Military coversup detainee homocide
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Monday, Nov. 14, 2005
Haunted by "The Iceman"
By ADAM ZAGORIN / WASHINGTON
Military Police at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison dubbed him the Iceman; others used the nickname Mr. Frosty. Some even called him Bernie, after the character in the 1989 movie Weekend at Bernie's, about a dead man whose associates carry him around as if he were still alive. The prisoner is listed as Manadel al-Jamadi in three official investigations of his death while in U.S. custody, a death that was ruled a homicide in a Defense Department autopsy. Photographs of his battered corpse -- iced to keep it from decomposing in order to hide the true circumstances of his dying -- were among the many made public in the spring of 2004, raising stark questions about America's treatment of enemy detainees. For most of the horrors shown in those Abu Ghraib photographs, there has been some accounting. Although no officers were court-martialed, a soldier who held a prisoner on a leash got three years in prison; another who repeatedly hit detainees got 10 years. But those prisoners were held by members of the military, which has a relatively transparent system of punishing errant behavior. Al-Jamadi was a prisoner of the far more secretive CIA. That fact, for the moment, leaves unanswered the questions, If he was the victim of a homicide, who killed him? And will there be a trial?
Some clues as to how al-Jamadi died are contained in hundreds of pages of records of three inquiries into al-Jamadi's death conducted by the CIA, Army and Navy. While the documents, obtained by TIME, suggest a story more of recklessness than of outright savagery, the way al-Jamadi's death was handled after the fact raises questions about whether the CIA is under adequate legal oversight. This comes at a time when the government is hotly debating what restrictions to place on how U.S. security forces treat enemy detainees. Republican Senator John McCain has pushed through the Senate an amendment that would ban "torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" by any U.S. personnel, a measure President Bush has threatened to veto. Vice President Dick Cheney is lobbying to exempt the CIA from the amendment.
Al-Jamadi's story begins on the night of Nov. 4, 2003, when Navy Seals abducted him from his family's tiny apartment in a rundown Baghdad suburb. The CIA wanted to interrogate him because he was suspected of harboring two tons of high explosives and being involved in the bombing of a Red Cross center in Baghdad that killed 12 people. By the time the Seals overcame his violent resistance and dropped him off at Abu Ghraib as a "ghost detainee"--an unregistered prisoner--al-Jamadi had suffered damage to his left eye and facial cuts. He had also been roughed up in a way that may account for the fact that the autopsy revealed six broken ribs. His injuries, which the autopsy concluded could not have caused his death, did not prevent him from walking into the prison handcuffed and shackled, answering questions in English and Arabic.
The prisoner was then taken to a shower room, where his arms were pulled behind his back and shackled to window bars, forcing him to stand erect. Wearing an empty sandbag over his head, he was interrogated by a CIA officer identified in last week's issue of the New Yorker as Mark Swanner, who is not a covert operative. Roughly 90 minutes later, al-Jamadi was dead. One of the MPs who unshackled al-Jamadi's body from the window testified that blood gushed from his mouth and nose like "a faucet had turned on," flowing onto the floor where his hood now lay. The autopsy ruled that al-Jamadi's death was brought on by "blunt-force injuries" and "asphyxiation." Cyril Wecht, coroner of Allegheny County, Pa., and past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, examined the autopsy report and other records of the investigations and says, "The most likely cause of death was suffocation, which would have occurred when the sandbag was placed over Jamadi's head, as his arms were secured up and behind his back, constricting breathing." Swanner told investigators he did not harm the prisoner.
Investigators for the military and CIA were meticulous in probing al-Jamadi's death, conducting lengthy interviews with CIA operatives, prison guards and medical staff. One of the obstacles they ran into, however, was the absence of a key piece of evidence, the green, bloodstained nylon sandbag that hung over al-Jamadi's head. It was removed from the scene of his death and later disposed of by a CIA unit chief who supervised interrogators. CIA investigators wrote that in interviews months later, the unit chief maintained that "he did not think there was anything of importance on the hood," despite a "pancake-size" patch of blood that stained it. The investigators wrote that the officer said that "normally at the end of a mission he would throw used hood[s] out ... he thinks he just threw the hood in the trash" and that he might have said, "We don't want people picking it up and making jokes about it." The unit chief said in a military legal proceeding that he had undergone training in forensic science.
There were possible improprieties in the way the death scene was handled at Abu Ghraib. After al-Jamadi died, according to the documents, the blood that gushed from his mouth was mopped up and the floor cleaned with a chlorine-based solution by an MP on orders from a superior before the scene could be examined by any investigator. "You've got a real problem if anything on or near the body at death cannot be identified, photographed and examined for what it explains about the cause and who, if anyone, might be responsible," says Wecht, referring to the blood and the missing hood. The spokesman of a federal law-enforcement agency involved in the inquiries says, "If evidence is missing, there's no question that you would have to consider obstruction, tampering or charging someone as an accessory after the fact."
Two sources, including a U.S. government official, told TIME that when the CIA first interviewed Swanner, he withheld the fact that he had taken pictures of the corpse. It was only after another witness disclosed that fact that the pictures were obtained as evidence.
So far in the case, the Navy has imposed administrative penalties on eight members of the Seal team that abducted al-Jamadi; the team leader was court-martialed but found innocent of abuse and other charges. The CIA referred al-Jamadi's death to the Justice Department, which has spent months reviewing the case and considering whether to bring criminal charges against anyone and had no comment. Swanner has not been charged with any crime and continues to work for the CIA.
Al-Jamadi's demise deeply unsettled his captors, according to the investigations. The guard who first determined that the prisoner was no longer alive told CIA agents, "This guy's dead--it's on you." Another guard later said the agents "didn't know what the hell to do." A CIA employee reported being told by a colleague to "keep his mouth shut about the incident and not say anything about it in e-mail." When Abu Ghraib's military-intelligence commander showed up, a witness heard him say, "I'm not going down for this alone." To avoid roiling the other prisoners and prevent decomposition of the body, al-Jamadi's corpse was iced down and held in the interrogation room overnight. The next day, wrapped in a body bag, covered with a blanket and with an intravenous tube taped to his arm, al-Jamadi was spirited out of Abu Ghraib as if he were merely an invalid. The location of his remains has not been made public.