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02-15-04, 11:08 AM #1
Officer accuses NCIS of 'unethical' methods
Marine upset over Iraq POW case
Officer accuses NCIS of 'unethical' methods
By Rick Rogers
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
February 13, 2004
Now that the initial hearings in the death of an Iraqi prisoner are over, an angry Marine officer thinks another inquiry should begin.
This one, said Lt. Col. Ralph A. Dengler, should focus on how Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents treated sailors and Marines while investigating the death of Iraqi POW Nagam Sadoon Hatab.
Hatab, 52, died in June at a prison camp run by Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 25th Regiment, a reserve infantry unit based on the East Coast and attached to the 1st Marine Division from Camp Pendleton during the war.
Dengler was the unit's executive officer. In civilian life, the former state prosecutor is an intellectual-properties lawyer in New York City. His allegations of NCIS misconduct are uncommonly blunt for a military officer.
"NCIS agents used very unethical, very underhanded methods with our Marines and sailors," Dengler, 37, said in a telephone interview. "I plan to advise the director of the NCIS about the abuses."
Eight Marines from his battalion originally were charged with infractions ranging from dereliction of duty to negligent homicide in Hatab's death.
The government alleges that the Marines – all prison guards or prison commanders – abused Hatab, allowed the abuse or kept medical care from him. He died after three days in U.S. custody, the exact cause of death a matter of debate.
In recent hearings, Dengler, who also served in the Persian Gulf War, was a defense witness. All testimony is being reviewed by Col. William Gallo, who will decide whether any Marines should stand trial.
With his prosecutorial background, Dengler said he quickly concluded that the NCIS – the Department of the Navy's primary law enforcement arm – was bent on charging his Marines and not on discerning the facts.
"We had no desire to impede the investigation then or now," Dengler testified in late January. "But as we started to get the flavor of how these Marines were being treated, we voiced our concerns to NCIS and up the chain of command."
That flavor, Dengler said, included making Marines travel several hours from their base near Nasiriyah, Iraq, to the Crowne Plaza, the agents' five-star hotel in Kuwait City, for questioning. Then they had to wait for hours or days before being interviewed.
NCIS agents also tried to bully a Marine, Dengler said, by threatening the non-U.S. citizen with immigration consequences if he didn't cooperate.
"There is one story after another of Marines not being advised of their rights, of being yelled at and called liars and of being treated as if they were second-class citizens," Dengler said in the interview.
"It's unnerving and disturbing," he said. "The agents probably need to be investigated for this."
Paul O'Donnell, spokesman for the NCIS headquarters in Washington, D.C., said internal investigations are not commented on, but he was aware of Dengler's allegations. He said there are formal channels for such complaints.
During his testimony, Dengler also said that influence by Maj. Gen. James Mattis, the division's commanding general, set the accusatory tone for the Hatab investigation.
Dengler's unvarnished testimony surprised defense attorneys.
"It is unusual for an officer to say that," said Jack Zimmermann, a former Marine Corps lawyer and judge representing Lance Cpl. Christian Hernandez.
Hernandez is facing some of the most serious charges, including negligent homicide, in the Hatab case.
"He interviewed everyone who was interviewed by NCIS and he was shocked by their tactics," Zimmermann said. "If the information he got from them is true, I don't think he is overreacting."
Donald G. Rehkopf Jr., a lawyer representing another Marine in the case, said service members are supposed to be treated with respect under the military justice system.
"Instead, his men were uniformly treated badly," he said. "He's standing up for his men like any good officer would."
In recent weeks, the scope of the government's case has shrunk. Charges have been withdrawn against three of the eight Marines, and one has entered into a plea agreement in exchange for his testimony.
Gallo, an assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego in civilian life, has remarked during the hearings he has presided over about the generally weak cases the government has brought.
The decision to try any or all of the Marines will belong to Mattis, though Gallo's recommendation will carry weight because of his status as a senior judge advocate and his experience as a career prosecutor, according to lawyers involved in the case.
Rick Rogers: (760) 476-8212; email@example.com
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY LATE HUSBAND, SSgt Roger A. Alfano, USMC
ONE PROUD MARINE
Once a Marine...Always a Marine
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