DOJ Investigates Deaths Of Two Detainees

The Justice Department has announced that it has opened criminal investigations into the deaths of two detainees held in U.S. custody. The DOJ also announced that it has concluded its investigation of alleged detainee abuses at the U.S.-run prison at Abu Ghraib and other sites. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Carrie Johnson for more.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A federal grand jury in Virginia is looking into the cases of two detainees who died in U.S. custody. Prosecutors are asking whether any CIA contractors may have committed war crimes and other offenses by mistreating terrorism suspects.

NPR has learned one case involves a man who died at the U.S.-run prison at Abu Ghraib in Iraq in 2003 and another at a CIA site in Afghanistan in 2002.

NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following the investigations, and she joins me now. And, Carrie, remind us what led to this investigation in the first place.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Well, Melissa, there were widespread allegations of detainee mistreatment among people who were in U.S. custody all over the world, after September 11th. Allegations of torture, not just waterboarding of a relatively small number of detainees, but also beatings and exposure to extremely cold temperatures. A relatively small number of detainees wound up dying and their cases may have never gotten as fully look as they deserve.

So, when he came into office, Attorney General Eric Holder asked a veteran prosecutor to take a look. Today we found out the results.

Out of allegations of mistreatment of more than 100 detainees, out of a pool of 101 detainees, only two of those cases will be the focus of full-blown criminal investigations by the Justice Department.

BLOCK: And these are two men, again, who died in custody. What more can you tell us about these two men?

JOHNSON: Sure. The first man died in 2003 near Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. He had gotten beaten up in a scuffle with Navy SEALs. And then the CIA contractors began to interrogate him. The man died overnight and the U.S. people at Abu Ghraib put his body on ice. So he became known in the intelligence community as the Iceman. And people never really got to the bottom of how he died.

The second man was left out in a very cold cell near a CIA site outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, known as the Salt Pit because it was so desolate. He died overnight in 2002.

BLOCK: The man who were describing at Abu Ghraib, is this one of the detainees we know there were pictures of taken at the time?

JOHNSON: Yeah, in fact, there were pictures of this detainee with Charles Graner, who came into public attention for taking lots of photographs of detainees in embarrassing and humiliating positions at Abu Ghraib.

BLOCK: And in this case, they took a picture of him dead.

JOHNSON: Exactly.

BLOCK: And in terms of the legal process now, Carrie, what happens?

JOHNSON: Well, former prosecutors are telling me it's still going to be quite difficult to win an indictment by a grand jury, and eventually possibly any kind of conviction. And there are several reasons for that. One is that the evidence in these cases is very old - eight, nine and 10 years old. Or maybe it was never collected on or near the battlefield.

Finally, nobody in the government wants to squeal on his or her colleagues in the intelligence community. These investigations are extremely controversial within the CIA, because a lot of people in the intelligence communities say these men were only doing their jobs. They thought they were acting under guidelines they got for interrogations under the Bush years.

BLOCK: NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks very much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

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