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Portland attorney house searched without notice { May 25 2004 }

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Tuesday, May 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

FBI admits fingerprint error, clearing Portland attorney

By David Heath and Hal Bernton
Seattle Times staff reporters

A federal judge yesterday cleared Portland attorney Brandon Mayfield of ties to the Madrid train bombings after the FBI made the stunning admission that it erred when analyzing a copy of fingerprints.

Portland's FBI Special Agent in Charge, Robert Jordan, said the error, based on a "substandard" copy of the prints, will prompt the agency to review its guidelines for making identifications and ask an international panel of experts to analyze what went wrong.

He also apologized to Mayfield, a former Army officer and Muslim convert who was mistakenly arrested earlier this month as a material witness in the March 11 terrorist attack that killed 191 and wounded some 2,000.

"The FBI regrets the hardships that this has placed on Mr. Mayfield and his family," Jordan said.

Mayfield, 37, who appeared at a news conference with his family and his federal public defenders, said he was angry but was trying to "decompress."

"I am just two or three days out of the detention facility, and I'm just starting not to shake," said Mayfield, who was released Thursday. He was speaking about the case for the first time because U.S. District Judge Robert Jones lifted a gag order.

"I've been singled out and discriminated against, I feel, as a Muslim," Mayfield said.

U.S. Attorney Karin Immergut of Portland denied that Mayfield was targeted because of his religion. "I can assure you that is not true," she said.

The flawed case against Mayfield raises new concerns about the reliability of FBI procedures used in fingerprint forensic science. In making the link between Mayfield and a blue plastic bag containing detonators found near a Madrid train station, FBI officials relied on a digital copy of prints that Jordan said was of "substandard quality."

Only last weekend did two agents fly to Madrid to take a look at the original print that Spanish officials eventually linked to an Algerian with a criminal record.

"Why was a substandard image used to make a positive identification?" asked fingerprint expert Pat Wertheim, based in Arizona. "I'm sure the FBI will be doing a lot of soul-searching. A lot of us in the fingerprint profession will be waiting for the answer so that we can adopt measures to prevent a repeat of this tragic arrest."

The collapse of the Mayfield case also is providing ammunition to critics of the Bush administration's homefront handling of the war on terror. Mayfield was never charged with a crime but was arrested as a material witness with possible information about the Madrid bombing. The use of the material-witness statute has emerged as a controversial legal tactic in the war on terrorism, and Mayfield added his voice to the critics.

"There are other material witnesses languishing away," he said. "In my estimation, it's an abuse of the judicial process."

Court records released yesterday sketch the outlines of the investigative effort that led to Mayfield's May 6 arrest and two-week detention in the Multnomah County Jail. According to documents, Mayfield's prints were among the best 15 matches found by the FBI fingerprint computer, which holds the prints of some 45 million persons.

Those matches were then compared by FBI examiners to the digital image of a partial print sent by Spanish authorities, who concluded the print was a "100 percent identification" with Mayfield.

Once the FBI made its erroneous match, it then built up a case against Mayfield based, in part, on his legal work and associations in the Muslim community, records show.

Mayfield handled a child-custody case for Jeffrey Battle, a Portland-area Muslim who was arrested in October 2002 and eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy to wage war against the United States on the behalf of the Taliban. In asking for a search warrant of Mayfield, an FBI agent noted that Battle had described himself as "undercover" and "behind enemy lines" while living in America and once wanted to case synagogues in preparation for mass murder.

The agent included no evidence that Mayfield shared the views of his client, or ever contemplated any such action.

The case also was built, in part, on September 2002 telephone communications that Mayfield, or his wife, had with another Oregon Muslim, Peter Seda, the U.S. director of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation. Six offices of that global group have been designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the FBI said in the search warrant.

The government's willingness to pile such information into FBI affidavits angered Mayfield and his Portland attorney, Steve Wax.

"We think it is very troubling that that kind of innuendo and guilt by association was used," said Wax. "It is a terrible thing to do."

Mayfield said his case also raises questions about the Patriot Act, which the Bush administration has hailed as a key tool in terrorism investigations.

Mayfield said he suspected authorities had him under surveillance and entered his home in the days before his arrest under the "sneak and peek" search warrants allowed by the Patriot Act. Mayfield said he and his wife noticed that a deadbolt lock they don't use had been locked and found other signs that someone had been in their home.

Even as the FBI homed in on Mayfield, Spanish authorities were disputing the FBI's fingerprint analysis on the Madrid bag. The blue plastic bag containing detonators was found in a van parked near a train station.

An independent fingerprint expert cited by the FBI in court records appeared to bolster the agency's analysis.

But Mayfield's lawyer said the expert's report had cautions that were not included in the FBI's affidavit to get the Mayfield search warrants. The expert's report included such caveats as the quality of the print copy was poor and that the image possibly included an overlay of another print. The expert, Kenneth Moses, said it was important to see the original image to make a definitive identification, Wax said.

Immergut, the U.S. attorney, said the error was regrettable but that as soon as the misidentification came to light, federal authorities "moved immediately" to have Mayfield released.

The chronology of the FBI's mistaken identification of Mayfield can be seen in the dozens of pages of court documents released yesterday.

Within a week of the bombing, the FBI was provided with the fingerprint images by Spanish authorities.

FBI senior fingerprint examiner Terry Green entered one of the prints into the agency's fingerprint computer. Mayfield was among 15 persons returned as potential matches to the unknown suspect.

Green compared Mayfield's fingerprint card from his military service with the Spanish evidence and found 15 points in common. Green considered the match a "100 percent identification," documents show.

Green's supervisor, Michael Wieners, and retired FBI fingerprint examiner John Massey also verified the match.

"We don't know whether the second or third level of examination was done blind or done with knowledge of who he was," Wax said yesterday.

The Portland lawyer was not under federal investigation before March 18, records show. But after the identification, Portland FBI agents investigated him, searching news articles, travel records and telephone records.

In the search warrant seeking probable cause, federal agents noted the nationality of his wife, the former Mona Mohamed, and his representation of Jeffrey Battle, as well as his honorable discharge from active duty at Fort Lewis and his work as a second lieutenant in the ROTC.

The documents also show federal authorities learned that Mayfield had not left the country traveling under his own name and that his passport had expired in October 2003. The FBI did not find any aliases used by Mayfield, records show.

"People should wake up," Mayfield said yesterday. "You can't trade freedom for security, because if you do, you're going to lose both."

Seattle Times staff reporter Ken Armstrong contributed to this report. David Heath: 206-464-2136 or; Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or

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