Navy SEAL Cleared of Prisoner Abuse in Iraq

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A military jury fully acquits Lt. Andrew Ledford, a Navy SEAL platoon leader accused of permitting abuse that led to the death of an Iraqi prisoner. The case raises questions about the CIA's involvement in prisoner interrogation.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Navy SEAL Lieutenant Andrew Ledford has been acquitted by a military jury of all charges relating to the abuse of an Iraqi prisoner who later died in CIA custody. Lieutenant Ledford was charged with dereliction of duty for allowing his men to punch and jab the prisoner with their rifle muzzles in November of 2003. He was also charged with assault for punching the prisoner himself. NPR's John McChesney reports from San Diego.

JOHN McCHESNEY reporting:

When the verdict was announced after three hours of deliberation, there were tears and jubilation in the courtroom. Ledford's father, a retired Army colonel, and his mother wept. So did members of his SEAL platoon, who had testified in his trial, and then they broke into applause. In the dark night of November 3rd, 2003, Ledford and his fox-trot SEAL platoon went into a hostile Baghdad neighborhood to kill or capture Manadel al-Jamadi. Al-Jamadi was suspected of blowing up a Red Cross facility and killing 12 civilians. After a fierce struggle, al-Jamadi was cuffed and hooded and thrown into the back of a humvee. During a stop at a forward operating base, members of Ledford's platoon punched and kicked al-Jamadi as he spoke in Arabic to another detainee. Some members of Ledford's team have received non-judicial punishment for their role in that abuse. But the prosecution couldn't find a single witness who would testify that Lieutenant Ledford struck the prisoner or that he was present when his men knocked him around. They had to rely on a written sworn statement given by Ledford to naval criminal investigators saying that he had delivered a soft punch to al-Jamadi's arm.

Ledford took the stand for four hours and said he had been pressured and tricked into that statement. The government tried to impugn testimony by Ledford's men by saying they were exhibiting battlefield loyalty. In what may have been an unintentional tribute to the accused, prosecutor Chad Olcott said in his closing statement that every witness who stepped into the stand probably owed his life to the accused. `They want to protect their commander,' he said. Defense attorney Frank Spinner replied angrily, `So they respected and admired their leader who brought them home alive and then makes them liars?'

The CIA has hovered around the edges of this case, both literally and figuratively. CIA lawyers have been present at the proceeding, advising the prosecution on classified material. CIA agents testified behind closed curtains to protect their identity. Sarcastic remarks emerged during testimony about the unreliability of intelligence provided to the SEALs by the CIA. And there's been a bitter undercurrent here as SEALs have felt that they were taking the fall for the CIA in whose custody al-Jamadi died. Ledford's attorney put it this way.

Mr. FRANK SPINNER (Defense Attorney): It seems to me that there's still some questions yet to be answered about the death of al-Jamadi. And I think only people at the CIA know those answers.

McCHESNEY: The CIA's Office of Inspector General has investigated the al-Jamadi homicide and has referred the matter to the Justice Department. But so far, no action has been taken. John McChesney, NPR News, San Diego.

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