RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – A contractor hired to interrogate Iraqi detainees for the U.S. military lost a ruling in its defamation case against Air America and talk-radio host Randi Rhodes over Rhodes’ statements blaming the contractor for Abu Ghraib prison abuses. The 4th Circuit affirmed dismissal of CACI Premier Technology and CACI International’s defamation claim, ruling that the statements were protected by the First Amendment, either because they were not made with actual malice or because they were rhetorical hyperbole.
A prominent vocal opponent of the war in Iraq, Rhodes closely followed the Abu Ghraib scandal on “The Randi Rhodes Show.”
“What you saw were contractors getting their hands dirty,” Rhodes said on an Aug. 25, 2005, broadcast. “Contractors getting their hands bloodied. Contractors were the ones that were actually doing the bad stuff, but what you have in Iraq was an Executive Order … that said there was no law in Iraq.”
She told a caller the next day, “Yeah, don’t call them contractors, call them what they are, they’re hired killers. They’re mercenaries.”
She backed up her criticism of CACI’s alleged role in the prison torture by reading two official military reports, news articles and a journalist’s speech. For example, a report made public in 2004 found that CACI and other contractors were responsible for “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” inflicted on Abu Ghraib detainees.
According to the ruling, Major Gen. Antonio Taguba documented numerous acts of abuse, including “using unmuzzled military dogs to frighten … (and) to bite detainees; breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on the detainees; positioning a naked detainee on a box with a sandbag on his head and attaching wires to his fingers, toes and penis to simulate electrical torture; and having sex with a female detainee and threatening male detainees with rape,” among others.
The judges considered this and other sources in concluding that Rhodes’ statements were not defamatory. Judge Michael said the actual malice standard “offers broad protection for the media commentator who is critical public officials or public figures responsible for war-related activities. Such a commentator must simply ‘maintain a standard of care such as to avoid knowing falsehood or reckless disregard of the truth.'”
CACI is a public figure, Michael said, because it played a prominent role at Abu Ghraib, and because it provided civilian interrogators.
“CACI surely knew when it accepted the interrogation work that it was potentially exposing itself to the inhospitable climate of media criticism – criticism that could be emboldened by the actual malice standard,” Michael wrote.
The court determined that other statements were constitutionally protected as “exaggerated rhetoric intended to spark the debate about the wisdom of the use of contractors in Iraq.”