FBI informant imprisoned and treated like an insurgent for 97 days
June 17, 2007
By Lisa Myers
For Donald Vance, a 29-year-old veteran and an American citizen, the desire to play a small part in a big event would lead to the scariest experience of his life. While in Iraq, he was neither a victim of a roadside bomb nor taken prisoner by insurgents. Instead, he was held captive by the U.S. government — detained in a secret military prison.
“It’s probably the worst thing I’ve ever lived through,” says Vance, who along with another American is now suing his own government, which he says “treated me like a terrorist.”
It all started in the summer of 2005 when Vance went to Baghdad. Born in Chicago, Vance had joined the Navy after high school and later worked in security.
He took a job with an Iraqi company, Shield Group Security, or SGS, which provides protection for businesses and organizations. Vance supervised security and logistics operations. Before long, he says he started noticing troubling things at the company — explosives and huge stockpiles of ammunition and weapons, including anti-aircraft guns. He worried they were going to militias involved in sectarian violence.
There was “more ammunition than we could ever, ever need,” says Vance. “We employed somewhere between 600 and 800 Iraqis. We had thousands of rifles.”
Vance became so alarmed by what he saw that when he returned to Chicago in October 2005 for his father’s funeral, he called the FBI office there and volunteered his services. He says he became an informant because, “It’s just the right thing to do.”
Once back in Baghdad, Vance says he began almost daily secret contact with the FBI in Chicago, often through e-mails and with officials at the U.S. embassy, alleging illegal gun-running and corruption by the Iraqis who owned and ran the company.
“I really couldn’t tell you how many days I thought about, ‘What if I get caught?'” says Vance.
In April 2006, he thought that day had come. His co-worker, Nathan Ertel, also an American, tendered his resignation. And with that, Vance says, the atmosphere turned hostile.
“We were constantly watched,” Vance says, “We were not allowed to go anywhere from outside the compound or with the compound under the supervision of an Iraqi, an armed Iraqi guard.”
Vance says an Iraqi SGS manager then took their identification cards, which allowed them access to American facilities, such as the Green Zone. They felt trapped.
“We began making phone calls,” Vance recalls. “I called the FBI. The experts over at the embassy let it be known that you’re about to be kidnapped. We barricaded ourselves with as many guns as we can get our hands on. We just did an old-fashioned Alamo.”
The U.S. military did come to rescue them. Vance says he then led soldiers to the secret cache of rifles, ammunition, explosives, even land mines.
The two men say they — and other employees who were Westerners — were taken to the U.S. embassy and debriefed. But their ordeal was just beginning.
“[We saw] soldiers with shackles in their hands and goggles and zip-ties. And we just knew something was terribly wrong,” says Vance.
Vance and Ertel were eventually taken to Camp Cropper, a secret U.S. military prison near the Baghdad airport. It once held Saddam Hussein and now houses some of the most dangerous insurgents in all of Iraq.
Here’s what Vance and Ertel say happened in that prison: They were strip-searched and each put in solitary confinement in tiny, cold cells. They were deliberately deprived of sleep with blaring music and bright lights. They were hooded and cuffed whenever moved. And although they were never physically tortured, there was always that threat.
“The guards employ what I would like to call as verbal Kung-Fu,” says Vance. “It’s ‘do as we say or we will use excessive violence on you.'”
Their families back home had no idea what was happening. Until they were detained, Vance had called or e-mailed his fiancée, Diane Schwarz, every day while in Iraq — and now he was not allowed to do either.
“I am thinking, you know, he’s dead, he’s kidnapped,” recalls Schwarz.
After a week of intense interrogations for hours at a time, Vance learned why he was detained. He was given a document stating the military had found large caches of weapons at Vance’s company and suspected he “may be involved in the possible distribution of these weapons to insurgent/terrorist groups.”
He was a security detainee, just like an insurgent. And he says he was treated that way.
“The guards peeking in my cell see a Caucasian male, instantly they think he’s a foreign fighter,” says Vance. He recounts guards yelling at him, “You are Taliban. You are al-Qaida.”
Vance says the charges against him were false and mirror exactly the allegations he had been making against his own company to the FBI.
“I’m basically saying to them: ‘What are you talking about? I’ve been telling you for seven months now that this stuff is going on. You’re detaining me but not the actual people that are doing it!'”
A military panel, which reviews charges against detainees, eventually questioned Vance and Ertel. Both men were given a document that said, “You do not have the right to legal counsel.” The men say they could not see all the evidence used against them and did not have the legal protections typically afforded Americans.
But they were eventually allowed very infrequent phone calls, which were very frustrating for Vance and his fiancée.
“He’s crying, you know, he’s not getting any answers and I’m not able to help him,” says Schwarz. “And he’s not able to help himself.”
The military cleared Ertel and released him after more than a month in prison. But Vance stayed locked up.
At that point, prohibited from keeping notes, he began secretly scribbling diary entries and storing them in his military-issued Bible, whenever he had access to a pen.
The military now acknowledges that it took three weeks just to contact the FBI and confirm Vance was an informant. But even after that, Vance was held for another two months. In all, he was imprisoned for 97 days before being cleared of any wrongdoing and released.
“I looked like hell, completely emaciated, you know — beard, shaggy, dirty,” remembers Vance. “They showered me, shaved me, cleaned me up and dumped me at Baghdad International Airport like it never happened.
Throughout the ordeal, the U.S. military said it thought Vance was helping the insurgents. Wasn’t that a reasonable basis to hold and interrogate him?
“They could have investigated the true facts, found out exactly what was happening,” says Vance. “What doesn’t need to happen is throw people in a cell, we’ll figure out the answers later. That’s not the way to do things.”
Donald Vance and Nathan Ertel have now filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government and Donald Rumsfeld, who was secretary of defense when they were detained. It is generally very difficult to sue the government, but experts say this case may be different because Vance and Ertel are American citizens; they were civilians held by the U.S. military; and they were detained for such a long time.
Military officials would not comment, but a spokeswoman previously has said the men were treated fairly and humanely. The FBI also declined to comment, as did officials at SGS. The company’s name has changed, but it’s still doing business in Iraq. Neither the company, nor its executives, has been charged with any wrongdoing.
Vance says he hopes the lawsuit will reveal why the military held him so long, and why he was denied the legal protections guaranteed American citizens.
“This is just another step of our Constitution slowly being whittled away,” says Vance when asked why with all the tragedies and injustice in Iraq anyone should care about his story. “It’s basic fundamental rights of our founding fathers.”
Osama bin Laden may have chartered a plane that carried his family members and Saudi nationals out of the United States after the September 11, 2001 attacks, said FBI documents released Wednesday.
The papers, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, were made public by Judicial Watch, a Washington-based group that investigates government corruption.
One FBI document referred to a Ryan Air 727 airplane that departed Los Angeles International Airport on September 19, 2001, and was said to have carried Saudi nationals out of the United States.
“The plane was chartered either by the Saudi Arabian royal family or Osama bin Laden,” according to the document, which was among 224 pages posted online.
The flight made stops in Orlando, Florida; Washington, DC; and Boston, Massachusetts and eventually left its passengers in Paris the following day.
In all, the documents detail six flights between September 14 and September 24 that evacuated Saudi nationals and bin Laden family members, Judicial Watch said in a statement.
“Incredibly, not a single Saudi national nor any of the bin Laden family members possessed any information of investigative value,” Judicial Watch said.
“These documents contain numerous errors and inconsistencies which call to question the thoroughness of the FBI’s investigation of the Saudi flights.
“For example, on one document, the FBI claims to have interviewed 20 of 23 passengers on the Ryan International Airlines flight … on another document the FBI claims to have interviewed 15 to 22 passengers on the same flight.”
Asked about the documents’ assertion that either bin Laden or the Saudi royals ordered the flight, an FBI spokesman said the information was inaccurate.
“There is no new information here. Osama bin Laden did not charter a flight out of the US,” FBI special agent Richard Kolko said.
“This is just an inflammatory headline by Judicial Watch to catch people’s attention. This was thoroughly investigated by the FBI.”
Kolko pointed to the 9-11 Commission Report, which was the book-length result of an official probe into the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington that killed nearly 3,000 people.
“No political intervention was found. And most important, the FBI conducted a satisfactory screening of Saudi nationals that left on chartered flights. This is all available in the report,” Kolko said.
On the issue of flights of Saudi nationals leaving the United States, the 9-11 report said: “We found no evidence of political intervention” to facilitate the departure of Saudi nationals.
The commission also said: “Our own independent review of the Saudi nationals involved confirms that no one with known links to terrorism departed on these flights.”
Meredith Diliberto, an attorney with Judicial Watch, said that her group had seen a first version of the documents in 2005, although the FBI had heavily redacted the texts to black out names, including all references to bin Laden.
Nevertheless, unedited footnotes in the texts allowed lawyers to determine that bin Laden’s name had been redacted. They pressed the issue in court and in November 2006, the FBI was ordered to re-release the documents.
Diliberto said mention that “either” bin Laden or Saudi royals had chartered the flight “really threw us for a loop.”
“When you combine that with some of the family members not being interviewed, we found it very disturbing.”
President Bush registers the lowest approval rating of his presidency—making him the least popular president since Nixon
June 21, 2007
By Marcus Mabry
In 19 months, George W. Bush will leave the White House for the last time. The latest NEWSWEEK Poll suggests that he faces a steep climb if he hopes to coax the country back to his side before he goes. In the new poll, conducted Monday and Tuesday nights, President Bush’s approval rating has reached a record low. Only 26 percent of Americans, just over one in four, approve of the job the 43rd president is doing; while, a record 65 percent disapprove, including nearly a third of Republicans.
The new numbers—a 2 point drop from the last NEWSWEEK Poll at the beginning of May—are statistically unchanged, given the poll’s 4 point margin of error. But the 26 percent rating puts Bush lower than Jimmy Carter, who sunk to his nadir of 28 percent in a Gallup poll in June 1979. In fact, the only president in the last 35 years to score lower than Bush is Richard Nixon. Nixon’s approval rating tumbled to 23 percent in January 1974, seven months before his resignation over the botched Watergate break-in.
The war in Iraq continues to drag Bush down. A record 73 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Bush has done handling Iraq. Despite “the surge” in U.S. forces into Baghdad and Iraq’s western Anbar province, a record-low 23 percent of Americans approve of the president’s actions in Iraq, down 5 points since the end of March.
But the White House cannot pin his rating on the war alone. Bush scores record or near record lows on every major issue: from the economy (34 percent approve, 60 percent disapprove) to health care (28 percent approve, 61 percent disapprove) to immigration (23 percent approve, 63 percent disapprove). And—in the worst news, perhaps, for the crowded field of Republicans hoping to succeed Bush in 2008—50 percent of Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of terrorism and homeland security. Only 43 percent approve, on an issue that has been the GOP’s trump card in national elections since 9/11.
If there is any good news for Bush and the Republicans in the latest NEWSWEEK Poll, it’s that the Democratic-led Congress fares even worse than the president. Only 25 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing.
In the scariest news for the Democratic candidates seeking their party’s nomination in 2008, even rank-and-file Democrats are unhappy with Congress, which is narrowly controlled by their party. Only 27 percent of Democrats approve of the job Congress is doing, a statistically insignificant difference from the 25 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of independents who approve of Congress.
Overall, 63 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, including 60 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of Independents. Apparently, voters aren’t happy with anyone in Washington these days.
"Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical." – “president” George W. Bush, who vetoed Wednesday a bill that would have eased restraints on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, June 20, 2007. i have one word to say in response: IRAQ.