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GI who oversaw Iraq jail faces court-martial

THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: COMMANDER TO FACE CHARGES

June 15, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — A U.S. Army officer who oversaw high-profile prisoners such as former dictator Saddam Hussein at a detention center in Iraq will be court-martialed on charges of aiding the enemy and other offenses, the military said Thursday.

Lt. Col. William H. Steele, 51, is the first U.S. service member stationed in Iraq to face such charges, which can carry the death penalty.

In a statement, the military said Steele was formally charged Tuesday after the officer who presided last month over his Article 32 inquiry, similar to a preliminary hearing, recommended a court-martial.

No date has been set for the trial.

Steele faces four charges: aiding the enemy, possessing classified information, disobeying orders and engaging in conduct unbecoming an officer for his alleged relationship with a female Iraqi interpreter.

During the Article 32 inquiry, prosecutors alleged that Steele empathized with the detainees he oversaw at Camp Cropper in Baghdad to the point of lending them his cellphone to make unauthorized and private calls. Prosecution witnesses also alleged that Steele stashed large amounts of highly sensitive, top-secret material in his living quarters, which if leaked, could have devastated the U.S. effort.

Steele, an Army reservist from Virginia, was arrested in March. From October 2005 to October 2006, Steele oversaw the Camp Cropper detention facility as commander of the 451st Military Police Detachment, and most of the charges stem from that period.

After leaving Camp Cropper, near Baghdad's international airport, Steele moved to the 89th Military Police Brigade at Camp Victory, also in the capital.

Investigators said they discovered thousands of classified documents in February during a search of his living quarters at Camp Victory.

The charge of failing to obey an order stems from allegations that Steele returned to the trailer while it was being searched despite being told to stay away from investigators.

Charges of failing to properly oversee expenditure of government funds were not recommended for court-martial. Those charges were based on accusations that Steele permitted money to be squandered on such things as Cuban cigars for Hussein and for hiring laborers to do work that should have been done by U.S.-approved contractors.

Defense witnesses testified that the cigar purchases had been approved before Steele's tenure to encourage cooperation from Hussein and other regime members. They said Steele used laborers out of frustration with the contractors' slow pace.

Steele is believed to be the second U.S. military officer charged with aiding the enemy in connection with the Iraq war since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Army Capt. James J. Yee, a chaplain at the Guan- tanamo detention facility in Cuba, faced the charge in September 2003. The military dropped the case in March 2004 and he later resigned, receiving an honorable discharge.

tina.susman@latimes.com

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