BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A senior U.S. army officer who was Saddam Hussein’s jailer was himself jailed after a court martial in Baghdad on Friday found him guilty of charges including illegal possession of secret documents.
Lieutenant-Colonel William Steele, 52, the former commander of a detention facility that held Saddam before his execution last December, was sentenced to two years in prison, dismissed from the army and ordered to forfeit all pay and allowances.
He was also found guilty of refusing to obey an order and behavior unbecoming an officer for his relationship with an Iraqi woman interpreter. The sentence covers those charges and three others he pleaded guilty to at a pre-trial hearing.
He was acquitted on the more serious charge of aiding the enemy, which carried a term of life imprisonment, for allowing detainees to use his mobile telephone for unmonitored calls.
Steele was the highest-ranking U.S. officer to face a charge of aiding the enemy since Captain James Yee, a Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, was charged in September 2003. The army eventually dropped the case.
Prosecutor Captain Michael Rizzotti told the court on Friday that nearly 12,000 secret documents had been found in a search of Steele’s living quarters.
“(They were) documents that if (they had) fallen into the wrong hands could be used to the injury of the United States or the advantage of a foreign nation. He did not get authority to take these documents,” Rizzotti said.
Much of the trial was held in closed session because of the sensitive nature of the documents, but reporters were given a glimpse of one which contained aerial photographs of Kandahar airbase and Bagram airfield in Afghanistan.
Steele, whom the prosecution painted as a maverick who believed rules did not apply to him, opted not to testify during the court martial but read out a statement during sentencing in which he apologized “for my stupidity”.
He said he had lost 40 lbs (18 kg) while in custody, during which time he was confined to his cell for 23 hours a day.
“I violated the confidence and trust of those who selected me for the mission,” he said.
His term will be reduced by the 229 days he has served in detention in Kuwait pending trial and a further 25 “credit” days.
The court heard how Steele sent intimate emails to his interpreter Bahar Ahmed Suseyi, including one saying “there are a few things I need to do with you/to you”.
The prosecution had argued that he openly favored Suseyi over other interpreters and provided her with special privileges. Suseyi testified that she had a professional relationship with the colonel and thought of him as a friend.
Steele’s wife Judith, who has been attending the trial since it began on Monday, told the court on Friday she did not believe her husband had an affair with Suseyi.
“I read the emails. I just don’t see anything that indicates anything actually happened,” she said.
Prosecutors struggled from the beginning to make the case of aiding the enemy, with the judge, Lieutenant-Colonel Timothy Grammel, warning at the start of the trial that they would have to prove that detainees still qualified as enemies.
Rizzotti told the court on Friday that in one instance Steele had allowed an al Qaeda detainee “responsible for hundreds of deaths of coalition forces” to make a five-minute unmonitored telephone call in Arabic.
“We’ll never know who was called, we’ll never know what was said. ... It’s the equivalent of putting an AK-47 in his hand.”