lawyer leads a fight to right abuses in Iraq
Susan L. Burke was irked two years ago after
reading an article about the interrogation of suspected terrorists. The
Philadelphia lawyer was particularly piqued by a comment attributed to an
"If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the
time, you probably aren't doing your job," the Washington Post quoted
the U.S. official as saying.
Concerned that the U.S. military was torturing detainees in
Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Burke began researching legal means to
force the government to toe the line. She enlisted the help of some
associates, along with a team of University of Pennsylvania law students.
Burke now heads a seemingly unlikely alliance dedicated to
righting the wrongs of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.
"It sounds like an easy legal question, but it's legally
difficult," said Burke, 42, a partner at the old-line firm of
Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads. The big hurdle was how to
challenge the government, which is immune from most lawsuits.
A crack appeared in the government's legal armor this spring when
the Abu Ghraib scandal erupted. Reports implicated interrogators employed
by private contractors, which have less legal protection from lawsuits
than the government itself.
Six weeks later, Burke led a group of lawyers from four states in
filing a federal class-action suit against CACI International of
Arlington, Va., and Titan Corp. of San Diego, contractors who supplied
interrogators and translators at the Abu Ghraib prison.
"Our lawsuit really alleges a conspiracy," Burke said.
"We're essentially focusing on the government acting in cahoots with
these private parties."
Titan and CACI have denied any involvement in illegal acts.
"The suit alleges a plethora of heinous acts that the company rejects
and denies in their totality," CACI said in a statement.
The lawsuit has raised some eyebrows in the legal world, partly
because it relies upon the Alien Tort Claims Act, a law employed by
human-rights activists to sue corporations for abuses abroad.
It also generated some discomfort at Burke's Center City law firm.
"At first you think - cool, who can be for torture?"
said Stephen A. Madva, chairman of the 70-partner firm. But some partners
worried that the firm might be portrayed as standing on the wrong side of
the war on terror.
In the end, the partners gave their support to Burke.
"She's not an opportunist, not a media hound," said
Madva, who also called her "a heat-seeking missile."
Burke's team now comprises a venerable Philadelphia law firm, a
prominent New York human-rights organization, and student researchers at
the Penn law school. The group also includes an Egyptian American lawyer
in Michigan whose clients include many victims of the alleged abuse.
"It's very much a cooperative, collaborative arrangement -
let's just get these wrongs redressed," Burke said. "In a large
case like this, you need a lot of people just to review boxes and boxes of
Susan J. Feathers, Penn law school's assistant dean who heads its
Public Service Program, said the students would function as a
"background research team" for Burke.
"It's pretty exciting stuff to be working on this, such
cutting-edge litigation," said Feathers, whose program helps students
fulfill a requirement to perform public-interest work.
Burke comes to the lawsuit from an unusual angle. After spending
much of her career in Washington defending health-care companies, she
moved to Philadelphia in 2002 to head Tenet Healthcare Corp.'s regional
law office. The administrative job did not suit her, and she left after
less than a year to return to work as a litigator.
The daughter of an Army artillery officer, Burke has been involved
with human-rights organizations such as Amnesty International since
attending Catholic University of America School of Law.
"There's nothing really unique in my background," she
said. "I've always felt this way. I think any right-minded person
should feel this way. Shouldn't we all be against torture?"
Looking for allies, Burke contacted the Center for Constitutional
Rights in New York this year. The nonprofit organization, which
specializes in civil liberties litigation, pioneered the use of lawsuits
against abuses committed overseas.
At the time, the center's lawyers were working on behalf of
prisoners detained at Guantanamo Bay. Its resources were stretched thin,
so it welcomed Burke's offer to help.
"This is a major case," said Michael Ratner, the
center's president. "We couldn't have done it on our own."
After photographs from Abu Ghraib were broadcast in April, the
lawsuit's target shifted to Iraq. The lawyers found a wealth of
information in reports on Abu Ghraib by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, which
said CACI and Titan employees participated in the abuses.
The Taguba report was the first to comprehensively document
conditions at Abu Ghraib, citing "numerous incidents of sadistic,
blatant and wanton criminal abuse." The Taguba report accused a CACI
employee of instructing military police to use unauthorized interrogation
techniques - allegations that CACI denies.
The suit, filed in Titan's hometown of San Diego, accuses the two
companies of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations
Act (RICO), alleging they engaged in a range of "heinous and illegal
acts" to obtain more contracts from the government.
The suit also alleges violations of the Alien Tort Claims Act, an
18th-century law that has been used in recent decades by foreign nationals
to sue American companies for violations that occurred overseas.
Conservative commentators have argued for limiting claims under the act,
saying the law is being abused to the detriment of American business.
The suit contains numerous allegations collected from Iraqis by
Shereef Hadi Akeel, a Michigan lawyer originally from Egypt. Like Burke,
he had gone to the center in New York earlier in the year seeking to form
The allegations are graphic: Iraqis allege they were beaten,
kicked, stripped, raped, urinated upon, and set upon by dogs. One says he
was forced to watch as his father was killed.
Haidar Muhsin Saleh, a Swede of Iraqi origin, alleges he left Iraq
after Saddam Hussein's police imprisoned and tortured him in Abu Ghraib -
only to be arrested, robbed, imprisoned and tortured upon his return last
Though the suit repeats allegations contained in the Taguba
report, it does not specifically allege that individual Titan and CACI
employees actually abused the prisoners. Burke says the lawyers will find
evidence during discovery.
In denying the accusations, CACI has threatened to bring sanctions
against the lawyers, accusing them of bringing a frivolous lawsuit.
Burke is dead serious.
"People have been tortured," she said. "We want to
get them redress and... we want to get it done quickly, so that they
understand that America as a whole does not condone this. This can do a
lot to restore the credibility of the United States."