A former Army Special Forces soldier working as a contractor for the CIA in Afghanistan was charged yesterday with brutally assaulting a prisoner during three days of interrogations that ended in the Afghan man's death last year.
David A. Passaro, 38, became the first civilian to be charged in the scandal surrounding the abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. A grand jury in Passaro's home state of North Carolina handed up a four-count indictment that accused him of using a large flashlight to beat a detainee suspected of participating in rocket attacks on a U.S. military base near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Abdul Wali died in his tiny mud-walled cell last June 21, three days after he surrendered for questioning at the front gate of Asadabad Base. Justice Department officials said that Passaro was charged with assault rather than murder because no autopsy had been performed on Wali that would have established the cause of death.
"It's a continuing investigation," Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said in announcing the indictment. "We would follow additional evidence to add charges if warranted."
The indictment comes as the U.S. military investigates allegations of detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan that extend beyond the mistreatment captured in widely published photographs at the Abu Ghraib prison. Earlier this month, the Pentagon said that it had investigated 36 deaths of detainees and that 12 inquiries were still open.
The Army announced yesterday that one investigation has resulted in a murder charge against a captain in the killing of an Iraqi man during an altercation on May 21 in Kufa, Iraq. Soldiers of the 1st Armored Division were chasing a vehicle believed to be carrying members of Moqtada Sadr's militia, and they shot and wounded the driver and passenger. The officer, whose name was withheld, is accused of fatally shooting one of them after the chase.
Ashcroft said yesterday that his department has received from the CIA additional referrals of possible prisoner abuse -- a number he had previously set at three. He said the department has also been asked by the Pentagon to investigate a case of possible abuse. He declined to detail the other cases or to say whether they involved deaths.
Passaro was arrested in Fayetteville, N.C., yesterday morning and is scheduled for a detention hearing Tuesday. Court officials said he had not yet retained a lawyer.
The CIA's inspector general began an investigation shortly after Wali's death and referred the matter to the Justice Department in November for criminal prosecution. The department sent the case to the U.S. attorney's office in Raleigh, N.C., earlier this year. Passaro was relieved of his duties and sent back to the United States after Wali died, Justice Department officials said.
Passaro was part of a clandestine paramilitary team made up of U.S. Special Forces and CIA personnel who capture and interrogate Taliban and al Qaeda members. He had worked for the CIA since December 2002 and got to Asadabad in early June 2003, said a U.S. official familiar with the case.
A member of the U.S. military who was based in Asadabad when the death occurred said three CIA workers -- one full-time employee and two contractors -- took part in interrogating Wali. Special Forces guards checked on him every several hours. About an hour after one interrogation session, guards entered the holding cell and discovered that "the man was dead," he said.
Immediately after Wali's death, he said, the CIA personnel left the base by helicopter. The soldier later learned that the CIA station chief in Kabul had been told that Special Forces troops had killed the man, according to the military source and an official in Washington. When the Special Forces team threatened to make the case public, the military source said, the CIA personnel admitted what had happened. An intelligence official in Washington yesterday called that allegation "flat wrong."
CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said: "We take allegations of wrongdoing very seriously, and it is important to bear in mind that the CIA immediately reported these allegations to the CIA inspector general and the Department of Justice. . . . The CIA does not support or condone unlawful activities of any sort and has an obligation to report possible violations of the law to the appropriate authorities."
Wali's final days were chronicled by an American, Hyder Akbar, 18, whose father, Sayed Fazl Akbar, had returned to his native Kunar province to become the governor there after the fall of the Taliban. Portions of a tape-recorded diary that Hyder Akbar kept during a visit with his father were played Dec. 12 on National Public Radio.
Sayed Fazl Akbar, speaking into his son's tape recorder, said he asked the Americans to hold off using military force to capture Wali, who he said "had been on the Americans' and the coalition force's most-wanted list for cooperating with terrorists or being a terrorist." Wali was deeply fearful of turning himself in to the Americans, said the elder Akbar, so Akbar sent his son to go with him "as a sign of trust."
Said Hyder Akbar: "So I took him to the Americans. And, like, they're asking him where he was 14 days ago on the night of the three rockets. And this guy, like, don't have calendars, you know? . . . I just put my hand on his shoulder and I let him know: 'Just say the truth. Nothing is going to happen if you just say the truth.' And he was absolutely petrified, and he could barely whisper the okay."
Three days later, Hyder Akbar and his father returned to Asadabad to check on Wali. A translator named Steve and another American named Dave sat down with them, according to Hyder Akbar, and said, "Unfortunately, Abdul Wali passed away." Hyder Akbar said: "My jaw dropped. It's like 'Oh, my God.' . . . They said that at 3:30, 4, he just collapsed and they tried to make him stand again. And he stood for a second, but then he fell again and then they did the whole routine with the CPR and they said no expenses were held, just like they would have treated an American life."
Hyder Akbar said the Americans told him Wali was well treated, but that he had "put rocks in his mouth," tried to break free of his shackles and "hit his head against the wall a couple of times." Akbar said he was taken to see the body and saw no marks on Wali.
"It's hard not to feel responsible," Akbar said. "Poor guy was only 28. He was just so scared."
Passaro trained as a police officer in Hartford, Conn., but was fired in 1990 during his probationary period after he was arrested by state police on an assault charge, according to Hartford police spokeswoman Nancy Mulroy. Passaro pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, she said.
Ashcroft said the Wali investigation has been slowed somewhat by the exigencies of war, classification issues and the dispersal of witnesses to other international locales.
Each of the four assault counts against Passaro is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Ashcroft said a team of prosecutors experienced in cases involving classified information and national security issues has been created to handle other cases of alleged prisoner abuse.