CIA contractor charged with assault in Afghan detainee's death

Friday, June 18, 2004

WASHINGTON -- A former Army ranger hired by the CIA to conduct interrogations was charged Thursday with assaulting an Afghan detainee who died after two days of beatings, the first time civilian charges have been brought in the investigation of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A four-count grand jury indictment was handed up in Raleigh, N.C., against David A. Passaro, 38, for the June 21, 2003, death of Abdul Wali. Attorney General John Ashcroft said Passaro was accused of "brutally assaulting" Wali at a U.S. base in Asadabad, Afghanistan.

Asked why Passaro was not charged with torture or other more serious offenses, Ashcroft said the indictment was based on the best evidence available. He said it's possible more serious charges could be brought if new evidence is found.

The charges were brought on the same day that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters he ordered an alleged member of an Iraqi militant group held without notifying international authorities in a timely fashion, as required under the Geneva Conventions. He did so at the request of CIA director George Tenet.

The defense secretary said such a decision would be made to prevent the prisoner's interrogation from being interrupted.

The detainee was never held at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and is not there now, Rumsfeld said. He did not offer specifics about the detainee's whereabouts.

An intelligence official, speaking anonymously, said that, in January, the CIA asked where the detainee was and the military couldn't locate him. Rumsfeld disputed that.

"He wasn't lost in the system," Rumsfeld said at the Pentagon, adding "there is no question at all" that he received humane treatment.

The Iraqi prisoner was described by Rumsfeld as a high-ranking member of the Ansar al-Islam group, which is believed to have orchestrated some of the bombings and guerrilla warfare there.

An intelligence official said the detainee was captured in late June or early July by Kurdish forces in northern Iraq and taken to an undisclosed location outside of Iraq because he was believed to be involved in terrorist activities. The detainee stayed at that location from early July until the end of October, when the CIA got legal guidance that he should be considered an unlawful combatant and returned to Iraq, the official said.

He now will be given an identification number, as required, with formal notification to the International Committee of the Red Cross to follow.

The Bush administration has been stung by harsh criticism at home and abroad over mistreatment of prisoners, most notably at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The Defense Department and other agencies are investigating abuse allegations. No civilians have been charged in connection with Abu Ghraib, though Ashcroft said the Defense Department had referred one case to the Justice Department for investigation. Seven soldiers were charged by the military.

Wali, the prisoner who died last year in Afghanistan, was described as having participated in rocket attacks against a U.S. base located in mountainous northeast Afghanistan about five miles from the border with Pakistan. Al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are active in the region, Ashcroft said.

U.S. officials wanted to talk to Wali, and on June 18, 2003, he came to the base gate to surrender, according to court documents. Wali died in a cell at the base after two days of beatings by Passaro, who used "his hands and feet and a large flashlight," the indictment said.

Passaro is charged with two counts each of assault and assault with a dangerous weapon -- the flashlight. He faces a total of up to 40 years in prison, if convicted, and up to a $1 million fine. Federal law allows civilian charges to be brought against U.S. citizens for crimes overseas.

Passaro, of Lillington, N.C., was arrested Thursday and ordered held without bond after a brief initial appearance before a federal magistrate in Raleigh. Passaro, who was shackled around his wrists and legs in the courtroom, will have a detention hearing Tuesday.

"We were stunned today when he was picked up," said Passaro's attorney, Gerald Beaver. "We've been in consultation with the government since March and it was my understanding that he would be allowed to surrender if there were any indictments."

Wali's case initially was referred to the Justice Department by the CIA in November. Ashcroft said the indictment sends a message that "the United States will not tolerate criminal acts of brutality" against detainees.

U.S. officials said Passaro's contract with the CIA began in December 2002 and that he arrived at the Afghan base in mid-May 2003, only a few weeks before the alleged abuse occurred.

In a statement, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., said Passaro was arrested at the post Thursday morning. The statement said that Passaro, a former Special Forces medic, was on leave from a civilian Army medical job at Fort Bragg while doing the contract work for the CIA.

Wali's is among three detainee deaths being investigated by the Justice Department and CIA's inspector general in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Justice Department declined to bring charges in a fourth death.

CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said the agency "does not support or condone unlawful activities of any sort" and noted that the allegations were promptly reported after the death occurred. Ashcroft said Passaro was returned to the United States shortly after Wali died.

Democratic lawmakers and other critics say the administration set the legal stage for the abuse by circulating a series of memos that appear to justify use of torture and argue that the president's wartime powers trump laws meant to protect prisoners. Asked Thursday whether those memos set an improper tone, Ashcroft replied "absolutely not."


Associated Press reporters Katherine Pfleger Shrader in Washington and Estes Thompson in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this story.

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