Accused Army Ranger Claims Political Motive
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Here's one problem Robert Gates may have to deal with. It has nothing to do with Iraq. It's about an Army Ranger who is currently sitting on a mountain in Canada.
His name is Luke Sommer. He and a group of Ranger buddies are accused of robbing a bank near Seattle last August. Prosecutors say Sommer is a criminal. He calls himself a political activist.
NPR's Martin Kaste has this report.
MARTIN KASTE: The guys who hit the Bank of America in Tacoma on August 7th wore masks, carried AK-47s, and worked with lightning efficiency. They got $50,000 in a little more than two minutes.
It felt like a commando raid - not surprising, since prosecutors now say the plot was hashed by U.S. Army Rangers.
Mr. MIKE DION (Federal Prosecutor): The part of it that was like a military operation they carried out very, very well.
KASTE: Federal prosecutor Mike Dion says these special ops soldiers made great bank robbers - up to a point.
Mr. DION: But then there's another part of it that's a criminal operation, and that involves avoiding witnesses, avoiding leaving evidence, covering your tracks. That was where they made their mistake, by using a car with their own license plate.
KASTE: A witness saw the robbers piling into an Audi registered to a soldier named Alex Blum. And that clue led the FBI to the alleged ringleader, another Ranger, 20-year-old Luke Sommer.
So far, Sommer is the one Ranger who's eluded American authorities, and that's because he's in Canada. He's a dual citizen. He's fighting extradition. And the authorities here have placed him under house arrest.
So he stands on the porch of his mother's mountainside home, smoking and watching the American reporters trudging up the snowy road just to interview him.
Mr. LUKE SOMMER (Former U.S. Army Ranger): This is where I wage my battles from.
KASTE: He spends his days in the unfinished basement, staring at a souped-up gaming computer. When he was younger he played Tom Clancy brand special ops games online, waiting for his 17th birthday so he could join the real Army. Now he uses the computer to post to his blog.
Does he admit to robbing the bank? Not quite. But when someone suggests the highly-trained Rangers may have botched the job, he gets huffy.
Mr. SOMMER: We get trained how to avoid capture, specifically on things like license plates and tell-tale signs on vehicles.
KASTE: So is Sommer saying that he and Blum wanted that license plate to be traced?
Mr. SOMMER: I convinced him. Yes. If that's the case.
KASTE: In other words, Sommer wanted to get caught. He says the whole point of the robbery, if he did it, was to draw media attention to war crimes.
Mr. SOMMER: You see this airfield up here?
KASTE: Bringing up a Google map of Baghdad, he describes a scene that he says he witnessed at a special ops compound called MSS Fernandez.
Mr. SOMMER: One of the operators stormed out of the interrogation shack, dragging a man behind him. And they drug him and put him on his knees and lifted the hood. And one of the operators walked up to the tin roof and grabbed one of the women. And at this point in time, they forced the woman to her knees and raped her.
KASTE: And he makes other allegations, too. He says he's seen a video that proves U.S. soldiers have killed prisoners in Afghanistan. And he tells other stories about incidents he took part in, things he won't describe on the record.
It's hard to know what to think of Sommer. One moment he's a kid with a Rambo fixation. The next he's a veteran on the verge of tears. Fantasy and reality seem all tangled up. And it doesn't help that he plays secretive games, claiming he has incriminating evidence but refusing to show it.
Almost every day, he dials the United States Special Operations Command in Florida, and they take his calls. He records them onto his computer.
(Soundbite of telephone recording)
(Soundbite of a phone ringing)
Unidentified Woman: Okay, you're connected to the call now.
Mr. SOMMER: Thank you. Morning, sir.
Unidentified Man #1: As you can imagine you've gotten a lot of effort. They have definitely, you know, taken you seriously. All that matters…
KASTE: It's impossible to tell whether the officer in this recording is interested in cutting some kind of deal or if he's just drawing Sommer out, letting him talk.
Lieutenant Colonel TIM NYE (Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Army Special Operations): I would ask Mr. Sommer what his intent with those phone calls are.
KASTE: Lieutenant Colonel Tim Nye, the public affairs officer for United States Army Special Operations, confirms that special ops command has taken calls from Sommer.
Nye says the Army has looked into his two main allegations: the rape in Baghdad and the purported video of the executed prisoners in Afghanistan. And he says they were not substantiated, though neither he nor the investigators will elaborate.
Nye is clearly exasperated with Sommer.
Lt. Col. NYE: He has had numerous allegations. And it would be helpful to all of us if he could package all of these allegations, either show us whatever videotape there is or whatever documents there are. If they appear to have merit, I'm sure appropriate action would be taken.
KASTE: But back in Canada, Sommer says his war crimes allegations are the only cards he holds. And he's going to lay them down very slowly. Extradition can take a long time. So he can probably look forward to a couple more years in his mother's basement, a couple more years with his computer, avoiding the bank robbery charges and keeping outside reality at bay.
Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
BRAND: And later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Martin Kaste continues his report with a look at the one part of Luke Sommer's story that no one disputes. The high-powered weapons his team used were illegal in the United States and were brought here from Afghanistan.