A former U.S. jail commander was acquitted of aiding the enemy. All the same he was sentenced to two years confinement for unauthorized possession of classified documents and an inappropriate relationship with an interpreter.
Lt. Col. William H. Steele, a 52-year-old Army reservist from Prince George, Virginia, had faced a life sentence if convicted of accusations he allowed prisoners use of his cell phone for unmonitored calls.
The judge, Lt. Col. Timothy Grammel, found him not guilty of that charge but convicted him of unauthorized possession of classified documents, behavior unbecoming an officer for an inappropriate relationship with an interpreter and failing to obey an order. Steele had pleaded innocent to the three charges, although he pleaded guilty to four others at a pre-trial hearing.
Steele got credit for 254 days already served so will only have to spend about 15 months in jail, the judge ruled. He also will be reprimanded and dismissed from the service, and will forfeit all pay and allowances.
It was a relatively lenient sentence considering Steele could have received a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail on the classified documents charge.
The alleged incidents took place between October 2005 to February 2007, when Steele commanded the 451st Military Police Detachment at Camp Cropper prison that held Saddam before he was hanged last December.
Steele later served as a senior patrol officer at nearby Camp Victory with the 89th Military Police Brigade. The charge of illegally holding classified documents pertained to that period.
The prosecution had argued that Steele had a history of flouting the rules and claimed he loaned an al-Qaida-linked 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."
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 an officer.
Steele's wife, Judith, who is also an Army reservist, testified on behalf of her husband during the sentencing phase of the trial described the e-mails written by her husband to the interpreter as "inconsequential."
She broke into tears describing their daughter's learning disability and the sacrifices it has taken to care for her at their home in Virginia.
"My husband has always been very supportive of me and my Army career. I've had to travel a great deal as a reservist," she said. "I saw them more as conmforting e-mails than anything else."
Steele 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.
Much of the trial, which began Monday, was 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 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 already had pleaded guilty to three other charges during an Oct. 7 pre-trial sentencing hearing - including wrongfully storing and improperly handling classified information and possession of pornographic videos - which carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison, forfeiture of pay and dismissal from the Army.
Initially, Steele faced a possible death sentence on the charge of aiding the enemy, which under U.S. military law, is a capital offense. But a former acting commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, Maj. Gen. James Simmons, decided against the possible death sentence.