Source AP ©

US officer who let al-Qaida-linked inmates use his cell phone likely to be sentenced to life in prison

A decision by a former U.S. commander at the jail that held Saddam Hussein to loan an unmonitored cell phone to an al-Qaida-linked inmate was the equivalent to giving the suspect an AK-47, a prosecutor said Friday in closing arguments.

Lt. Col. William H. Steele, 52, faces a life sentence if convicted of accusations he allowed high-ranking former regime prisoners use his cell phone for unmonitored calls. It is not known if Saddam was among them.

Steele's case has raised issues on defining who is considered an "enemy." The defense maintains that Saddam regime detainees, once in jail and on trial, should be viewed as civilians in U.S. custody.

The prosecution argued that Steele had a history of flouting the rules and provided details about the allegation that he loaned an inmate an unmonitored cell phone, despite rules that inmate calls should be arranged in advance and conducted with an interpreter present.

"You heard in this courtroom, in a closed session, that he handed detainee number 2184, an al-Qaida member in Iraq, his personal cell phone and allowed a five-minute conversation. It was the equivalent of putting an AK 47 in his hands," prosecutor Capt. Michael Rizzotti said.

"All it takes is a phone call and if that detainee can communicate with someone outside, that can put soldiers of the United States at risk," Rizzotti said. "The second he handed over that phone for an unmonitored phone call, in Arabic, that is the second he aided the enemy."

Steele, an Army reservist from Prince George, Virginia, chose not to testify in his own defense in the first court-martial on charges of aiding the enemy since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

He also faces three other charges, including unauthorized possession of classified documents. He has pleaded not guilty to all four charges.

Defense attorney Maj. David Barrett denied that Steele ever provided a cell phone for an unmonitored conversation and said his client was doing his job by treating the detainees in a humane fashion.

"Long after we leave Iraq, and we will leave it, what will be left? It's the impression of the soldiers that will really matter," Barrett said. "Lt. Col. Steele treated the detainees with dignity and respect. Let's not confuse that with sympathy for the enemy."

Barrett also said Steele's storage of classified documents was an "honest mistake" and he argued that the defendant's relationship with an interpreter did not constitute behavior unbecoming of an officer.

Judge Lt. Col. Timothy Grammel then began deliberations on a verdict.

Much of the trial has been held behind closed doors, when officials said classified information was discussed.

The only other U.S. officer known to have been accused of collaborating with the enemy since the 2003 start of the war was Capt. James J. Yee, a Muslim chaplain who was linked to a possible espionage ring at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, military prison. He was eventually cleared and given an honorable discharge.

Steele has already pleaded guilty to three other charges - including storing and improperly handling classified information and possession of pornographic material - which carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison, forfeiture of pay and dismissal from the Army.

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