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U.S. Charges Contractor Over Beating of Afghan Detainee

The man died in his cell. The case is the first prosecution of a civilian in the abuse scandal.

June 18, 2004|John Hendren and Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department charged a CIA contract interrogator with assault Thursday in the beating of an Afghan detainee who later died. It is the first prosecution of a civilian in the abuse of prisoners in the twin war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.

David A. Passaro is accused of "brutally" beating Abdul Wali over two days of questioning in June 2003 after Wali turned himself in at the front gate of the Asadabad military base in northeastern Afghanistan, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft told reporters in Washington.

U.S. troops have fought militants in the mountainous region as they have searched for Osama bin Laden. Wali was suspected of aiding in rocket attacks against the base. He surrendered June 18, was questioned June 19 and 20, and was found dead in his cell the next day.

Passaro was arrested in North Carolina after a federal grand jury there handed up a four-count indictment charging that Passaro used his hands, feet and a large flashlight to beat Wali. He faces up to 40 years in prison and a $1-million fine if convicted on two counts of assault with a dangerous weapon and two counts of assault resulting in serious bodily injury.

Asked why Passaro, 38, did not face torture or murder charges, Ashcroft said that an investigation had not yielded strong enough evidence to justify such charges. "The investigation is an ongoing investigation, and the evidence which we have available to us at this time, currently available, provides the basis for these charges," he said.

Justice officials did not disclose whether Passaro was employed by a firm under contract to the CIA. A U.S. official described him as a self-employed independent contractor.

The first prosecution of a civilian in connection with abuse of detainees, added to court-martial procedures against six soldiers -- a seventh has already pleaded guilty -- intensified official scrutiny of a scandal that flared in April with revelations about the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. The scandal has expanded to include at least 11 investigations of operations in Afghanistan; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and a naval brig in Charleston, S.C.

Although Passaro, who lives in Lillington, N.C., is the first civilian to be prosecuted, Defense and Justice officials said others could face charges. Two contract workers were cited for abusive treatment of detainees in a lengthy report on abuse at Abu Ghraib written by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba. The Defense Department has referred one case of detainee abuse to the Justice Department, and the CIA has referred several involving other unnamed individuals, apparently civilian contractors, Justice officials said.

"We take allegations of wrongdoing very seriously, and it is important to bear in mind that the CIA immediately reported these allegations to the agency's inspector general and the Department of Justice," CIA spokesman Tom Crispell said. "While we cannot comment on the specifics of this case given as it is currently before the courts, the CIA does not support or condone unlawful activities of any sort and has an obligation to report possible violations of the law to the appropriate authorities. This was done promptly."

Passaro will be tried in North Carolina, Ashcroft said, but the other ongoing prisoner abuse cases will be prosecuted in the Eastern District of Virginia, which often has taken complex national security cases because its territory includes both the Pentagon and the CIA's Langley headquarters.

Ashcroft offered Passaro's prosecution as proof that the United States "will not tolerate criminal acts of brutality" by Americans. A May poll commissioned in Iraq by the occupying Coalition Provisional Authority and reported on this week by news agencies found that 61% of respondents believed no one involved in the detainee abuse scandal would ever be punished.

Ashcroft bristled at the suggestion that a recently disclosed Justice Department memorandum advising the CIA that certain coercive interrogation techniques could be legally justified might have encouraged the abuse of detainees.

"Absolutely not," he said.

As investigations and prosecutions continued to occupy the Pentagon, Justice Department and CIA, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner of Virginia insisted that he would not allow the 2004 presidential election season or pressure from fellow Republicans to blunt his congressional inquiry into prisoner abuse.

"There has been no lessening of my resolve to continue the committee's essential oversight of this matter, given its importance to the proud men and women of our armed forces and to our nation's image abroad," Warner said.

As Defense and Justice officials cited progress on prosecutions in the prisoner abuse cases, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld found himself on the defensive after disclosures that he ordered that a suspected terrorist captured in Iraq be held in secret at the request of CIA Director George J. Tenet.

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