "a financial stake in the conduct of interrogators" might somehow damage national security.


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