The Navy said yesterday it charged four of its SEALs with abusing detainees in Iraq, marking the first time that elite Special Operations troops have been accused of such offenses in the expanding series of probes into the U.S. military's mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The charges against the four sailors, which include assault, maltreatment of detainees and making false statements to investigators, arise from incidents between October 2003 and April of this year, the Navy said. Officials declined to release the names of those charged, saying they were being withheld because of the sensitive nature of the sailors' work, which can take them behind enemy lines on reconnaissance and sabotage missions.
Many of the charges brought against the SEALs this week grow out of a previously reported incident on Nov. 4, 2003, in which a detainee in the custody of the CIA died at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, officials said. The investigation continues, Navy officials said, and is expected to produce additional charges against other sailors. They said they did not know how many ultimately would be charged.
Until now, the only service members facing legal action for alleged abuses of Iraqi prisoners are seven members of an Army reserve military police unit that worked in the Abu Ghraib prison. In the hierarchy of status within the U.S. military, those part-time MP soldiers, drawn from a support unit, are virtually at the opposite end of the scale from Navy SEALs, who are seen as highly skilled and disciplined troops trained to operate in extremely dangerous situations.
Being a Navy SEAL is so prestigious that specialists in exposing phony claims of military service say that more people have falsely claimed to be SEALs than actually have been. There are about 2,000 SEALs on active duty and just a handful of SEAL teams, with the most famous being SEAL Team 6, which is based in Dam Neck, Va., and specializes in counterterrorism operations. SEAL stands for "Sea, Air and Land" operations, underscoring the versatility of the units.
The four new charges came after announcements by Pentagon officials over the past two weeks that dozens of additional charges against soldiers were likely to be filed. Army investigators said they have concluded that in addition to the seven already charged in connection with alleged offenses at the Abu Ghraib prison, 30 other soldiers and contractors participated in abuse there, and 11 more could face charges or disciplinary action for not reporting what they saw.
Also, the Army last month charged a soldier for abuse of an Afghan detainee, and Army officials said earlier this week that they expect to charge 25 other soldiers in connection with abuses in Afghanistan.
Some details of the Nov. 4 death of the detainee at Abu Ghraib were included in a report issued last week by Army Maj. Gen. George R. Fay, which said a Navy SEAL team captured an Iraqi during a raid. The Iraqi was suspected of being involved in an attack on Iraqi security forces and had several weapons with him at the time of his apprehension, the report said.
"He was reportedly resisting arrest, and a SEAL team member butt-stroked him on the side of the head" -- that is, struck his head with the butt of a rifle -- "to suppress the threat he posed," the Fay report said.
The CIA took custody of the prisoner when he was brought into Abu Ghraib and placed him in a shower stall with a sandbag over his head, the report said. When an MP checked him less than an hour later, the detainee was dead. "This incident remains under CID [Criminal Investigation Command, part of the Army] and CIA investigation," the Fay report stated.
A Navy official said that after the initial investigation was concluded without any charges being brought, a former Navy SEAL who was working with the SEALs made additional allegations that led the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to reopen the inquiry.