© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Justice Department Launches Investigation Over Detainee Deaths

The Justice Department has launched full-blown criminal investigations in the deaths of two detainees in U.S. custody, after prosecutors sifted through more than 100 allegations of brutal treatment.

NPR has learned the cases involve one death at Abu Ghraib in 2003 and another at a CIA site called Salt Pitin Afghanistan.

Federal prosecutor John Durham is working with a grand jury in Alexandria, Va. to find out whether any CIA contractors committed war crimes and other offenses in the killings of two detainees.

The investigation is controversial among people who work in the intelligence community who say their colleagues were only trying to protect the country.

But the review turned up allegations that some CIA contractors could have gone beyond the bounds of the law, killing a man at Abu Ghraib and another in Afghanistan.

Sources tell NPR the Justice Department is also looking at false statements charges against a CIA employee who may have lied about the destruction of interrogation videotapes.

Update at 2:25 p.m. ET. Some Background:

The Abu Ghraib case refers to the infamous case of Manadel al-Jamadi, the Iraqi prisoner known as the "the Iceman," who died at the prison in 2003. In a 2005 piece, The New Yorker gives us this narrative of al-Jamadi's death:

Manadel al-Jamadi was captured by Navy seals at 2 a.m. on November 4, 2003, after a violent struggle at his house, outside Baghdad. Jamadi savagely fought one of the seals before being subdued in his kitchen; during the altercation, his stove fell on them. The C.I.A. had identified him as a "high-value" target, because he had allegedly supplied the explosives used in several atrocities perpetrated by insurgents, including the bombing of the Baghdad headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross, in October, 2003. After being removed from his house, Jamadi was manhandled by several of the seals, who gave him a black eye and a cut on his face; he was then transferred to C.I.A. custody, for interrogation at Abu Ghraib. According to witnesses, Jamadi was walking and speaking when he arrived at the prison. He was taken to a shower room for interrogation. Some forty-five minutes later, he was dead.

Time, which reported on the Justice Department investigation earlier this month, says investigators concluded that al-Jamadi had died of asphyxiation and "blunt force injuries." The CIA Inspector General referred the case to the Justice Department, which has now taken action.

The Salt Pit death in Afghanistan involved a terror suspect named Gul Rahman, who was captured in Pakistan and taken to a secret Afghan prison in November of 2002. Back in March, the Associated Press strung together a narrative of Rahman's death based on documents and interviews with unnamed government officials:

Rahman was violently uncooperative in custody, current and former U.S. officials said.

At one point, he threw a latrine bucket at his guards. He also threatened to kill them. His stubborn responses provoked harsher treatment. His hands were shackled over his head, he was roughed up and doused with water, according to several former CIA officials.

The exact circumstances of Rahman's death are not clear, but the Afghan was left in the cold cell on the morning of Nov. 20. He was naked from the waist down, said two former U.S. officials. Within hours, he was dead.

His death, reported the AP, led to a review of CIA interrogation policies "and forced the agency to change those procedures."

Update at 3:35 p.m. ET. CIA Reaction:

On his last day as director of the CIA, Leon Panetta said in a statement that Durham had informed him that after reviewing 100 cases in which the CIA "had contact with terrorist detainees, he has determined that no further law enforcement action is appropriate in all but two discrete cases."

Panetta, who will be sworn in tomorrow as secretary of defense, said he "welcomed the news" that the broader investigation was over.

"We are now finally about to close this chapter of our Agency's history," he said. "As Director, I have always believed that our primary responsibility is not to the past, but to the present and future threats to the nation."

Update at 4:38 p.m. ET. ACLU Says The Scope Of Investigation 'Too Narrow':

The American Civil Liberties Union says the Justice Department investigation isn't broad enough. Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, issued this statement:

"While we welcome the announcement that the Justice Department will conduct a full criminal investigation into the deaths of two prisoners in CIA custody, it is difficult to understand the prosecutor's conclusion that only those two deaths warrant further investigation. For a period of several years, and with the approval of the Bush administration's most senior officials, the CIA operated an interrogation program that subjected prisoners to unimaginable cruelty and violated both international and domestic law. The narrow investigation that Attorney General Holder announced today is not proportionate to the scale and scope of the wrongdoing."

Update at 5:01 p.m. ET. Carrie's Report On All Things Considered:

Here's audio from Carrie's talk with Melissa Block on today's All Things Considered:

Update at 7:12 p.m. ET. Sen. Chuck Grassley 'Glad' Broader Investigation Is Called Off:

Sen Chuck Grassley (R-IA), a ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that since the attorney general re-opened the investigation against the CIA, the intelligence community has been "walking on egg shells." In a statement, Grassley said he was "glad" that the Justice Department had called off the broader investigation:

"The Attorney General should continue to reassure the intelligence community members involved in the two remaining cases that if they relied on the legal advice of the Justice Department that they will not be prosecuted, just as he did at the beginning of the investigation. I'm glad the Justice Department has called off the broad investigation, but I will keep an eye on the remaining two cases to make sure they progress only if there is credible evidence. Perhaps now our intelligence professionals in the field can stop looking over their shoulders and the Attorney General will quit armchair quarterbacking from Washington, D.C., intelligence decisions in the field."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.