Case against U.S. officer in Iraq profiled

Times Staff Writer

U.S. military prosecutors Monday began outlining their case against an Army commander accused of aiding the enemy, suggesting that he let a "high-value" detainee use his cellphone and carried on an inappropriate relationship with the man's daughter.

The line of questioning pursued on the first day of a military hearing appeared to be aimed at showing that Lt. Col. William H. Steele abused his position as commander of the 451st Military Police Detachment at Camp Cropper in Baghdad, and continued such behavior later with the 89th Military Police Brigade.

The Article 32 inquiry, the military equivalent of a preliminary hearing, will determine whether a court-martial is warranted against Steele, 51, a reservist from Virginia who oversaw hundreds of high-value detainees. He would face nine charges, including aiding the enemy, conduct unbecoming an officer, failing to obey an order, possession of pornographic videos and mishandling classified information.

Steele's case marks the first time the U.S. military has weighed charges of aiding the enemy against a service member in Iraq. A conviction at a court-martial could carry a sentence of life imprisonment or death.

One witness testified Monday that he saw Steele copying material from a government computer. Another said Steele gave the detainee's daughter a box containing computer programs and what appeared to be blueprints.

The charge of aiding the enemy stems from allegations that Steele permitted the detainee to make unmonitored calls using Steele's cellphone.

Witnesses said guidelines require that guards initiate calls on behalf of detainees, while interpreters listen to the ensuing conversation.

Virginia, Florida cases

The case does not appear to be the first time Steele has run afoul of law enforcement. Public records indicate that a man with the same name and year of birth was arrested in 2003 in Virginia and in 1993 in Florida.

The Virginia case involved a misdemeanor charge of threatening bodily harm and ended with a guilty verdict, records show. The Florida case involved felony charges of aggravated child abuse and resisting a law enforcement officer that were dismissed, court records say.

Prosecutors alleged that Steele, a former sheriff's deputy in Florida, withheld food from his 11-year-old stepson and struck him for failing to do chores and homework. Charges were dropped in exchange for Steele allowing court protection for the boy.

Military officials would not confirm or comment on the cases.

The Pentagon said Steele lives in Prince George, Va., and grew up in Frostburg, Md.

Details surrounding the Iraq-related accusations were not read aloud in the wood-paneled room at the Camp Victory military base in Baghdad, but the questions by attorneys from both sides shed light on them.

The first witness, Army Special Agent Patrick Rasmussen, a computer forensics expert, said he found 37 adult pornographic videos and 122 pornographic photographs on a laptop that prosecutors seized as part of the investigation. "The suspect's e-mail appeared to be adulterous in nature," Rasmussen said.

Public records identify Steele's wife as Judith Steele.

Two laptops allegedly used by Steele contained secret documents, according to prosecutors. Their contents were not revealed during the proceeding, which went into closed session several times when evidence deemed classified was presented.

Later, Lt. Col. Quentin Crank, whose 494th Military Police Detachment replaced Steele's at Camp Cropper in October, testified to seeing Steele copy "in excess" of 20 CDs off a government computer when the two briefly overlapped and shared an office at Cropper for a few days.

About three months later, Steele returned to Camp Cropper on a day when detainees were being visited by family members, and presented a box to the daughter of one of the center's detainees, Crank and another witness, Capt. Michael Borgel, testified.

Crank said the box appeared to hold computer programs.

He said Steele also handed the daughter what appeared to be large blueprints. Borgel, also a member of the 494th MP unit, said that before coming on visiting day, Steele had phoned to say he had college papers to drop off for a detainee's daughter.

Prosecutors have not released the age of the daughter, but Crank said her father made it clear that he did not like the attention the American was paying to her. The father was upset when Steele showed up at Camp Cropper the same day his daughter was there for a family visit, Crank said.

Prosecutors also allege that Steele maintained a relationship with an Iraqi interpreter in 2005 and 2006.

Steele, a tall, dark-haired man, sat quietly throughout the first day of the hearing, beside his two military attorneys.

The alleged wrongdoing is said to have begun around October 2005 and to have ended this February, when Steele was removed from his post. He was detained in March.

At the conclusion of the inquiry, the officer hearing the case, Col. Elizabeth Fleming, will decide whether to recommend a court-martial.

The hearing resumes today and is expected to include telephone testimony from witnesses who have returned to the United States.

Detention controversies

The case marks the latest controversy over the U.S. military's handling of detention facilities in Iraq. Several soldiers faced charges over their roles in the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison scandal in which Iraqi detainees were tortured and humiliated.

Also Monday, the military announced that an army medical officer, Lt. Col. James M. McCormick, pleaded guilty at an April 13 court-martial to two counts of willful dereliction. While working as a physician's assistant with Task Force 399th Combat Support Hospital, McCormick examined a female soldier without a chaperon present and without wearing gloves, the military said in a statement. He was sentenced to forfeit two months' pay totaling $13,552 and his activities were restricted for 45 days.

The U.S. military also said Monday that a Marine in western Iraq was killed during combat operations Sunday. The name was withheld pending notification of the family.

His death brought total U.S. fatalities for April in the Iraq theater to 104, making it the deadliest month this year and one of the worst since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks casualties in the war. Since the invasion, 3,351 American troops have died, according to the website.

April was even more devastating for Iraqi civilians. More than 1,500 were killed in bombings, assassinations and sectarian violence, according to figures from the Iraqi Health Ministry. An additional 2,334 were wounded, according to the ministry.

In addition, 127 Iraqi police officers and 63 Iraqi soldiers were killed in April, according to figures from the Interior and Defense ministries.

Insurgents continued their attacks Monday north of the capital, in restive Diyala province. A suicide bomber wearing an explosives-laden vest killed at least 32 mourners at a funeral for a Shiite Muslim man shot to death two days earlier.

Witnesses said the bomber walked inside a funeral tent in the city of Khalis, pretending to be a mourner. "He was a stranger," said Kareem Mansoor, a family member. "But we didn't do anything about it. Strangers come to funerals all the time."

Bomb includes chlorine

In the western Iraqi city of Hit, northwest of Ramadi, a truck bomb filled with explosives and chlorine gas exploded near a restaurant frequented by security officers of local Sunni Muslim chieftains. Ten people were killed and 10 injured, police said.

British and Iraqi forces in the southern city of Basra announced Monday that they had arrested a top leader in the militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. Sayyid Sallih Jezzaani was wanted in connection with funding and organizing death squads and attacks against Iraqi and coalition forces. His arrest spurred protests in Basra.

susman@latimes.com

Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Baghdad and special correspondents in Baqubah and Ramadi contributed to this report.

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