When a small team of Navy SEALs set out to capture one of Iraq’s most-wanted terrorists in September, they never dreamed it would go so smoothly.
After all, Ahmed Hashim Abed, the suspected mastermind of a 2004 atrocity against U.S. contractors in Fallujah, was holed up in a safe house in Anbar province. Intelligence reports, which identified his location, said he kept a revolver under his pillow.
A helicopter set the SEALs down miles away. They silently approached the house and burst in to surprise a sleeping Abed. He never had a chance to pull the gun that, indeed, lay under his pillow. Subdued after a brief scuffle, he was marched to a landing site, where the helicopter took the SEALs and their captive back to Camp Schweidler.
“It went flawlessly,” said a source close to the case. “They expected to get a medal.”
This source, and others, recounted to The Washington Times how one of the most successful captures in the war’s six years has turned into a nightmare for six SEALs involved in the mission.
Three have been charged with assault in their handling of the prize captive and with making false statements when questioned about the incident. Another three, including the platoon’s two officer leaders, are refusing to talk unless granted immunity from prosecution. Their attorney told The Times that they did not see the detainee assaulted or know of any cover-up.
Four months after the incident, anger among the defendants’ supporters has grown.
U.S. Central Command’s treatment of the six SEALs as criminal suspects has stirred an outcry across the country. At least 100,000 people have signed up on a Facebook page, Support the Navy SEALs Who Captured Ahmed Hashim Abed. Members of Congress have written to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to intervene, which he has declined to do.
The Anbar-based SEALs arrived back in camp about 5 a.m. Abed stayed under guard several hours before he was transferred to Iraqi police, as was standard procedure.
It was during those several hours when Abed is said to have been assaulted.
The accusation came from the unit’s master-at-arms, the sailor responsible for guarding Abed. He later told the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) that he saw Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew McCabe punch Abed in the stomach.
Petty Officer McCabe denies that he hit the detainee, setting up a confrontation with the master-at-arms, whose version seems certain to be challenged at a scheduled May court-martial in Norfolk, Va.
Sometime that morning, the platoon commander saw Abed with a bloody shirt, perhaps from a split lip. He conducted his own inquiry, during which all of the SEALs denied hitting Abed.
He forwarded the report up the chain of command, which then ordered the NCIS probe. It resulted in criminal charges against Petty Officer McCabe and two other SEALs brought by Army Maj. Gen. C.T. Cleveland, who heads the special operations component within U.S. Central Command.
Meanwhile, U.S. commanders and Iraqi authorities began a legal tug of war that September morning. When top U.S. commanders realized that the SEALs had captured a major terrorist figure, they implored the platoon commander to get him back from Iraqi control, which he did after hours of negotiations.
A military spokesman in Iraq said Abed is being held under orders from an Iraqi judge. He declined to say whether Abed had been charged.
Two other SEALs, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Keefe and Petty Officer 1st Class Julio Huertas, face special court-martial proceedings on charges of lying about the incident. A military judge moved their trials to Iraq on a request from defense attorneys, who want to question Abed before a jury.
Three other SEALs are being cited as witnesses: the platoon commander, his second-in-command and a hospital corpsman, all of whom went on the mission. Their names have not been disclosed in court documents. In fact, prosecutors have not publicly disclosed their versions of events.
Now, the three witnesses are refusing to testify unless they are granted immunity.
Their attorney, Charles Gittins, told The Times that an NCIS investigator read them their rights amid suspicions of a cover-up.
Mr. Gittins said the three had no role in any effort to conceal details of the incident, but since they were read their rights, they want Gen. Cleveland to grant them immunity before testifying. They did not see anyone strike Abed, he said.
“The key point is they were cooperating and, out of the blue, [were] read their rights for obstruction and that’s why they stopped cooperating,” he said. “We as lawyers have to protect them.”
A Navy spokesman declined to comment on the immunity issue.
Neal A. Puckett, who represents Petty Officer McCabe, said he has begun to receive the prosecution documents, including witness statements, but other classified information is still being reviewed.
Gen. Cleveland had the option of handling the case as a personnel matter, but when the three SEALs rejected nonjudicial punishment, which could have ended their careers, Gen. Cleveland granted their request for trial by jury, Mr. Puckett said.
The general has a number of thorny issues to settle besides the requests for immunity.
Mr. Puckett wants Petty Officer McCabe tried in Norfolk, rather than in Iraq, where a military judge has sent the other two courts-martial. He thinks it may be difficult to persuade some defense witnesses to travel to Iraq. If the government will not pay travel expenses, his client would have to cover the thousands of dollars in costs himself.
Military prosecutors have told defense attorneys that they will not bring Abed to the United States for the three trials.
“They claim that it’s too difficult to arrange for everything,” Mr. Puckett said in an interview. “You can imagine - transportation; permission of the Iraqi government; State Department problems. They just said they could not do it.”
Mr. Puckett and the prosecution team are set to go to Baghdad next month to depose Abed on video. The government then would try to introduce the testimony at trial in Norfolk.
Gen. Cleveland has come under such intense criticism over the case that he felt it necessary to write an open letter last month to Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, saying the concerns expressed by at least three dozen lawmakers were “based on incomplete and factually inaccurate press coverage” of the case.
“These allegations are not founded solely on the word of the detainee, but rather, were initially raised by other U.S. service members,” the major general wrote. “While the assault and resulting injury to the detainee were relatively minor, the more disconcerting allegations are those related to the sailors’ attempts to cover-up the incident, particularly in what appears to be an effort to influence the testimony of a witness.”
Mr. Burton rejected the general’s reasoning, writing in reply earlier this month that his concerns were only “reinforced by your letter.”
The congressman wrote, “The fact that fellow U.S. service personnel initially raised the accusations against Petty Officers Huertas, McCabe and Keefe strongly suggests that we have created a culture within our armed forces where our military personnel are now more concerned about protecting themselves from legal jeopardy for every action or statement than they are about fighting the enemy. Our troops and these SEALs need to be bold and decisive in combat, not hesitant and over-thinking every action for fear of prosecution.”