ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
In November 2003, Manadel Al-Jamadi was captured by Navy SEALs just outside Baghdad. He was suspected of involvement in Iraq's insurgency. Several hours later Al-Jamadi died while under interrogation by the CIA. Photographs of grinning GIs crouched over his iced-down, battered corpse were among the horrific images that emerged during the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, images that were seen around the world and have become potent symbols for those opposed to the American invasion of Iraq. A military autopsy ruled Al-Jamadi's death a homicide, but no one has been held accountable for his death.
SIEGEL: What you're about to hear are the details of the final hours of Manadel Al-Jamadi's life. NPR has spent several months reviewing thousands of CIA and military documents. We have interviewed people who were on the scene during those final hours. You'll hear about the techniques used to extract information from the prisoner. And you'll hear how military police and the CIA interrogators differ in their descriptions of just what happened before Al-Jamadi died. NPR's John McChesney has our story.
JOHN McCHESNEY reporting:
The assignment was clear: Kill or capture Manadel Al-Jamadi. So on November 4th, 2003, at 2:00 in the morning, a convoy of Humvees and a couple of blacked-out CIA Chevy Suburbans glide along a deserted street in a hostile Baghdad suburb. The Humvees stop in front of a three-story apartment building. A platoon of Navy SEALs tumbles out of the Humvees and races up the stairs. Dan Cerillo, a 5'7", 230-pound SEAL nicknamed Taco, places a charge on the apartment, but as he's doing so, the door begins to open. Cerillo rushes the man behind the door.
On May 11th, 2004, Cerillo gave CIA investigators his account of that take-down. That interview report, along with thousands of other documents, has not been made public. Here, an actor reads verbatim from the document.
Unidentified Actor: (Reading) `Cerillo saw that Al-Jamadi filled the entire doorway.'
McCHESNEY: Cerillo says Al-Jamadi was over 6' tall. As he enters the apartment, he sees that the door has struck Al-Jamadi.
Unidentified Actor: (Reading) `Cerillo hit him in the face with two fists and attempted to wrestle the subject to the ground, but Al-Jamadi resisted, and they engaged in hand-to-hand combat. They entered the kitchen and crashed over a small card table that collapsed. He and Al-Jamadi fell to the floor side by side, and he attempted to get on top of Al-Jamadi. According to Cerillo, Al-Jamadi fought him and pushed his head back with a hand under Cerillo's chin. Cerillo says he was throwing hard punches, haymakers, and was attempting to draw his sidearm but couldn't.'
McCHESNEY: Cerillo says he grabbed the stove in front of him to pull himself upright, but instead the stove tipped forward and hit Al-Jamadi on the head and upper chest. Cerillo is then able to get on top of Al-Jamadi and bind his wrists with flex-cuffs. The Iraqi's wife and children are watching all of this, and he asks Cerillo not to beat him in front of his children. Al-Jamadi now has about five and a half hours to live.
Mr. FRANK SPINNER (Lawyer): He was considered a key cell leader for one of the terrorist cells.
McCHESNEY: Lawyer Frank Spinner got involved with this case while defending Lieutenant Andrew Ledford, the leader of the Navy SEAL platoon that captured Al-Jamadi. Ledford was court-martialed and later acquitted for allowing his men to beat Al-Jamadi. According to Spinner, the CIA considered Al-Jamadi to be a very bad guy.
Mr. SPINNER: He appeared to have worked for Saddam Hussein as an officer in their army. He also was suspected of having either possession of or knowledge of the location of an extensive amount of explosives.
McCHESNEY: CIA investigative documents reviewed by NPR allege that Al-Jamadi was teaching a number of insurgency groups how to use mortars and that he possessed two tons of high explosives he was parceling out to those groups. The CIA also suspected he'd been involved in the attack on the Al-Rasheed Hotel when Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was visiting eight days earlier. Insurgent or not, according to Spinner, Al-Jamadi apparently didn't go gently into the night with the SEALs.
Mr. SPINNER: Many witnesses testified, including CIA agents, that Al-Jamadi put up the biggest struggle of any terrorist that they had captured up to that point and I think even subsequent to that.
McCHESNEY: Documents reviewed by NPR are filled with precise details from eyewitnesses about what happened next. It's now about 2:15 in the morning. When Al-Jamadi's hood is lifted for identification, several people remember that he had a black eye and a cut below it, and there's blood on his hood. Two SEALs then flip Al-Jamadi heels over head onto the floor of a Humvee. A CIA security agent, riding shotgun in a Suburban that night, provides this account for investigators from the CIA's Office of Inspector General.
Unidentified Actor: (Reading) `The SEALs picked Al-Jamadi up and tossed him into the back of the Humvee like a bag of potatoes. "Did you see that? Did you see that?" the agent recalled saying to the others. Two SEALs then plopped down on him. The agent demonstrated the action, indicating the SEALs physically sat on top of the detainees.'
McCHESNEY: As we'll learn later, these early physical details are important because the autopsy says Al-Jamadi had five broken ribs, an injury that may have contributed to his death.
With the Iraqi on board, the convoy then drives to a nearby Army base for a debriefing. During the 20 minutes they're there, the SEALs punch, kick and strike him with their rifle muzzles as Al-Jamadi continues to talk in Arabic to the other detainee on the Humvee floor beside him. Frank Spinner recounts testimony given at the SEALs' court-martial. Remember, Spinner is the lawyer who defended the SEALs' platoon leader.
Mr. SPINNER: None of them acknowledged hitting Al-Jamadi with sufficient force to cause any significant injury whatsoever. In fact, the--at trial, the government said that--the prosecutors said that they were not claiming that any of the force applied by the SEALs to Al-Jamadi's body was sufficient to cause any significant injury.
McCHESNEY: But the beating there did cause significant injury to the professional lives of several SEALs who were punished for their part in it. Nobody went to jail, but several SEAL careers were wrecked, and some bitter members of the SEAL team feel they've paid the price for the CIA, in whose custody Al-Jamadi later died.
From the Army base, the convoy then proceeds to the SEALs' base known as Camp Jenny Pozzi. It's close to 3 in the morning now. There, Al-Jamadi is led into an interrogation area sardonically referred to as `the romper room.' On the way in, a CIA escort says Al-Jamadi goes limp, as though he's passed out. This is where the CIA interrogation begins. Nearly every witness interviewed by investigators agrees that Al-Jamadi is seated, stripped and cold water is poured over him as he's bombarded with questions and threats. An actor reads what one of the CIA security guards told agency investigators.
Unidentified Actor: (Reading) `The interrogator was in Al-Jamadi's face yelling, "I'm going to barbecue you if you don't tell me the information." He stated that in the interrogation room, there was a hangman's noose made of dark-colored, half-inch rope suspended from the ceiling. The interrogator said he was unaware of the rope's purpose.'
McCHESNEY: A Navy SEAL in the room says at this point the interrogator is leaning into Al-Jamadi's chest with his forearm, what he calls a pressure point. The prisoner is moaning. According to documents, the chair is fitted into holes in the floor; one explanation may be so it won't slide under the pressure. And as we'll learn later, pressure on Al-Jamadi's chest could be related to his death. Here's what another CIA security guard in the room told investigators. Again, an actor reads from the official report.
Unidentified Actor: (Reading) `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: Navy SEALs in the room say during the interrogation, Al-Jamadi slides out of his chair three times. One, a medical corpsman named Jared Holforty, speculates that the Iraqi lost consciousness. But others in the room say Al-Jamadi never claims to be dying, and they don't see him slip out of his chair.
After nearly an hour and a half of interrogation--witnesses disagree about the precise time--Al-Jamadi repeatedly denies having any explosives. Finally, the CIA chief says, `It's time to take him to Abu Ghraib.' The prisoner walks without assistance to the SUV. The trip to the prison takes less than half an hour.
Mr. TONY DIAZ (Former MP): It was very early in the morning, about, like, 4:30.
McCHESNEY: Tony Diaz is a former military policeman who served at Abu Ghraib. He didn't want to talk to me at his home in Virginia, so we talked in my car a few miles away. It's his first conversation with a reporter. Diaz is confident and assertive. He refers to the CIA as `OGA,' an acronym meaning `Other Government Agency.' Diaz says the OGA brought Al-Jamadi to him and another MP to be prepared for further interrogation.
Mr. DIAZ: He was just wearing a shirt. I never saw what the guy looked like. He had a bag over his head--didn't know what he looked like or what state he was in. But I know when he came in, he was breathing hard, he was very cold, he was shaking. He had a couple bruises. When we put the jumpsuit on, I saw a couple bruises on him, like he'd been through rough times.
McCHESNEY: NPR's review of prison logs shows that Al-Jamadi wasn't formally checked into the prison, nor was he given even a cursory medical examination, making him what has come to be called a ghost detainee. Diaz says Al-Jamadi occasionally uttered some English phrases, like, `I can't speak,' but most of the conversation was in Arabic.
Mr. DIAZ: There was two OGA guys translating out--I guess they were talking to him in Arabic. He was responding back with I don't know what because I didn't understand what he was saying.
McCHESNEY: Around 5 AM, Al-Jamadi's hands are cuffed behind his back. He's led into the shower room, where interrogation will resume. According to Tony Diaz, they lead the Iraqi to a barred window in that room. He has about two hours more to live. At this point, the MPs who brought Al-Jamadi into the room and the two CIA men who interrogated him begin to tell different stories. Tony Diaz describes what he and another MP did with Al-Jamadi at that window.
Mr. DIAZ: Well, his back was against the rail. Both arms were lifted, and was handcuffed to some of the bars. And he was pretty much like hanging--You know what I mean?--from the back like this. We left a lot of slack because he was actually--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 them stretched out behind him bearing his full weight. Known today as a Palestinian hanging, it's an extremely painful position and has 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 that 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: The shackling takes about 10 minutes. From that point on, only the CIA interrogator and the interpreter know for sure what happened next. 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 says they immediately called for a medic because they weren't sure. Here's where the stories differ. Tony Diaz, the military policeman, says the CIA summoned the MPs, not the medics.
Mr. DIAZ: The OGA steps out and, like, `Hey, guys, you know, I need some help here. This guy here's 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 higher up 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 handcuff, 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, this--he just don't want to cooperate. I think you should lift him a little higher.' And we're pretty much kind of, `OK. That what you want? You know, we're the MPs, so we'll make that happen for you.' So we lift him up a little bit more, a little bit more.
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. Now a car alarm installer in Virginia, Frost spoke with me in an auto dealer's lot near Washington, DC. Back then, he says, the CIA told MPs that Al-Jamadi was faking.
Mr. JEFFREY FROST (Former MP): This guy's pretty good at playing possum because I've got his--I'm hauling, holding all him up by his jumpsuit, and I know that's got to be crushing, you know, his crotch. And he's damned good at playing possum 'cause I'd be screaming my ass off right now.
McCHESNEY: When they release him, though, Al-Jamadi still goes to his knees. So, Frost says, the MPs raise his cuffs even higher and release Al-Jamadi again.
Mr. FROST: 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 lowered the Iraqi to the floor, blood flows from his mouth, and he says the MPs are not happy with the CIA, which he calls OGAs.
Mr. DIAZ: We look 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.'
Twenty-three months ago in that Abu Ghraib shower stall, MP Tony Diaz says the CIA men finally did call for the medics after it was clear Al-Jamadi was dead.
Mr. DIAZ: I don't know. I was sad for that guy. Yeah, I was really sad for him, you know. And after that, you know--it was very quiet after that.
McCHESNEY: At least until one of the CIA men started talking on his cell phone.
Mr. DIAZ: He was kind of worried. He grabbed his cell phone, went outside, started walking back and forth. And he looked like he was real worried, like, you know, it was actually their fault.
McCHESNEY: In the documents reviewed by NPR, the interpreter says the CIA interrogator was scared and panicked. Both men told CIA investigators they used no force on Al-Jamadi. Frost and Diaz say the prison brass soon gathered in the room. A medic bandaged the facial cut, and Al-Jamadi's body was iced down and stored for the night. CIA investigative documents indicate that Al-Jamadi's bloodstained hood disappeared and has never been found.
The next day the body was rolled out of the prison on a gurney, an IV stuck in an arm as if Al-Jamadi was still alive. Later, a military autopsy called his death a homicide and said he died because of blunt force trauma to the torso, complicated by compromised respiration.
How would you characterize the quality of the autopsy?
Dr. EDMUND DONAHUE (Chief Medical Examiner, Cook County, Illinois): 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. In a hotel room in Chicago, we examined dozens of photographs showing the Iraqi's body stretched out on a stainless-steel autopsy tray. His right eye is blackened. There's a laceration under that eye with a bandage on it. His nose is bent to the side, and there's a cut on his lip. There are also multiple bruises on Al-Jamadi's feet, thighs and arms.
Dr. DONAHUE: None of them look very serious. They're absolutely consistent with the story that's being told, but they don't look like they're responsible for the cause of death.
McCHESNEY: Al-Jamadi's most significant injuries are not visible in the autopsy photos. He had five broken ribs, three on one side, two on the other. There are no bruises in that area, leading military medical examiners to say that the fractures were probably caused by a slow, deliberate application of force, such as someone kneeling on Al-Jamadi's chest. Dr. Donahue believes a combination of three things killed Al-Jamadi, beginning with the position in which he was shackled. It doesn't matter, he thinks, that Al-Jamadi may have been able to kneel; it still would have been very painful to breathe as those broken rib ends rasped against each other.
Dr. DONAHUE: This also is a position that makes it very difficult to breathe because you're suspended in a very awkward position. When you combine it with having a hood over your head and having the broken ribs, it's fairly clear that this death was caused by asphyxia because he couldn't breathe properly.
McCHESNEY: Dr. Donahue's conclusions are in line with the autopsy, but it remains unclear where in Al-Jamadi's chain of custody those five ribs were broken: when the stove fell, when the SEALs body-slammed him into the Humvee or when the CIA interrogator applied pressure to his chest.
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 says at the very least the CIA should have made sure of Al-Jamadi's condition before putting him in a stress position for further interrogation. There were clear indications, almost from the time of capture, that something may have been seriously wrong with Al-Jamadi: labored breathing, periodic lapses in consciousness, his own remarks about dying, many of which were interpreted as fakery. But it's also possible, Donahue says, that those ribs were broken in that shower stall at Abu Ghraib.
Military officials who investigated the Abu Ghraib scandal made it clear that at the time of Al-Jamadi's interrogation, the CIA was playing outside the rules. Here's what the August 2004 report by Major General George Fay had to say.
Unidentified Actor: (Reading) `CIA detention and interrogation practices led to a loss of accountability, abuse, reduced interagency cooperation and an unhealthy mystique that further poisoned the atmosphere at Abu Ghraib. Speculation and resentment grew over the lack of personal responsibility of some people being above the laws and regulations. The resentment contributed to the unhealthy environment that existed at Abu Ghraib.'
McCHESNEY: Several former CIA officials interviewed by NPR said that the CIA went into Afghanistan and Iraq without a cadre of experienced interrogators. One former CIA operative said scornfully, `They got their ideas about interrogation from Hollywood movies.'
Al-Jamadi was captured as the mushrooming insurgency in Iraq took American officials by surprise. The pressure was on for actionable intelligence. And from up the chain of command came the notice, `The rules are relaxed. The gloves are off.'
Mr. FRED HITZ (Former Inspector General, CIA): And I think there was confusion, and I think that's what was regrettable, what is regrettable and what needs to be straightened out.
McCHESNEY: Fred Hitz was inspector general for the CIA from 1990 to 1998 and now teaches at Princeton University. He says the rules about treatment of detainees during interrogation must be clear and inflexible.
Mr. HITZ: Given the tension, the strain, the pressure they're under in the field and this point that 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 about the slow pace of the CIA's response in this and other cases of alleged detainee abuse by the agency. In an Army trial scheduled for December, the agency will again be under scrutiny for its role in the death of an Iraqi general, who was stuffed into a sleeping bag and died, according to the autopsy, of asphyxia due to smothering and chest compression. John McChesney, NPR News.
BLOCK: The CIA and Navy SEALs were allegedly involved in other instances of prisoner abuse around the time Al-Jamadi died. John McChesney discusses those cases and the CIA's allegations against Al-Jamadi at our Web site, npr.org.
SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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