WASHINGTON — The CIA removed its station chief in Iraq and reorganized its operations there in late 2003 following "potentially very serious leadership lapses" that included the deaths of detainees in the U.S. custody, according to a newly released document and former senior officials.
The memorandum and other partially declassified documents shed a rare light on the abuse and death of detainees in CIA custody, a subject the agency has long sought to shield from public view.
The CIA's Baghdad station chief was reassigned just weeks after two Iraqis, Manadel al-Jamadi and Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush, died, reportedly while being interrogated in November 2003.
The heavily censored document, in the form of "talking points" for a senior agency official to brief the House Intelligence Committee, doesn't reveal the exact reasons for the removal of the head of station. He was one of three station chiefs in Baghdad in less than 10 months, according to the former officials — an embarrassing record at a time Iraq was the top U.S. national security priority.
The May 4, 2004, memorandum, which describes serious problems in the agency's Baghdad station, the biggest CIA presence overseas following the March 2003 U.S. invasion, was included in thousands of pages of documents which the Justice Department released late Monday in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.
The CIA's Directorate of Operations "responded to missions we were given for which in some cases our officers were not properly trained/experienced (i.e. jailers)," the memo says.
Also in May 2004, then-CIA Director George Tenet formed a special Detainee Working Group to coordinate the agency's response to a growing outcry fueled by revelations of sadistic behavior by Army personnel at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
Other documents show the CIA responding to requests for files from Navy and Army lawyers involved in prosecutions after the Jamadi and Mowhoush deaths, in which military personnel were also implicated.
In contrast to well-documented abuses at Abu Ghraib and the Guantanamo Bay detention center, much remains unknown about the fate of detainees under CIA control.
At least five are thought to have died, and the whereabouts of dozens of other "ghost detainees," whom the U.S. government has never acknowledged holding, is unknown.
Most of the material involving such cases was blacked out from the 2004 report by the CIA's inspector general on the agency's detention and interrogation program that was released Monday.
Declassified portions of the report by Inspector General John Helgerson, who's since left the agency, refer only to the beating death of an Afghan, Abdul Wali, at a joint Army-CIA base in Asadabad, Afghanistan in June 2003. A CIA contractor, David Passaro, was convicted of assault in that case.
Helgerson investigated other potentially criminal abuses and referred them to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. Overall, the military and CIA referred two dozen cases to Justice during the Bush administration; Passaro's case was the only one involving the CIA that went to trial.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that he was opening a preliminary probe into whether CIA officials or contractors should be criminally investigated for going beyond interrogation guidelines set by the Bush-era Justice Department.
Helgerson, in a telephone interview Tuesday, declined to comment on specific cases, and said he wouldn't "second guess" the Justice Department's past decisions not to prosecute.
"The fact that we do a crime report does not necessarily mean that we believe it should be prosecuted," he said.
Attorneys from the Eastern District of Virginia "spent countless hours in our work spaces," Helgerson said. "I don't second guess Justice ever on what they prosecute and what they don't."
CIA spokesman George Little declined comment on the May 2004 memo, which suggests serious lapses regarding detainees and other issues at the agency's Baghdad station.
The problems were serious enough that the chief of the CIA's covert arm, the deputy director for operations, convened an Accountability Board, which can reprimand or discipline agency officials. The DDO at the time was James Pavitt, who couldn't be reached to comment.
CIA station chiefs normally operate under cover and their identities aren't made public. A former senior CIA official familiar with the events said the agency had an "unhappy" experience with Baghdad chiefs and had three in less than a year.
The first lasted only briefly after the toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal CIA business.
The second, whose removal was described in the heavily redacted CIA memorandum, was a relatively junior officer who, overwhelmed by the job, "wasn't paying enough attention to the detainee situation" and the ghost detainee issue, the former official said.
The third station chief bragged after his posting about mistreating detainees in Iraq and was investigated, the official said. The investigation determined "he was exaggerating," for reasons that remain unclear, he said.
The document illustrates how the agency struggled to manage its mushrooming presence in Baghdad.
"Leadership was not experienced enough to manage this size operation as it grew together with such a complex playing field in an extremely . . . dangerous environment," it says.
(Marisa Taylor and Margaret Talev contributed to this article.)
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