World and Nation

U.S. Commander Charged With Aiding Iraqi Detainees at Prison

The American military has charged a top commander at its main detention center here with nine violations of military law, including “aiding the enemy,” a rare and serious accusation that could carry a death sentence.

According to a military statement released Thursday, the officer, Lt. Col. William H. Steele, provided aid to the enemy between Oct. 1, 2005, and Oct. 31, 2006, “by providing an unmonitored cellular phone to detainees” at Camp Cropper, an expansive prison near Baghdad International Airport that held Saddam Hussein before he was hanged.

Steele, who oversaw one of several compounds at Camp Cropper as commander of the 451st Military Police Detachment, was also charged with several counts of illegally storing and marking classified information; failure to obey an order; possession of pornographic videos; dereliction of duty regarding government funds; and conduct unbecoming of an officer — for fraternizing with the daughter of a detainee since 2005, and for maintaining “an inappropriate relationship” with an interpreter in 2005 and 2006. There were no further details given to explain the circumstances of the accusations.

Military officials said that Steele was detained last month and was now in Kuwait awaiting a military hearing to determine whether the case would proceed. They emphasized that he should be presumed innocent.

“Is there enough evidence or information that this needs to go to a court martial?” said Lt. Col. Josslyn L. Aberle, a military spokeswoman. “That’s where we’re at right now.”

Walter Huffman, a former Army judge advocate general and now the dean of the Texas Tech University law school, said that a death sentence was unlikely, because to convict Steele of the most severe form of aiding the enemy, prosecutors would have to show that he intentionally endangered American troops or missions. In this particular case, he added, that would mean proving that he knew the cell phone was being used to make calls that would put Americans at risk. “That is a difficult charge to prove,” he said.

Huffman, who emphasized that he had not seen the specific charges or details of Steele’s case, said the fraternization charge sounded as if it was not code for sex but rather a reference to the simple impropriety of regular contact with a detainee’s relative.