Interrogation Death Trial Heads to Jury

Closing arguments conclude at the court-martial of an American soldier accused of killing an Iraqi general during interrogations. Army Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer Jr. says higher-ranking officers approved the technique he was using.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. From NPR News, I'm Debbie Elliott.

Closing arguments have finished in the trial of an American soldier who's charged with killing an Iraqi general. Army Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer stood trial this week in a military court in Fort Carson, Colorado. Prosecutors say Welshofer used a brutal interrogation technique that led to the Iraqi's death. Welshofer claims his commanders knew what he was doing and okayed it.

NPR's John McChesney has been covering the court martial and joins us now from Fort Carson. Hi, John.

JOHN MCCHESNEY reporting:

Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: This all stems from an interrogation that took place almost three years ago at a U.S. military base in Iraq. Prosecutors claim Welshofer went too far. Who was this Iraqi general and exactly what happened?

MCCHESNEY: Well the government says that General Abed Mowhoush was a leader of the insurgency and among other things he was doing, they say he was ferrying foreign fighters across the Syrian border. This took place up in Western Iraq. What happened was Chief Welshofer was using an interrogation technique, what he called a sleeping bag technique. He stuffed the General in a sleeping bag head first, wrapped an electrical cord around the sleeping bag, put him on his back, straddled his chest and periodically held his hand over his mouth to keep him from saying Allah, he says. And the General died and the government says he died of suffocation.

ELLIOTT: How are Welshofer's lawyers defending him? What's their case?

MCCHESNEY: Well, its been an uphill road, as you can imagine. The defense has had some trouble. Today, Frank Spinner, the defense lawyer said, principle underpinning of the defense is there were confused messages coming down from the command during October and November of 2003. Their four memos, each one of them seeming to kind of contradict each other about who these guys were, first of all. Were they enemy prisoners of war or were they unlawful combatants? And the government couldn't decide that.

In a September 10 memo that came down from command, which the defense is relying on, they said that stress positions were okay. You didn't have to seek command authorization for stress positions and Welshofer says that's what he thought the sleeping bag technique was. So...

ELLIOTT: So he's making the case that he thought he was using a technique that his higher-ups had said this is fine?

MCCHESNEY: Exactly, and he had explained it to his commanding officer, Major Voss, and she had approved it. She says later, if she'd known he was using his hand over their mouth she wouldn't have approved it but she did approve it. So he thought he had command authority.

ELLIOTT: It also came out during the court martial that the General was severely beaten by a group of Iraqi civilians while he was in U.S. custody. Is that at all being connected to Welshofer?

MCCHESNEY: It was connected to Welshofer. He was the ranking man in the room at that time, when these Iraqi civilians who were working for the CIA and U.S. Special Forces, really beat the General badly with clubs and a rubber hose. A CIA man later testified behind a curtain at this trial that Welshofer said to him that they were breaking all the rules out there. The defense says the CIA, by saying that, was simply protecting itself and blaming the Army for what happened to the General. Iraqi civilians were working for the CIA in that instance.

ELLIOTT: And what's happening now?

MCCHESNEY: Now the jury will soon be out in deliberation for, we don't know how long, as they decide guilt or non-guilt.

ELLIOTT: And what could happen to him if he is found guilty?

MCCHESNEY: He could face life in prison depending upon how the panel of six officers decides what the sentence should be.

ELLIOTT: NPR's John McChesney, reporting from Fort Carson, Colorado. Thank you, John.

MCCHESNEY: Thank you, Debbie.

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