CIA Contractor Convicted of Afghan's Beating Death

A North Carolina jury convicted a former CIA contractor of assaulting a detainee in Afghanistan. The victim died after being beaten severely during an interrogation by David Passaro, who was once a Green Beret medic. The verdict marks the first time a U.S. civilian has been convicted of prisoner abuse overseas.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Now to North Carolina, where a jury has found a former CIA contractor guilty of assaulting an Afghan detainee who later died.

Forty-year-old David Passaro is the first U.S. civilian to be convicted of prisoner abuse during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

NPR's Adam Hochberg joins us now from the federal courthouse in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Adam, what exactly is Mr. Passaro accused of doing here?

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

Well, Alex, this goes back to 2003, to an incident at a remote U.S. army base in the Afghan mountains. David Passaro was there. He was working on a CIA paramilitary team when an Afghan man showed up there, a man named Abdul Wali. He was a suspect in a series of rocket attacks in Afghanistan.

Wali said he was innocent of the attacks. He agreed to be questioned by U.S. officials and David Passaro did some of the questioning.

But prosecutors during this trial said that the interrogations turned violent. They said that Passaro kicked the man and beat him with a metal flashlight.

As you mentioned, Abdul Wali later died and today David Passaro was convicted in connection with those assaults.

CHADWICK: But he was convicted just of assault, not of murder or even manslaughter.

HOCHBERG: Right. Because the Justice Department did not charge him with murder or manslaughter, and they said that the complication in the case was that Abdul Wali's family would not agree to have an autopsy. They said that that would violate their religious beliefs.

So in absence of an autopsy that proved that the wounds during the assault were related to Abdul Wali's death, prosecutors said they didn't feel comfortable pursuing a manslaughter or murder case.

So as you mentioned, what David Passaro was convicted of today was four assault charges: three misdemeanors, one felony.

CHADWICK: And what has his defense been?

HOCHBERG: Well, his defense during this trial - the trial lasted about seven days - and the defense was very relentless about basically denying that anything illegal happened at that base involving David Passaro. They said that he did not beat Wali. They said he may have tapped him with a flashlight, but he didn't bludgeon him with a flashlight.

And they also tried to persuade the jury to look at this incident in the context of a violent war, that David Passaro, they said, was a patriot fighting for the United States, that he was at a military base that was under attack and that he was trying to defend his fellow Americans at the base and defend his country.

CHADWICK: Well, the case has attracted a lot of attention from the upper levels of the U.S. government. How about that?

HOCHBERG: Yeah, the case - the incident happened in 2003 and then about a year later was when it really emerged in the headlines, and that was right as the controversy was beginning about prisoner abuse in Iraq at Abu Ghraib and other places within the Middle East. And at the time, the White House and the Bush administration and the Pentagon were all reeling from this criticism, and David Passaro's indictment was announced with great fanfare by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. He held a televised news conference to say that Passaro had been indicted, and there has been some top talent from the Justice Department and the CIA working on this case.

CHADWICK: NPR's Adam Hochberg in Raleigh, North Carolina. Adam, thank you.

HOCHBERG: Thank you.

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