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Ex-Sailor Sues Navy Officers Who Labeled Him a Spy

Military: Daniel King hopes to expose injustice in the service's interrogation practices, which he said led to his coerced confession and 520 days in the brig.

April 17, 2001|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Eighteen months ago, the Navy branded Daniel King a spy and threw him in the brig. On Monday, the accused turned accuser.

In a remarkable about-face, the once-disgraced petty officer first class has emerged as Exhibit A in a debate about the potential abuses of military-style justice, as his defense lawyers began seeking courts-martial for the officers who helped end his military career.

King, originally suspected of spying for Moscow because of his inconclusive answers on a routine polygraph test, was interrogated for hundreds of hours over a span of 29 days in the fall of 1999. Finally, after a marathon 19-hour session, the decorated sailor confessed to spying.

But he later recanted, saying he was so worn down by the interrogation that he didn't know fantasy from reality. Last month, a military hearing officer found that the case against King was so weak that it should be thrown out. After 520 days in the brig, King was a free man.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 18, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 Metro Desk 2 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Spy charges--The headline on a story Tuesday about a sailor cleared of espionage charges misstated the action his lawyers are taking against four Navy officers. Lawyers for former Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel King did not bring a lawsuit; they swore out charges alleging criminal violations as grounds for possible court-martial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

With the spy case dismissed, King's lawyers late Monday filed misconduct charges with the Navy, accusing four officers of dereliction of duty and violating the military code of justice because of their alleged mistreatment of King.

'One Big Nightmare' He's Hoping to End

At a time of heightened concern over espionage, the charges underscore the difficult balance in the military between protecting national security and protecting the rights of service members.

"This has all been one big nightmare. . . . I just want to make sure that what happened to me doesn't happen to any other sailors," said the 41-year-old King, a former code-breaker who now lives in a small Ohio town and works at his sister's doughnut shop.

King's military and civilian lawyers also initiated an ethics review against a Navy psychologist who interviewed King about his alleged espionage, but who they allege may not even have been licensed to practice.

Navy officials had no immediate comment on the allegations. But they defended their general handling of the case, denying that King's confession was coerced.

"Espionage is one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute, particularly when prosecution would also potentially damage national security," Navy officials said in a statement.

"Espionage cases often lack direct evidence and may be based solely on circumstantial evidence," the statement continued. "However, when a sailor with access to the U.S. Navy's most sensitive programs repeatedly states that he compromised the Navy's most crucial secrets, the Navy has an obligation to investigate. The Navy did investigate King's claims of wrongdoing, and did so properly and professionally."

That claim is now drawing heavy scrutiny. A Senate panel held a closed-door hearing on the case earlier this month, and the Pentagon and the Navy have opened separate probes.

Navy's Practices Under Microscope

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said it is too early to say whether King was wrongfully accused.

What is clear, Shelby said in an interview, is that "the Navy was not competent to investigate and prosecute a case of this magnitude," and that authorities failed to bring in FBI or Justice Department officials with the needed espionage-investigating experience.

"I guess the Navy thought they could handle it. Now we know they couldn't," he said.

King's supporters say the case raises core questions about the way the military uses polygraphs to detect spies and whether it maintains proper safeguards to protect a service member's right to defense counsel, a speedy trial and due process.

"You have a real problem here when an individual can spend well over a year incarcerated in a case in which there is really very little evidence," said Kevin Barry, a retired military judge who helped write a brief on King's behalf. "There are a lot of shortcomings in the military justice system, and a case like King's has hit pretty hard on a few key ones."

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, one of King's lawyers, said the Navy's justice system should be put on trial for running roughshod over a 20-year veteran's rights. The Navy was driven by a "blind pursuit" of a villain, he says.

The King case, Turley maintains, fits "a long-standing pattern of abusive and unprofessional conduct" by the naval investigative service. He cited the Navy's handling of the Tailhook sex scandal in the early 1990s and its probe into a fatal 1989 explosion aboard the battleship Iowa, which prompted the Navy to apologize to the family of a sailor who it initially suspected of blowing up the ship.

The Navy Times, in an editorial last month, said the King case "didn't rock just one sailor's faith in military justice. It poses a challenge to anyone's faith in the system."

The newspaper said King deserves an apology. But King said in an interview that he is happy just to be out of lockup.

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