At Hearing in Iraq, U.S. Colonel Is Cast As Flouter of Rules

By Karin Brulliard and Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

BAGHDAD, May 1 -- Witnesses testifying at a hearing here Tuesday said a senior U.S. Army officer accused of aiding the enemy kept top-secret papers at his base residence, allowed child detainees to make unmonitored calls on his cellphone and provided former president Saddam Hussein with Cuban cigars at taxpayer expense.

Though some witnesses defended his work, much of the testimony cast Lt. Col. William H. Steele, a reservist and former Anne Arundel County police officer, as a commander who flouted a wide range of military laws and was careless with highly sensitive materials. One witness said Steele confessed to the charges against him.

When Steele left his job at western Baghdad's Camp Cropper detention center for another position in Iraq, he took 18,000 electronic and printed classified documents, witnesses testified. Investigators who searched his residence in February found some in a briefcase, said Special Agent Thomas Barnes, a senior military fraud investigator.

"I've never seen that amount of classified material not properly stored and not properly labeled and not properly protected," Barnes said. "I believe that if those documents were compromised, it could have been devastating."

Steele, 51, who oversaw a compound holding important detainees, including Hussein, also told interrogators that he considered himself a "humanitarian and he felt compelled to make [detainees'] lives better," Special Agent John Nocella testified.

Like the Abu Ghraib scandal, the allegations against Steele have raised questions about the behavior of military jailers in Iraq. But one of the key questions about Steele seemed to be whether he was treating detainees far too well, in violation of military law.

Steele has been charged with nine violations, including fraternizing with the daughter of a detainee, mishandling classified information and government funds, having an inappropriate relationship with an interpreter and possessing pornography.

The hearing, which ended Tuesday, amounted to a formal investigation. The presiding officer will issue a recommendation as to whether Steele should face court-martial. While the charge of aiding the enemy can be a capital offense, a military court liaison said Steele would be unlikely to face such punishment if convicted.

Steele worked as a police officer in Anne Arundel County from 1979 to 1990. He lived in Florida for a time and then settled in Virginia's Prince George County.

In Florida, Steele was charged in 1993 with aggravated child abuse in connection with the alleged mistreatment of a stepson, 11. According to an arrest affidavit filed in court, Steele struck the boy for failing to complete homework and chores, deprived him of food and called him "worthless."

Steele was also charged with resisting arrest when deputies sought to take him into custody Nov. 1, 1993, in connection with the alleged abuse. Prosecutors dropped both charges, in part because of concern about requiring the child to testify. In a subsequent proceeding in family court, Steele and his wife lost custody of the child, according to a source with knowledge of the proceeding.

In Prince George County, Steele was charged with two misdemeanor offenses after a dispute over the construction of a shed in 2003. Complainant Bachir Jamil, a contractor, said in court papers that Steele menaced him, saying, "You better get out of here or I'll blow your head off," and that Steele accused him of working for al-Qaeda.

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