In 2017, while I was writing my book Trump/Russia, I put in a Freedom of Information request for the FBI file of a deceased Russian mobster. I foolishly thought I might be able to get a response in time to include it in my book.
Instead, it turned out to be the start of a four-year odyssey that drew to a close recently.
My FOIA request, which became a FOIA lawsuit, boiled down to a simple question: What was Donald Trump’s name doing in the file of a Russian gangster?
A few weeks ago, a federal judge declined my request to force the FBI to release 150 pages that might have shed some light on that.
The end result will do little to clarify the ongoing debate over Trump and Russia. The Russiagate deniers can continue to claim, correctly, there was no proof of any conspiracy, while those who believe that Trump successfully covered up his ties to Russia remain equally correct when they say we still don’t have all the answers.
Some of those answers may have been in the FBI file I was seeking. It belonged to Vyacheslav Kirillovich Ivankov, a top Russian mobster or vor y zakone (“thief who follows the code”), who arrived in America in 1992. He was arrested three years later and was sentenced to prison for conspiring to extort $3.5 million from two Russian emigres who ran an investment advisory in Manhattan. Ivankov served nine years. Upon release, he was deported to Russia where he was later assassinated.
While researching my book, I learned that during his time in New York, Ivankov kept popping up in Trump’s properties. First, sources told me that agents tracked him to Trump Tower. Next, he turned up at Trump’s new casino, the Taj Mahal.
Upon his arrest, FBI agents seized Ivankov’s phone book. According to author Robert I Friedman, who obtained a copy of Ivankov’s phone book, it included a working number for the Trump Organization’s Trump Tower Residence, and a Trump Organization office fax machine.
In response to my initial 2017 FOIA request, the FBI sent me 875 previously-released pages that confirmed that agents had tracked Ivankov to the Taj Mahal.
I wondered what other secrets might be buried in the file.
The FBI’s file on Ivankov ran to nearly 38,000 pages. Processing that large a file for public release would take years and cost more than $1,000 in duplication fees, so I agreed to reduce the scope of my request.
All I was interested in, I told the FBI, were the portions of the file that dealt with Donald Trump.
In January 2018, an FBI FOIA specialist told me over the phone that what I wanted could be found in a 528-page section of the file. There would be some privacy hurdles to clear first, she told me.
This was progress and it amounted to a confirmation of sorts that Trump’s name was in the file. How many other future U.S. presidents have appeared in the FBI file of a gangster?
But this bit of information, tantalizing as it was, meant little and only raised fresh questions.
Was Trump merely an innocent third-party mentioned in passing? Did Ivankov’s gambling at the Taj Mahal result in scrutiny of Trump? Or, as some have speculated, was Trump providing information to the FBI as a confidential source?
To answer those questions, I filed a FOIA lawsuit in federal court in Washington, DC. Mark Zaid and Bradley Moss, two well-known FOIA and whistleblower attorneys, took on my case pro bono.
The case was assigned to Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who was intimately familiar with Trump and Russia. Judge Jackson had presided over the trials of Paul Manafort and Roger Stone.
This was my first time filing a FOIA lawsuit and I was surprised to see the FBI, after months of no activity, switfly handed over 378 pages. But Trump’s name was not mentioned once anywhere on those pages.
That left the 150 pages the FBI wouldn’t let me see. The Freedom of Information Act allows the government to exempt information from disclosure on a variety of grounds. Some of these exemptions, such as the names of FBI agents involved in the case, were irrelevant.
There were a few exemptions, however, that could potentially be hiding Trump’s name. The most commonly cited exemption on about 90 of the pages withheld in full was one protecting confidential FBI sources. That was followed by names of people of “investigative interest” to the FBI, an exemption cited on 76 of the pages withheld.
Even though Trump was president, he hadn’t surrendered his privacy rights. To force the FBI to disclose any of that information, we needed to show that this information was already in the public domain.
There was a precedent for disclosing this information. An FBI memo released more than 20 years ago under a FOIA request by The Smoking Gun revealed that in 1981, Trump had offered to “fully cooperate” with the bureau over a casino he was trying to build in Atlantic City, New Jersey. “Trump stated in order to show that he was willing to fully cooperate with the FBI, he suggested that they use undercover Agents in the casino,” the memo states.
With that 1981 memo, we argued, the government had already revealed that Trump was willing to cooperate with the FBI to provide information on organized crime at his casino in Atlantic City, so there was no reason to hold back when Vyacheslav Ivankov showed up at the Taj Mahal 12 years later.
The FBI responded with what’s known as a “Glomar response.” What this means is the FBI was telling us it couldn’t confirm or deny whether Trump was a confidential FBI informant but, hypothetically, if he was, the FBI still couldn’t confirm it because “doing otherwise jeopardizes the FBI’s confidential source program.” The FBI couldn’t even tell us if Trump wasn’t a CI because that could potentially reveal who the real informant was.
Furthermore, the government claimed that we couldn’t show that the 1981 FBI memo had been officially released by the bureau’s Record/Information Dissemination Section (RIDS).
RIDS was unable to confirm whether the record was officially placed in the public domain via an authorized FBI records release. The FBI does not routinely release third party informant records to the public. Therefore, RIDS did not consider this record as an authorized official disclosure by the agency that would trigger a FOIA waiver. Second, even if the FBI were to consider the record submitted by plaintiff, which it is not, the record failed to impart informant status to Mr. Trump.
Franz Kafka would have smiled at that one.
And that, pretty much, was that. Judge Jackson was left with no issue of dispute to rule on. On August 20, the case was dismissed.
While the FBI was telling us how carefully it protects the private information of future U.S. presidents, Trump’s former deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein admitted that he had made the decision to release the intimate personal texts between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page because it would not violate their rights to privacy. Trump used these texts to mock and deride Strzok and “his lover” Page, complete with fake orgasms.
It’s an old story: Where there’s an executive will, there’s a legal way. What the president wants to keep secret stays secret.
An Iraqi died under CIA torture in Abu Ghraib prison.
Why did a Navy SEAL platoon take the blame?
By Seth Hettena
(Copyright @ 2020)
I. A death in Abu Ghraib
Today, March 19, marks the 18th anniversary of the Iraq War, a conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 4,400 American servicemen and women. Another 31,000 were wounded
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis also perished in the years since U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq. This is a story about one of them, the death of a man named Manadel al-Jamadi. It’s a story I have been reporting on and trying to tell for more than a decade, but it’s also a story that parts of the CIA and the special forces didn’t want to be told.
Manadel al-Jamadi died in 2003 in CIA custody the shower room of Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, a few hours after he was captured by Navy SEALs.
If al-Jamadi’s body had been treated with respect, his name would be lost to history, another casualty in a long and bloody war.
But that’s not what happened. What did happen is a few members of the U.S. Army National Guard decided to have a little fun with his corpse.
In the photos that surfaced in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, you can see al-Jamadi’s corpse packed in ice while the soldiers who were pulling duty as prison guards leered in the background.
Al-Jamadi’s death would be investigated by the Army, the Navy, the CIA, the Department of Justice, and finally Special Counsel John Durham. It was an investigation that led into the darkest parts of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation,” exposing early on how the program led to torture.
Someone had to be held accountable for what happened to the man on ice.
It turned out to be the members of the SEAL platoon that captured him.
One day they were heroes. They next day they were criminals.
And it all started with the word of a thief.
Jeffrey Hopper was a member of Seal Team Seven’s Foxtrot platoon, a reservist who had returned to active duty after 9/11. But the platoon wanted nothing to do with him.
His fellow teammates accused him of being a thief. They called him “klepto.”
Things would go missing after Hopper’s unit deployed to Iraq. Small stuff at first. A flashlight. An iPod.
One day, a SEAL named Ryan couldn’t find his body armor he wore to keep him safe on the battlefield. The whole camp was searched. No trace of it was found.
Someone happened to notice two small cigarette burns on the body armor Hopper was wearing.
The thing was Hopper didn’t smoke. Ryan did.
Someone tugged on the velcro straps on Hopper armor. There, in black marker, was Ryan’s name written on the inside.
Stealing someone’s body armor is the kind of thing that will get you kicked out of the SEALs. Which was exactly what was about to happen to Hopper in May 2004 when he met with the commanding officer of SEAL Team Seven back at SEAL headquarters in Coronado, California.
But before Hopper could be stripped of his Navy SEAL Trident, he told his CO he had something to say. He had seen members of his unit sadistically punch, kick and twist the testicles of defenseless prisoners.
Hopper couldn’t have timed his revelations any better. The Abu Ghraib prison scandal had just exploded in the press. President Bush went on Arab television to apologize.
“There will be investigations,” Bush said. “People will be brought to justice.”
There was one prisoner whose beating Hopper said had personally witnessed.
It was the ice man in the Abu Ghraib photos, Manadel al-Jamadi.
Part III. Lions Led by Dogs
There comes a point in every military career where a commander has to stand up for his men.
If he is worth his salt, a commander accepts responsibility for the actions of those under his command. If a ship runs aground, the captain is responsible, even if he or she happened to be asleep at the time.
“When things go wrong in your command,” General Bruce D. Clark once said, “start wading for the reason in increasing larger concentric circles around your own desk.”
Hopper’s commanding officer, Alex Krongard, certainly couldn’t ignore what Hopper had told him, but he had good reason to be skeptical.
Hopper, after all, was about to get kicked out of the SEALs. Didn’t Foxtrot platoon deserve the benefit of the doubt?
Foxtrot platoon had completed 120 successful missions in Iraq, capturing 365 people and killing about a dozen. They weren’t trigger happy. They were highly-trained professional soldiers.
Krongard could have done some checking of his own. He might have learned that things tended to disappear around Hopper. He might have learned that there were doubts about Hopper’s story.
But then again, Alex Krongard had his career to consider. The Abu Ghraib scandal was going to wreck careers. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had offered to resign. If Krongard stood by his men, who were connected to it however indirectly, some of that stink might land on him.
And Alex Krongard had a promising career ahead of him.
There’s a story about the Krongard family that might help explain what Alex did next.
Krongard was the son of Alvin “Buzzy” Krongard, a former chairman of the Baltimore investment firm Alex, Brown & Co., whom CIA Director George Tenet had picked for the No. 3 job at the spy agency.
Buzzy Krongard left the CIA in the fall of 2004 and took a seat on the advisory board of Blackwater, the military contracting giant founded by Erik Prince. Prince got to know Buzzy through Alex, who trained at Blackwater as a Navy SEAL.
Alex’s uncle, Howard “Cookie” Krongard, was the inspector general for the State Department. And the State Department had awarded Blackwater contracts worth more than a billion dollars to keep its personnel safe in Iraq.
In 2007, Blackwater personnel shot and killed 14 unarmed civilians in Nisour Square, a traffic circle in Baghdad, and wounded 18 more. Democrats in Congress held hearings and accused Howard Krongard of blocking State Department investigations into Blackwater.
Questioned about his brother’s role in the company, Howard Krongard testified that he had checked with Buzzy and he reported that his brother had nothing to do with Blackwater. After a recess, Howard Krongard sheepishly admitted that his brother did have a role with Blackwater. He recused himself from all State Department matters related to the company. His brother, Buzzy, resigned from Blackwater.
So what did Alex Krongard do when faced with Hopper’s allegations? He forwarded them up the chain of command for further investigation.
Krongard would be promoted all the way up to rear admiral. His men felt like they were being hung out to dry.
As one SEAL who served under Krongard told me, they were lions led by dogs.
Part IV. Kill or Capture
A dozen members of Foxtrot platoon would be accused in one way or another of prisoner abuse.
Navy prosecutors started rounding up suspects and threatened them with prison if they didn’t talk. One member of the platoon was led away in handcuffs from his wedding rehearsal dinner
Dan Cerrillo was one of the accused. He spent 12 years on active duty in the SEALs. He was awarded a Bronze Star for bravery and a Purple Heart.
He faced a slew of charges in the al-Jamadi case and was found not guilty of all of them except taking an unauthorized photo and making a false official statement.
Cerrillo quit in disgust over the way he and his teammates were treated during the al-Jamadi case. Even after all the Navy did to him, he continues to help prepare young men who want to become SEALs.
Cerrillo was Foxtrot Platoon’s breacher. His main job was to sprint up to a door and blast it open with an explosive charge, storm inside and take the prisoner into custody. And he did it in the dead of night while wearing 60 pounds of gear, including a helmet, body armor with two ceramic plates, an M4 rifle, a 9mm pistol, grenades, a knife and a radio.
That’s what he was wearing after midnight on November 4, 2003, when Foxtrot platoon set out to find al-Jamadi on a joint CIA-special forces mission.
The CIA’s sources had identified al-Jamadi as a group cell leader of the Abu Abdullah terrorist group that had blown up the Baghdad offices of the Red Cross in October 2003, killing 12. The explosion left a crater six feet deep and shattered windows a mile away, and it was one of five blasts that rocked Baghdad within a 45-minute span that morning.
The CIA’s sources also said al-Jamadi had two tons of high explosives at his disposal to cause even more havoc and bloodshed.
Foxtrot platoon usually went on “capture or kill” missions. The objective was to bring suspects back alive so they could be questioned and future attacks could be thwarted.
The al-Jamadi mission was “killl or capture.” If he put up a fight, the SEALs were told to put him down.
Part V. Turning Steel
Al-Jamadi lived in Al Mahmudiyah, a short, dangerous drive south of Baghdad. Al Mahmudiyah marked the upper boundary of an area known as the Triangle of Death, a hotbed of the insurgency.
Based on the intelligence, Cerrilo and his partner, Jay, who was the unit’s other breacher, built C-3 double-tamped charges, which contained a few hundred grains of explosive encased in rubber. Just enough to blow the lock open without hurting anyone on the SEAL team or anyone inside.
Jay and Cerrillo took turns alternating as lead breacher, the one who actually set the explosive charge. This mission, it was Jay’s turn.
According to the CIA’s sources, al-Jamadi lived on the third floor, at the far right end of enclosed hallway behind a wooden door.
The assault team ran up to the third floor and then held back while Jay ran down the hallway to the right, prepping his breaching charge as he went. Eight, nine seconds passed while he slapped the charge on the door and backed off.
“Turning steel,” Jay said into his headset. That was the signal that the charge was about to go off.
Jay flew inside the apartment and the rest of the primary breach team followed and grabbed the man inside.
It was the wrong man.
“This is not the house!” the platoon leader called out “This is not the house! Reset! Reset!”
The platoon leader pointed Cerrillo to a door at the other end of the hallway. “It’s that one right there!”
Cerrillo ran up to the door and got his breaching charge ready. Right as he was about to attach it he heard a faint noise, “rrrrrt” — the squeak of a door opening or the creak of a floorboard.
He attached the charge, backed up two steps and then saw a little flash of light as the door opened less than an inch and shut again.
The hair on the back of Cerillo’s neck stood up.
Part VI. “I was hitting him anywhere I could, and he was hitting me.”
I’ll let Cerrillo tell what happened next.
“I paused for a split-second, and then sprang up into door and hit is as hard as I could. The first thing I did was to grab hold of the guy standing behind it and try to take him to the ground.
“It was al-Jamadi, all right. He was about eight inches taller than me, but under the circumstances he seemed like a giant.
“There wasn’t enough room to bring him down in the tight hallway, with my teammates pushing to get past me. I slammed him against the wall and we tumbled into the kitchen, just to the right of the doorway. We crashed together onto the wooden kitchen table.
“I was hitting him anywhere I could, and he was hitting me. His hands were up under my face. So we were like that, fighting for a moment on top of the kitchen table, and then it broke beneath us and we crashed together onto the floor.
“He landed half on top of me. I bench-pressed him up off of me and slammed him back down and got on top of him and started pounding away. I was trying to hit him as hard as I could, but I only connected a couple of times. I hit him in the eye and in the jaw, but I was hitting the cement floor of the apartment with my gloved hands just as often. My hands were raw and swollen the next day, and they still bear the scars today. He had his hands on my neck. He must have been hitting me, too. The next day, I had a fat lip and I was sore.
“At that moment, all I could think about was shooting this fucking guy. Shoot him. Shoot him. But I couldn’t grab my gun. The shattered kitchen table was in the way and I just kept slapping the wood when I reached for my pistol. I was on my knees, with his hands on my neck, and I tried to stand up. There was an oven door handle and I grabbed hold of it to pull myself up. It was a heavy steel stove, and when I pulled on it, the thing toppled over.”
The stove landed on al-Jamadi’s head. The fight was over.
Winded from the fight, Cerrillo cuffed al-Jamadi and got him up and brought him over to the doorway.
For a long time after that, whenever Cerrillo saw the photos of al-Jamadi or thought about him, he believed that he had killed him.
Then he learned the CIA had.
Part VII. “I’m Manadel”
Al-Jamadi’s wife and kids were all in the living room. Watching. One of his children was crying. His wife was seated, wearing a little black and white kaffiyeh and a blue dishdasha. Nobody said anything.
Then, al-Jamadi turned to Cerrillo and, in perfect English, told him, “Don’t beat me in front of my kids, OK.”
“I’m not going to beat you here in front of your kids,” Cerrillo told him. “You fuck up, I’m going to beat your ass when we get outside.”
“Do not fuck around,” Cerrilo told him. “We’re leaving. You’re coming with us.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.
“You know why we’re here,” Cerrillo told him.
He didn’t say anything after that.
It was someone’s job to mark time during the operation. Now, the unit heard the elapsed time announced over their headsets. Three minutes had passed since they arrived at the apartment building.
The lieutenant who led Foxtrot platoon, Lt. Drew, searched the apartment. In the apartment hallway, he found a gun. Cerrillo had probably knocked it out of al-Jamadi’s hands when he slammed into the door. Lt. Drew also found a knife in the kitchen, a big bronze dagger.
“Who’s this guy?” Lt. Drew asked Cerrillo.
“This is him,” Cerrillo repled.
“Well, how do you know?” Lt. Drew asked. “We gotta make sure.”
Cerrillo turned to al-Jamadi.
“Hey, fucker. Is your name Mohammed?” Cerrillo asked.
“No I’m Manadel,” he replied.
Cerrilo turned back to his platoon leader.
“I told you. It’s fucking him!”
Part VIII. Stuck on a Cul-de-Sac in the Triangle of Death
The SEALs were instructed to bring al-Jamadi outside so the CIA’s source could identify him.
Cerrillo led al-Jamadi out and put a sandbag over his head.
Out in the hallway, al-Jamadi started acting up. He started kicking like a mule. He was doing everything he could to make things difficult. It was like trying to get a drunk out of a bar. So Cerrillo gave him a couple of open hand shots hard to the back of his head, just as he had warned him he would.
He marched al-Jamadi to the CIA vehicle, pulled back his hood and shined a light in his face. The tinted window on the black Suburban rolled down.
Inside, the source confirmed they had right guy. Brandon, a nerdy agency case officer, gave the thumbs-up.
Cerrillo loaded al-Jamadi into one of the Humvees. The way the SEALs got detainees into the Humvee was by leaning their chests over the tailgate and then lifting their legs up so they basically did a somersault into the Humvee.
The SEALs had practiced the maneuver on themselves and they say that, while it didn’t feel great, it didn’t hurt. It was the fastest way to get a detainee loaded and they were all about getting out there as soon as possible. This maneuver would later become one of the allegations of “prisoner abuse.”
The SEALs couldn’t leave right away. One of the CIA vehicles had taken a wrong turn on the way to the target and had gotten lost. So they waited.
“Five minutes,” the timekeeper called.
Not good. The mission was taking too long.
Lights started coming on in the apartments above and around them. They started seeing heads popping up in windows and over the rooftops. Pilots in a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter that was taking part in the mission started seeing men running between buildings.
They were just sitting there, stuck on a cul-de-sac in the Triangle of Death.
Finally, the lost CIA vehicle found them. Just in time, too, because they the clatter of small-arms fire as the convoy roared off.
Jeff Hopper would claim that he saw al-Jamadi being beaten in the back of the Humvee. That night, however, he was riding in a different vehicle.
The convoy stopped to regroup at the 82nd Airborne base about a mile away. The SEALs were in good spirits. They had just captured the leader of a terrorist cell that blew up the Red Cross.
Someone pulled out a camera and snapped a few group photos to memorialize the moment. The photos would later become evidence in criminal proceedings.
Then they were off again, back to the SEAL base at Baghdad International Airport.
Part. IX The Romper Room
Cerrillo and the rest of the unit went to bed.
For al-Jamadi, the suffering was about to begin.
He taken to an area on base the SEALs sarcastically referred to as the “Romper Room.”
There, he was doused with cold water and interrogated by CIA and Naval Special Warfare personnel.
Two SEALs were present for the entire two-hour interrogation in the Romper Room. Their on-scene commander wanted them there, as one put it, to ensure that nothing got out of hand and no one died on the SEAL base.
In the Romper Room, a CIA officer used a mix of force, threats and humiliation to try to get al-Jamadi to talk.
According to one of the SEALs, the CIA officer pressed his forearm into al-Jamadi’s chest or pushed down hard on his shoulders during the interrogation.
At another point, al-Jamadi was made to stand against the wall. His arms were stretched out away from him, and someone threatened to hit his hand with a hammer, though no one did.
After about an hour, al-Jamadi had been stripped down to his underwear. Those who saw him couldn’t help but notice the healed “scars from hell” on his body. They reminded one person of the scars on John Rambo, the damaged Vietnam vet played by Sylvester Stallone in the movie First Blood.
“I’m going to barbecue you!” the CIA officer screamed at al-Jamadi.
At one point, according to one witness in the room, the interpreter translated al-Jamadi as saying “I’m dying, I’m dying.”
“You’ll be wishing you were dying,” the CIA officer replied.
Part X. “Palestinian hanging”
The prosecution of the SEALs took place in a military courtroom on the 32nd Street Navy base in San Diego. I covered the case for The Associated Press.
Inside the courtroom, the proceedings were full of secrets.
Every so often, a military judge would clear journalists from the courtroom to discuss classified matters. The only civilians who stayed behind were a pair of young CIA attorneys. When the day’s proceedings wrapped up, they would rush off to a classified phone to report back to Langley.
The biggest mystery of all was how al-Jamadi had died. It was clear there was something the government didn’t want the public to know.
All we were told is that he was found dead in the shower room at Abu Ghraib prison. The CIA had taken him there after leaving The Romper Room. He was a “ghost detainee.” He was being held off-the-books in the prison.
One day, a defense attorney for a Navy SEAL lieutenant was interviewing a witness when he asked a question that got my attention:
“What position was Jamadi in when he died?”
One of the CIA attorneys in the courtroom leapt out of his seat.
“That’s classified!” he shouted.
It took me a while, but I found out the position al-Jamadi was in when he died.
The answer was in a pile of documents a lawyer let me read in his musty, wood-paneled office in the suburbs of San Diego.
First, al-Jamadi’s arms were handcuffed behind his back.
Per the CIA’s instructions, he was made to kneel. A chain was attached from the handcuffs to a barred window above the prisoner’s head in the Abu Ghraib shower room.
If he tried to lean forward, his arms would be wrenched painfully back up over his head.
This position is known as a “Palestinian hanging,” named for its alleged use by Israel in the Palestinian territories.
During the interrogation, an Army guard who saw what was going on said he was surprised that his hyperextended arms didn’t “pop out of their sockets.”
An autopsy ruled the death the result of blunt force trauma and compromised respiration.
But Michael Baden, a medical examiner who consults in many high-profile cases, reviewed the autopsy at the request of defense attorneys for one of the SEALs. Blunt force injuries were insufficient to kill al-Jamadi because he was alive and well when he entered the prison.
“Asphyxia is what he died from—as in a crucifixion,” he told The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer.
One of the grim facts of crucifixion is that its victims are slowly strangled to death.
Part XI. The New Sheriff
This was a glimpse into the CIA’s interrogation program when the gloves were still off, before the revelations of Abu Ghraib set in motion a chain of events that led the agency to shut down the program.
Americans weren’t supposed to hang prisoners by their shoulders. President Bush was assuring the world that America didn’t use torture.
Someone at the CIA hadn’t gotten the message. I suspected that some people in the agency were following a different set of rules.
It turned out I was right. The confirmation for that came from an unlikely source – the man who waterboarded Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the principal architect of 9/11, 183 times.
James Mitchell was a former Air Force psychologist who helped design the CIA’s interrogation protocols. He later revealed that, in the program’s early days, techniques were employed that went way beyond what the Department of Justice or the agency had authorized.
This might sound strange coming from the man who advocated waterboarding detainees, which makes subjects feel like they’re drowning. But Mitchell drew the line at causing physical harm. Waterboarding, he wrote, “is scary and uncomfortable but not painful.”
Some in the CIA disagreed with Mitchell. They wanted to inflict pain.
“There was this other view,” Mitchell testified, “that what you do is you essentially hurt the person until they tell you what you want to know, and then you hurt them a little bit more.”
One of the main proponents of this “other view” was a veteran CIA officer named Charlie Wise.
Wise had served with the CIA in Nicaragua where had learned how to inflict pain in ways that didn’t leave any marks. Like making people kneel with a broomstick behind their knees.
Wise had been reprimanded for his role in other troubled interrogation efforts in the 1980s in Beirut, according to The Washington Post.
In his 2016 book, Enhanced Interrogation, Mitchell recounted a harrowing “interrogation” Wise conducted around Christmas 2002 in a secret prison in Poland. The subject was Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the suspected mastermind of the bombing of the USS Cole.
…the chief interrogator stood al-Nashiri up and cinched his elbows together behind his back with a leather strap until they touched. Then the chief interrogator and one of the newly minted interrogators started lifting al-Nashiri’s arms behind him, toward the ceiling. Al-Nashiri bent over and screamed. I knew this had not been approved.James Mitchell, Enhanced Interrogation
Just like the guards in the Abu Ghraib shower room, Mitchell wrote that he believed the prisoner’s arms were going to pop out of their sockets.
Mitchell doesn’t name Wise in his book, but media reports identified him as the man Mitchell calls the new sheriff.
That was the first thing Mitchell heard arrived at the secret prison in Poland. “There is a new sheriff in town,” Wise had told him. “I’m calling the shots now. Wise told Mitchell he had decided to “start over from square one” and employ techniques he had used in Latin America during the 1980s.
Mitchell complained about Wise to CIA leadership and ultimately told his account to the agency’s inspector general. Wise left the agency in the summer of 2003 and died shortly thereafter from a heart attack.
Even with Wise gone, his influence continued to be felt in the spy agency’s nascent interrogation program.
Wise had personally trained a group of five to eight hand-picked interrogators. He had instilled in them his belief that the CIA’s approved techniques didn’t go far enough and taught them the things he believed would do the job.
Mitchell called them Wise’s “acolytes.”
Part XII. Playing Possum
Another mystery in the prosecution of the Navy SEALs was the identities of the CIA personnel who were in the room when al-Jamadi died.
One evening, while I was covering the al-Jamadi case for the AP, I met a source in a hotel room in San Diego who allowed me to look through a cache of military documents.
One document prepared by Army investigators identified the CIA interrogator who was questioning al-Jamadi.
His name was Mark B. Swanner. He was a polygraph examiner at the CIA.
Swanner was the guy in the “Romper Room” who had threatened to smash al-Jamadi’s hands with a hammer and told him he was going to barbecue him.
The Senate’s investigation into the CIA’s torture program found that agency-trained interrogators “included individuals who, among other issues, had engaged in inappropriate detainee interrogations, had workplace anger management issues, and had reportedly admitted to sexual assault.”
In its response, the CIA conceded that a shortage of people willing and able participants in the interrogation program was “a huge challenge.”
Was Swanner one of Charlie Wise’s “acolytes?” He sure acted like it.
While he was interrogating al-Jamadi in Abu Ghraib, Swanner had acted like it was a completely normal thing to watch someone dangle from their wrists.
When Army MPs were summoned into the shower room to reposition al-Jamadi, the guards were stunned to see the prisoner in such a contorted position, but Swanner seemed almost blasé.
“He was kind of calm,” Tony Diaz, one of the MPs on the scene later recalled. “He was sitting down the whole time. He was like ‘Yeah, you know, he just don’t want to cooperate. I think you should lift him a little higher.’”
Swanner said the Iraqi was faking injury – “playing possum,” as he put it.
The guards released the shackles, lowered al-Jamadi, and removed the nylon bag on his head.
Blood gushed from his mouth “as if a faucet had been turned on,” one guard recalled. “After we found out he was dead, they were nervous,” Army Specialist Dennis E. Stevanus said of the CIA interrogator and translator. “They didn’t know what the hell to do.”
“No one’s ever died on me before when I interrogated them,” said the CIA translator in the room with Swanner, a heavyset Lebanese-Christian called Clint.
The next day, al-Jamadi’s corpse was spirited out of Abu Ghraib on a stretcher with an IV stuck in his arm to make it appear that he was still alive.
Swanner no longer works at the spy agency. He has never commented on the al-Jamadi case. In photos I found on Facebook (under an alias), he seems to be living a happy retirement from the agency.
Part XIII. Bull Durham
John Helgerson, the CIA Inspector General, sent investigators to Naval Special Warfare Command in Coronado in the spring of 2004 to interview SEALs about al-Jamadi’s death.
“We know you didn’t kill him,” one of Helgerson’s investigators told Dan Cerrillo. “We just need to know what injuries you caused so we can eliminate them.”
The CIA Inspector General’s office forwarded its findings to the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia. The case sat dormant for years.
Finally, John Durham got the case. In June of 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he had accepted Durham’s recommendation to conduct full criminal investigations for two deaths in custody.
One was Gul Rahman, a suspected Afghan militant who froze to death in 2002 in the Salt Pit, a, frigid, secret CIA prison in a former brick factory north of Kabul.
The other was Manadel al-Jamadi.
The al-Jamadi remains the only known case where you can put a CIA officer in the room with a prisoner who died in a position the world recognizes as torture.
It has taken years of media reports, a lawsuit, and United Nations inquiry to pry out even the most basic facts about Durham’s investigation into CIA interrogations.
Durham and his team of prosecutors and FBI agents interviewed 96 witnesses. Those summoned to testify before a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia included Dan Cerrillo and others from Foxtrot platoon, including Jeff Hopper. Mark Swanner testified. So did his boss David Martine, the former chief of the CIA’s Detention Elicitation Cell in Iraq, who was accused of destroying evidence – the hood covering al-Jamadi’s head. Even the Abu Ghraib guards who took photos of detainees were called in to testify.
Little more than a year later, AG Holder announced that Durham had closed his investigation without filing any criminal charges.
AUSA John Durham has now completed his investigations, and the Department has decided not to initiate criminal charges in these matters. In reaching this determination, Mr. Durham considered all potentially applicable substantive criminal statutes as well as the statutes of limitations and jurisdictional provisions that govern prosecutions under those statutes. Mr. Durham and his team reviewed a tremendous volume of information pertaining to the detainees. That review included both information and matters that were not examined during the Department’s prior reviews. Based on the fully developed factual record concerning the two deaths, the Department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.
With that decision, John Durham ensured that the only people who were charged with a crime in connection with al-Jamadi’s death were the ones who didn’t kill him: The men of SEAL Team Seven’s Foxtrot Platoon.
The decision was strongly criticized. Later, the Justice Department said Durham’s review was limited to whether any prosecutable offenses were committed and did not include “the broader questions regarding the propriety” of the conduct.
Durham laid out his reasoning in a report submitted to Holder’s chief of staff in 2012. Those reports have never been made publicly available.
Durham refused to speak to outside investigators. “Durham would not even return our phone calls,” Daniel Jones, the former Senate investigator who compiled the more than 6,000-page report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation programs, told me. “He refused to speak to us.”
“It makes you wonder now about Durham,” Jones continued. “What was going on? Why did he refuse to speak with the Senate investigators? And how did he come to the conclusion he did, given the CIA records the Senate reviewed?”
The Department of Justice has spent years fighting to Durham’s reports secret. Charlie Savage, a reporter at The New York Times, filed in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to bring them to light. The newspaper lost the battle to make the reports public.
Interestingly, Durham noted in a court filing in the New York Times lawsuit that disclosing the names of covert personnel involved in the interrogation program, “could subject them to harassment or embarrassment as well as undue public attention,” according to the judge’s ruling the case.
No one seemed too concerned about harassing or embarrassing the SEALs who faced charges in the case.
These days, John Durham is investigating a subject near and dear to Donald Trump: the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia. Trump liked to call him “Bull Durham.”
“You have Bull Durham, who is supposed to be the toughest,” Trump said. “I’ve never met him. Never spoke to him. But he’s supposed to be the smartest and the best.”
Someday, Durham will reveal the findings of his investigation of the investigators.
The question we’re left with when does is this: Was the FBI’s investigation of a presidential campaign a bigger crime than crucifying an Iraqi prisoner to death?
A former New York City Mob underboss says that investigators questioned him in recent years about Trump’s ties to a Russian Mobster who purchased five condos in Trump Tower in the 1980s.
Michael Franzese, who left the Mafia after a stint in prison and became a born-again Christian, made the disclosure in a YouTube video posted to his channel on February 8.
In the video, Franzese says he was questioned — although he wouldn’t say by whom — “during the Mueller investigation.” Franzese says investigators wanted to know about his former business partner, a convicted Russian Mobster named David Bogatin.
In the 1980s, Franzese was a capo in the Colombo crime family when he partnered with Bogatin in a massive gasoline tax scam that generated as much as $9 million in cash, per week, according to Franzese’s 1996 testimony before the Senate.
Franzese revealed in his YouTube video that he had been a silent partner with Bogatin when Bogatin purchased the Trump Tower condos for $5.3 million in 1984. Franzese said Bogatin paid for the condos in cash.
“As a result of that, I got questioned — I’m not gonna tell you by who — during the Mueller investigation because it came out that my friend David was the front guy buying them at that time,” Franzese said.
“They came to me and they tried to establish a Trump connection with Russia as a result of him selling those condos to me and David Bogatin,” he continued.
Franzese said the investigators wanted to know why Trump took cash for the apartments. He says he did not know the answer.
I emailed both Franseze and the Department of Justice to to see if I could find out more. If I get a response, I’ll update this post here.
In his YouTube video, Franzese claimed that Bogatin had a family member in the KGB. This is unlikely given that Bogatin was Jewish. Jews were usually targets of Soviet intelligence, not employees.
What is certain is that Bogatin had a brother, Jacob, who got indicted in 2002 in a massive stock fraud along with Russian Mob boss Semion Mogilevich.
Mogilevich remains a fugitive and, as a result, Jacob Bogatin, his co-defendant, was never brought to trial.
Last I checked, both Jacob and David Bogatin continue to live in the United States.
Franzese also doesn’t mention some other facts I uncovered while reporting my book: First, it was Trump who convinced Bogatin to invest in Trump Tower. And second, Trump insisted on attending the condo signing.
But if Franzese is telling the truth about the investigators who questioned him about Bogatin and the Trump Tower condos, it’s a sign that, nearly 40 years later, Trump’s shady dealings with Russian Mobsters still haunt him.
The new round of reporting with insight from members of Robert Mueller’s notoriously tightlipped team offers very strong support to the view that the special counsel’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election was more damaging to President Trump — perhaps far more damaging — than the initial impression shaped by Attorney General William Barr.
Mueller may have made the mistake of assuming good faith on the part of an administration where that’s in extremely short supply. Barr’s letter purportedly laying out the special counsel’s principal conclusions now risks looking more like a political whitewash than a genuine effort to inform the people charged with protecting our country and the American people.
It’s been three weeks since Mueller submitted his final report, and all we have seen of it are the roughly 100 words t quoted in Barr’s letter, the most important are actually in a footnote, which defines the terms of Mueller’s criminal “coordination” inquiry. He defined that term as an “agreement — tacit or express — between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference.”
A definition like that has extraordinary power. It draws a bright line between an abuse of power in pursuit of higher office that would almost certainly set the stage for impeachment and what the president has called a “complete and total exoneration.” Furthermore, in Barr’s legal view, if there was no underlying criminal act, then there can be no obstruction of justice, no matter how damning the evidence may be.
But legal conclusions aren’t the only issue at stake — they might not even be the most important. What we may learn is that even if the Trump campaign didn’t meet a strict, legal definition of coordination, it still presented a national security threat. What’s more, it still might be doing so.
The “coordination” part of Mueller’s investigation assessed evidence through a most narrow frame. The shortcoming with this approach is that the interference effort in the 2016 campaign was deliberately designed to hide the Russian government’s role in the affair. If the line Mueller drew was an agreement of some kind with the “Russian government,” then the chance that anyone connected with the Trump campaign would face criminal conspiracy charges over election interference was exceedingly low. Looking for the Russian government’s unseen hand in the murky contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia is bit a like chasing smoke.
Russia’s vaunted intelligence directorate was never going to send its spies to meet Trump campaign officials on a foggy bridge in Berlin. Russia did, however, send use all manner of cutouts and access agents to deliver messages to the Trump campaign to ensure maximum ambiguity and plausible deniability.
One example is the case of Roger Stone. Even if, say, Stone did coordinate the release of Democratic Party emails with Wikileaks, as he proudly hinted during the campaign, that would still fall outside the narrow scope of Mueller’s definition. Wikileaks wasn’t part of the Russian government, although Russia used it, unwittingly or not, as a cutout to publish Democratic Party emails. And Stone wasn’t officially a member of the Trump campaign.
In their prepared statements to Congress, both Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner issued nearly identical, carefully worded denials that they “did not collude with any foreign government” and know of no one who did. But that doesn’t cover the June 2016 meeting both men attended in Trump Tower with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer who wasn’t part of the Russian government although an email to the president’s son telling him she was bringing dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of the Russian government’s effort to help his father.
Did Paul Manafort know that the man who ran his Ukraine office, Konstantin Klimnik, had ties to Russian intelligence, as the F.B.I. suspsects? “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer,’” Manafort once said.
And what about the Trump Tower Moscow deal about which Michael Cohen admitted he lied to Congress? That wasn’t related to election interference. Neither were Kushner’s discussions with Russian officials during the campaign about forming a secret back channel. Mike Flynn pleaded guilty to lying about discussing sanctions, not election interference, with the Russian ambassador.
It’s hard enough to figure out what’s really going on in this through-the-looking-glass world famously likened to a “wilderness of mirrors.” The recently released transcript of George Papadopoulos, the young Trump campaign foreign policy aide convicted of lying to the F.B.I., reveals that he was still confused by Joseph Mifsud, the shadowy professor who told him in April 2016 that he had returned from Moscow and that the Russians had thousands of Clinton’s emails. “Why was he lying, or why would he be masquerading as something he’s not?” Papadopoulos asked during his House testimony.
It was Papadopoulos’s conversation with an Australian diplomat that in July 2016 set in motion the FBI counterintelligence investigation into Russian election interference. The job of FBI counterintelligence officials is primarily to neutralize a threat to national security, which may or not end up in criminal court. Mueller inherited the much-maligned investigation into whether the Trump campaign was a threat to national security. It will likely form part of his nearly 400-page report, along with an explanation of why such a tradition-bound prosecutor decided not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment about whether President Trump obstructed justice.
We do know that the Trump campaign not only didn’t say a word about that interference to any American charged with protecting our democracy but actually ennabled it — albeit without making a tacit, express agreement — and subsequently lied about it. That may not be criminal, but it is not exculpatory.
Alarming conduct continues: The blooming congressional investigation into White House security clearances revealed that such threats to national security are routinely disregarded by the Trump White House. More than two dozen individuals were granted access to the nation’s deepest secrets over the objections of security professionals for reasons that include foreign influence. Kushner was granted a security clearance reportedly on the personal order of the president.
All we know, based on the definition quoted in the attorney general’s letter, is that Mueller looked at certain events of the 2016 election through a very narrow lens — surely more narrow than the “links and/or coordination” between the Russian government and “individuals associated with campaign of President Donald Trump” he was charged with investigating.
We still have a lot to learn from the report about what happened to the “links” Mueller was charged with investigating, but there’s little doubt there were plenty of them.
This isn’t the first time a definition has determined the fate of a presidency. The definition of “sexual relations” was critical to whether President Clinton could be accused of perjury and impeached by the House. No one accepted Clinton’s definition of sexual relations, which didn’t apply to his actions with Monica Lewinsky. We shouldn’t be so quick to accept a hastily-written letter that may be using a narrow definition to provide political cover and exonerate the president.
“Due to ongoing threats against his family,” Michael Cohen announced yesterday that he was postponing his highly-anticipated congressional testimony.
The threats are coming from the White House where President Trump won’t stop talking about Michael Cohen’s father-in-law, a guy by the name of Fima Shusterman.
On a phone call January 12th with Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, the president of the United States launched into an extraordinary attack on Cohen’s father-in-law, a private citizen:
TRUMP: He should give information maybe on his father-in-law. Because that’s the one that people want to look. Because where does that money? That’s the money in the family. And I guess he didn’t want to talk about his father-in-law. Trying to get his sentence reduced. So it’s pretty sad. He is weak. And is very sad to watch a thing like that. I couldn’t care less.
PIRRO: What is his father-in-law’s name?
TRUMP: I don’t know but you’ll find out and you’ll look into it. Because nobody knows what’s going on other there.
The implication here is that Shusterman, a Ukrainian emigre, is some sort of Russian organized crime figure, although in typical Trump fashion he provides no evidence.
As readers of my book know, Trump knows that Shusterman is “the money” in the Cohen family because his business benefited from it.
Even with the spotlight the president has put on him, we still know very little about Michael Cohen’s father-in-law, Fima Shusterman. The only bit of insight comes from his 1993 testimony in federal court. So here goes.
Shusterman had pleaded guilty to the charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States. In exchange for leniency, he agreed to testify at the trial of Harold Wapnick, his accountant. Shusterman was sentenced to probation and fined $5,000.
On May 13, 1993, Shusterman took the witness stand in the court of Judge Carol Amon. Although he spoke some English, he had a translator present at his own request “because I do not understand English 100 percent.”
Q. Good morning, Mr. Shusterman.
A. Good morning.
Q. How old are you, sir?
Q. Are you married, Mr. Shusterman?
A. Yes, I am.
Q. And do you have any children, sir?
A. Yes, I have a daughter.
Q. Where were you born, Mr. Shusterman?
A. In the Soviet Union.
Q. When did you come to the United States, sir?
A. In May '75.
Q. And are you a citizen, Mr. Shusterman?
A. Yes, I am.
Q. Are you employed?
Q. Where are you employed?
A. I'm employed as a manager with Future Knits.
Q. And are you a co-owner of of Future Knits, sir?
A. Yes, I am.
Q. Who are your partners?
A. My partners are Shalva Botier and Edward Zubok.
Q. What business is Future Knits in?
A. This is a knitting factory.
Q. When was Future Knits established, sir?
A. I'm not sure. I think it was established in '81.
Q. Future Knits, sir, when was Future Knits established?
A. In 1988.
Q. And prior to Future Knits, sir, how were you employed?
A. I was employed with S&Z Fashions and LVA Corp.
Q. Were you a co-owner of those corporations?
A. Yes, I was.
Q. And were your partners the same individuals as your partners
in Future Knits?
A. Yes, correct.
Q. Were S&Z Fashions and LVA also in the knitting business?
Q. When did you join S&Z Fashions and LVA?
A. In July of '84.
Q. Between years 1985 to 1988, were you involved with any other corporations
other than S&Z and LVA and Future Knits?
Q. Did you have an ownership or office position with any other corporation, sir?
A. Yes. I was secretary with Martha Cab Corporation, and Bar Trans Corporation.
Q. And, sir, is Barn Transportation with an "N" end, B-A-R-N?
A. Barn, B-A-R-N.
Q. Who is shareholder of Martha and Barn, sir?
A. My wife was.
Q. Are you an officer of those corporations?
A. Yes, I am.
Shusterman was also secretary of N.Y. Funky Taxi Corp. and New York Fulton Taxi Corp.
Today, the chief executive of N.Y. Funky Taxi, Martha Cab and Barn Trans is Michael Cohen, who married Mr. Shusterman’s daughter, Laura, a year following her father’s guilty plea and court appearance. Cohen owns and operates a fleet of cabs in New York and Chicago.
Note to my readers: This work costs me both time and money (in the case of this transcript quite a bit of money). I do this work for free in the hope that people will find it valuable. If you agree, the best way you can support this work is by purchasing my book, Trump/Russia, which has much more information on the president’s decades-long connection to Russian criminal money.
Q. Mr. Shusterman, have you been convicted of a crime?
Q. What crime were you convicted of, sir?
Q. When were you convicted?
A. In March of this year, '93.
Q. How were you convicted, sir?
A. I pleaded guilty.
Q. And, Mr. Shusterman, in connection with your guilty plea,
did you enter into an agreement with the government?
Q. Would you tell the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Mr. Shusterman,
what your understanding is of that agreement?
A. My understanding is that I obligated myself to fully, 100 percent,
cooperate with the government.
Q. And did the government agree to do anything in return, sir?
A. Yes, they did.
Q. What did they agree to do, sir?
A. They would advise the judge about my full cooperation and
about my help rendered in their investigations.
Q. Mr. Shusterman, have you been sentenced yet?
A. No, not yet.
Q. Do you know what sentence you are facing, sir?
Q. What is that, sir?
A. Five years in prison, and up to $250,000 in fines.
Q. Sir, have any promises been made to you regarding your sentence?
Q. Do you know who will be sentencing you, Mr. Shusterman?
A. Yes, I do.
Q. And who is that, sir?
A. Judge Amon.
Q. Mr. Shusterman, you've testified that you pled guilty to
the crime of conspiracy. Could you tell the ladies and gentlemen
of the jury what is it that you did?
A. I concealed income from the state, and I cashed checks in the amounts
that exceeded $10,000.
Q. Mr. Shusterman, what did you need this cash for, sir?
A. To operate our business.
Shusterman goes on to say that from 1984 to 1988 he would regularly bring checks from his customers made out to S&Z Fashions, LVA, and Future Knits and leave them in Wapnick’s office.
A few days later, Shusterman would return and collect cash, always in amounts more than $10,000, in a paper bag or envelope. Wapnick would keep 3 percent for his services.
The total amount cashed with the Wapnicks was “somewhere between five and five and a half million dollars,” Shusterman testified.
Shusterman is then cross-examined by Harold Wapnick, who does a terrible job of representing himself with convoluted lines of questions.
However, he does stumble into a couple of things that are interesting in light of Trump’s claims that Shusterman is “the money in the family.”
Wapnick: Sir, you own a -- you own 40 percent of a
40-machine factory, sir?
Q. What percentage do you own of a 40-machine factory, sir?
A. 15 percent as of today.
Q. 15 percent. Would you say that the 15 percent value is in excess
of a million dollars, sir?
A. If you pay me half a million I'll sell it to you gladly.
Q. Thank you. How about the -- do you own five -- 9 taxicab medallions?
And are they worth about two million dollars?
The Court: Wait a minute. I don't think he gave an answer.
Q. Are they worth about two million dollars, sir?
A. Did you say two million?
Q. Let's say $170,000 apiece, and we multiply it by nine, so, okay --
what's a half a million dollars among friends. Is it worth ---
The court: I take it you're withdrawing your last question.
Wapnick: No I'm asking him is it worth a million and a half dollars, sir.
Shusterman: Only on paper.
A decade later, beginning in 2003, Shusterman made the first of three apartment purchases at Trump World Tower across from the United Nations building in Manhattan. By 2005, Shusterman had spent $7.6 million on Trump’s properties.
So where did this money come from and what did Trump know about it?