A military jury late Saturday convicted an Army interrogator of negligent homicide in the death of an Iraqi general who had been stuffed face-first into a sleeping bag.
After seven hours of deliberations, the six-officer panel found Chief Warrant Officer Lewis E. Welshofer Jr. guilty of the charge, which carries a maximum sentence of three years in military prison. Had he been convicted of murder, he could have been given a life sentence.
The panel also found Welshofer guilty of dereliction of duty.
Welshofer, 43, is the highest-ranking officer tried on murder charges in a case of detainee abuse in the Bush administration’s war on terrorism, human rights monitors say.
Welshofer stood mute in his dark-green uniform as he listened to the verdict, swallowing silently.
Prosecutors left the courtroom without commenting, forbidden from talking to reporters by their superiors. Defense attorney Frank Spinner said: “I think the verdict recognizes the context in which these events took place. It was a very difficult time in Iraq.”
The verdict in the court-martial came hours after Spinner contended that the interrogator had been heeding an August 2003 e-mail from the office of the U.S. commander in Iraq.
The e-mail cited by the defense, from Capt. William Ponce, said: “The gloves are coming off, gentlemen.... We want these individuals broken. Casualties are mounting.”
In a reply to the e-mail, Welshofer wrote that the military needed to loosen its standards, which he said were more useful during World War II. “Today’s enemies, especially in southwest Asia, understand force, not ... mind games.”
Welshofer was rebuked for suggesting violations of the Geneva Convention. But two weeks later, a Sept. 10 memo from the top commander in Iraq authorized several new interrogation techniques, including one that Welshofer says gave him permission to stuff Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush into the sleeping bag, bind him with an electrical cord, straddle his chest and occasionally cover his mouth.
Mowhoush, 57, who had been brutally beaten two days earlier -- allegedly by CIA contractors -- died in the bag, in a prison in the Iraqi border town of Qaim. The prosecution contended he suffocated; the defense argued he died of a heart attack.
“An interrogator’s job, when you’re told to take the gloves off and you have techniques called ‘Fear Up, Harsh’ ... is to make the detainee uncomfortable,” said Spinner, referring to techniques detailed in the Sept. 10 memo. “Your job is to put [the detainee] under stress.”
That does not mean jettisoning decades of standards, countered the lead prosecutor, Maj. Tiernan Dolan. “This case ... has been about our officer corps’ need to maintain the high ground, especially in a country like Iraq, where our presence may be resented,” he told the military panel. “If we can’t set an example under harsh circumstances, we’ll no longer be who we are.”
Saturday’s closing arguments encapsulated a debate since the Sept. 11 attacks over how to treat an enemy that does not follow the regular rules of war.
Mowhoush, once a confidant of Saddam Hussein, allegedly was leading the growing insurgency in western Iraq when he surrendered to U.S. forces in November 2003.
Shadowing the closing arguments was the CIA’s role in Mowhoush’s interrogations.
Welshofer had interrogated the general several times, once slapping him in the chest, before the interviews turned markedly more violent, according to witnesses at the trial. Iraqi nationals apparently in the employ of the CIA entered the interrogation room Nov. 24 and beat Mowhoush for 30 minutes with rubber hoses and insulation.
Welshofer said he did not control that session, but other witnesses testified that he seemed to be directing the questioning. Mowhoush had to be carried back to his cell.
The next day, Welshofer’s team took Mowhoush to the prison roof and pinned him down while the lead interrogator poured water on his face, according to multiple witnesses. Welshofer and another interrogator also repeatedly hit the general’s elbows -- an action Welshofer has characterized as more like tapping, saying it was intended to be an annoyance.
That night, according to a witness who testified from behind a green tarp, Welshofer talked about the latest regulations from Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then U.S. commander in Baghdad. The witness, whom an attorney inadvertently implied worked for the CIA, said that Welshofer said “he was pretty sure they were breaking those rules every day.”
The next morning, Mowhoush was stuffed into the sleeping bag, and soon died.
Though court rules forbade anyone from naming the CIA during the trial, Spinner questioned why “civilian interrogators” who presided over a beating were not being prosecuted. “How is it that this ... witness is so concerned about the Army applying their rules when we know his own organization was so flagrantly violating the rules?” Spinner said.
Spinner also scoffed at criticism of his client’s tactics.
“We’re putting interrogators on the front line, and even as people are dying, we are saying, ‘Get that info,’ ” Spinner said, but “ ‘if there are gray areas, back off; take the easy right [action].’ And so what if a few more U.S. soldiers die?”
Dolan replied that the urgency of the situation in Iraq did not give Welshofer permission to violate the law. “Because the need for intelligence was so great and soldiers are dying, we should abandon our values?” he asked rhetorically. “That ain’t the law and that isn’t what makes us what we are. We’re a nation of laws.”
The sleeping-bag technique had been approved by Welshofer’s supervisor, but he said he had not told her that he sat on detainees’ chests or occasionally covered their mouths to prevent them from talking over his questions.
He said he’d used the technique a dozen to two dozen times in Iraq.
Dolan said the fact that Welshofer had not told his supervisor all of the details of the sleeping-bag technique showed he had been trying to conceal illegal behavior. The prosecutor called the method “the most dangerous technique in [Welshofer’s] bag of unauthorized tricks and techniques.”
Dolan emphasized the testimony of two witnesses that the general had stilled for several minutes with Welshofer straddling him, and that Welshofer then stood. The witnesses said that the general gasped as if he had been drowning and that Welshofer expressed relief that he had not died, then flipped him over and sat on his back.
Welshofer denied their account.
The judge, Col. Mark Toole, instructed the jury that even if Welshofer believed the sleeping-bag technique was permitted, that did not clear him of criminal responsibility.
“Authority to use certain interrogation techniques does not justify or make lawful a death,” he said. “The killing of a detainee during interrogation is never justified.”
David Danziger of Human Rights First, a New York-based group that observed the trial, said the case demonstrated broader problems. “I think it’s shocking what Chief Welshofer did, and I think it’s shocking what was authorized,” he said. “The Army, Sanchez and others opened the door to these abuses by putting out guidance that changed a lot, was unclear and didn’t serve the soldiers in the field.”
Welshofer’s sentencing is expected Monday.