Documents Shed Light on Abu Ghraib Death

Nearly two years after the death of an Iraqi man questioned at Abu Ghraib prison was ruled a homicide, no one has been charged. Confidential CIA documents offer further insight into the death of Manadel al-Jamadi, who was in CIA custody when he died.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We have new details about an Iraqi detainee who died at Abu Ghraib prison. His name was Manadel Al-Jamadi, and he died while in the custody of the CIA. Eventually much of the world saw photos of his battered corpse iced down and flanked by grinning American troops. US military doctors ruled Al-Jamadi's death a homicide, but after nearly two years, no one has been charged. NPR's John McChesney has uncovered confidential CIA documents that shed light on Al-Jamadi's final hours.

JOHN McCHESNEY reporting:

In the early morning of November 4th, 2003, CIA agents with a platoon of Navy SEALs providing muscle set out to find Manadel Al-Jamadi. They suspect him of leading an Iraqi terrorist cell and bombing a Red Cross facility. At about 2 AM, they find Al-Jamadi in his apartment in a Baghdad suburb, fight fiercely with him and detain him. The SEALs are not gentle. They body-slam the Iraqi into a humvee, drive him to an Army base and beat him with fists and rifle muzzles. But military medical examiners say the SEALs did not cause Al-Jamadi's death. Five and a half hours later, though, Al-Jamadi will die as he's being questioned by the CIA at Abu Ghraib prison. Following his death, the CIA conducted its own internal investigation which produced hundreds of pages of eyewitness accounts.

NPR has obtained those documents and they provide many new details, such as what happened during the first stage of Al-Jamadi's CIA interrogation at the SEALs base near Baghdad international airport in a place sardonically called `the romper room.' There, he was stripped, strapped to a chair and doused with cold water as an interrogator bombarded him with questions and threats. An actor reads what one of the CIA's security guards told agency investigators.

Unidentified Actor: He recalled Al-Jamadi saying, `I'm dying. I'm dying,' translated by the interpreter, to which the interrogator replied, `I don't care,' and `You'll be wishing you were dying.' The guard, who was also a paramedic, said that Al-Jamadi seemed conscious, but his head lolled, and his breathing was labored.

McCHESNEY: After nearly two hours of this, during which witnesses say the Iraqi slid out of his chair three times, Al-Jamadi admitted to nothing. He was then transported to Abu Ghraib prison. Tony Diaz is a former military policeman who was there that night. He says the CIA brought Al-Jamadi to him and another MP to be prepared for interrogation. Diaz refers to the CIA as OGA, an acronym meaning `other government agency.'

Mr. TONY DIAZ (Former Military Policeman): Whenever--I never saw what the guy looked like, 'cause he had a bag over his head, or what state he was in. But I know when he came in, he was breathing hard.

McCHESNEY: NPR's review of prison logs shows that Al-Jamadi was not formally checked into the prison, nor was he given even a cursory medical examination. Around five in the morning, Al-Jamadi's hands are cuffed behind his back. He's led into a shower room. According to Tony Diaz, they take the Iraqi to a barred window.

Mr. DIAZ: Well, his back was against the rail. Both arms were lifted and he was handcuffed to some of the bars, and then he was pretty much, like, hanging--You know what I mean?--from the back like this. We left a lot of slack, 'cause he was actually--you know, he wasn't really opposing or anything.

McCHESNEY: Now it's been widely reported that Al-Jamadi died after being hanged by his arms, both of him stretched up behind him, bearing his full weight. It's an extremely painful position, and it's been used as torture for centuries, but Diaz and the other MP who fastened Al-Jamadi to the window bars insist there was enough slack so the prisoner could either stand or kneel.

Mr. DIAZ: From that point, we just left him by himself with the OGA guy, and we all left, closed the door.

McCHESNEY: For the next couple of hours, only the CIA interrogator and the interpreter know for sure what happened in that shower room. They tell investigators Al-Jamadi had been sitting, then he stood up and was talking about the city of Mosul and hating Americans, when all of a sudden he dropped, falling to at least one knee. One of the CIA men tells investigators he thought Al-Jamadi was faking, but he says they immediately called for a medic because they weren't sure. The MPs tell a different story. Tony Diaz says the CIA summoned the military police, not the medics.

Mr. DIAZ: The OGA said something like, `Hey, guys, you know, I need some help here. This guy here is not cooperating. He's not saying anything.' So that's when we came in.

McCHESNEY: Diaz says the CIA wanted Al-Jamadi's hands positioned up higher on the window bars so he would have to stand. Diaz says as they prepared to lift him, the MPs found Al-Jamadi nearly on his knees, slumped forward with the weight on his shackled wrists.

Mr. DIAZ: You could see the handcuffs, like, almost literally coming out of his sockets. I mean, that's how bad he was hanging. The OGA guy, he was kind of calm. He was sitting down the whole time. He was, like, `Yeah, you know, he just don't want to cooperate. I think you should lift him a little higher.'

McCHESNEY: It takes two men to lift Al-Jamadi and a third to fasten the cuffs higher up on the window. Sergeant Jeffrey Frost is one of the MPs doing the heavy lifting, and he says when they release him, Al-Jamadi still goes to his knees. So, Frost says, the MPs raise his cuffs even higher and release Al-Jamadi again.

Sergeant JEFFREY FROST (Military Policeman): He didn't stand up. His arms just kept on bending at this awkward--not awkward position, but it was--you know, I was almost waiting for a bone to break or something and just thinking, you know, this guy--he's really good at playing 'possum. And then after we lowered him down and took our hands off him, that's when kind of we realized something may be wrong.

McCHESNEY: Al-Jamadi is dead. He may have been dead when the soldiers came in, or he may have died while they were repositioning him. Diaz says when they lower the Iraqi to the floor, blood flows from his mouth. Diaz says the MPs are not at all happy with the CIA, which he calls OGAs.

Mr. DIAZ: We looked at the OGA guy. We told him, `Hey, this is on you. I mean, I don't know what you guys did, but, you know, this is out of our hands. I mean, you deal with it.'

McCHESNEY: And a CIA spokesman, Paul Gimigliano, says the agency is still dealing with it nearly two years later with its own investigation not yet completed. And that's all the CIA would say about the matter, in spite of repeated NPR requests for interviews with agency officials. According to an e-mail confirming our request for an interview, Gimigliano said, `On the case itself, it has indeed been a thorough look. The Office of Inspector General is energetic and thoroughly investigates any allegation of wrongdoing by CIA personnel.'

McCHESNEY: How would you characterize the quality of the autopsy?

Dr. EDMUND DONAHUE (President, American Academy of Forensic Sciences): I think the autopsy was well done and well documented.

McCHESNEY: We asked Dr. Edmund Donahue, the chief medical examiner of Cook County, Illinois, and president of the American Academy of Forensic Scientists, to review Al-Jamadi's autopsy with us. He confirmed the findings of the military's medical examiners and says Al-Jamadi's stressed position, along with his broken ribs and a hood over his head, led to asphyxia.

Dr. DONAHUE: I'm fairly certain that if they'd examined him, they would have found out that he had broken ribs, and I would hope that they wouldn't have tortured him.

McCHESNEY: Donahue adds, though, that it's not clear when Al-Jamadi's ribs were broken, earlier by the SEALs or later by the CIA. Al-Jamadi was captured and interrogated as the insurgency in Iraq exploded, when the rhetoric of officials often included the phrase `the gloves are off.' Fred Hitz was inspector general for the CIA from 1990 to 1998, and he now teaches at Princeton. He says the rules about humane treatment of detainees must be clear and inflexible.

Mr. FRED HITZ (Former Inspector General, CIA): Given the tension, the strain, the pressure they're under in the field, and--this point it was clear we were at the beginning of the insurgency; we needed to know some things, that the notion is `We're not getting enough information from you.' I mean, the tendency then, if it's believed that there is some flexibility in the system, it will lead to abuses. Bound to.

McCHESNEY: Human rights groups and some members of Congress have expressed frustration with the slow pace of the CIA's response in this and other cases of alleged detainee abuse by the agency. John McChesney, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And John writes more about this case, including the CIA's allegations against Al-Jamadi, at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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