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Attorneys: Translator May Have Been Agent
By Leon Worden
Signal City Editor
Thursday, June 3, 2004
as he "just a translator," as his wife said, or did he influence the guards at Abu Ghraib prison, as alleged in an Army report?
Is he the friendly family man his Canyon Country neighbors described, or is he connected to something more shadowy?
John B. Israel is one of two civilian contractors alleged by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba to have been "directly or indirectly responsible" for the abuse of prisoners by military police officers. But exactly who he is, and what qualified him for intelligence work, remains a mystery.
Attorneys for some of the seven Army reserve guards who face court martials are trying to find out.
"There is a lot of conjecture going on right now about whether he was some kind of a foreign agent," said Blake Ellis, a member of Pfc. Lynndie England's legal team in Colorado. "When you deal with the intelligence types, it gets pretty hard to pin down who they are."
Attorneys for Pfc. Lynndie England, seen here in a May 12 interview with Denver CBS affiliate KCNC-TV (above) and in a photo taken last fall at Abu Ghraib prison, are "actively pursuing" John B. Israel to determine what information he might have that would exonerate their client. AP/KCNC-TV
England, 21, achieved worldwide notoriety in late April when photographs showed her pointing at the crotch of one naked prisoner and holding a leash connected to the neck of another.
She faces an Article 32 (pretrial) hearing later this month at Ft. Bragg, where her attorneys hope to show that she answered to military intelligence personnel who supervised the prison operations some of whom were Army, some of whom were civilian contractors, some of whom were from other agencies, and none of whom can be readily identified because they didn't wear uniforms or use their real names, Ellis said.
"We have maintained all along that our client was following orders and was directed by military intelligence personnel and supervisors, whether military or civilian," Ellis said. "They (England and other guards) are innocent of the charges they are accused of. They were taking orders from a mixed group military intelligence as well as officers from OGA (other government agencies), which is their word for CIA."
England's defense team wants to turn tables on Israel and interrogate the interpreter.
"We are actively pursuing him to find out what information he has in defense of our client," Ellis told The Signal on Wednesday. "We don't know who he is, who he was working for, or what he was doing there."
The simple answer is that Israel, 48, was employed by SOS Interpreting Ltd., a subcontractor that provided civilian linguists to the prison.
Beneath his employment contract which SOS officials won't discuss are more questions.
No criminal charges are known to have been filed against Israel, and no known evidence links him to a foreign government.
Nor has it been positively ascertained that the U.S. government is following up on Taguba's recommendation for a formal inquiry to determine the extent of Israel's culpability.
Nonetheless, Israel's high-profile defense attorney, onetime O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher A. Darden, has thus far maintained a low profile, shunning questions about Israel's citizenship or background.
A spokesman for the Office of Homeland Security said Israel's citizenship and immigration status are protected under the Privacy Act, while a CIA spokeswoman said it is agency policy not to identify current or past employees.
According to The New York Times, which obtained Israel's brief written reply to Army investigators, the translator was born in Baghdad in 1955 and is an Iraqi-American Christian, referring to Iraq's Christian minority group.
His emigration date isn't known. His wife said the family moved to Santa Clarita in 1988. They had three daughters, all born in the interim. Public records show Israel owned what may have been an out-of-town picture framing business called Fancy Frame when he filed for bankruptcy protection in 1993. He paid cash for his $220,000 home in 1996 or was given it by the builder. A neighbor said she knew him as "a computer guy" prior to his deployment at Abu Ghraib in October.
Paul Bergrin is the stateside attorney for Sgt. Javal "Sean" Davis, one of the seven guards charged with prisoner abuse.
To determine who was giving orders inside Abu Ghraib last fall, and to discover what Taguba meant when he referred in his report to the presence of "third-country nationals" among the intelligence personnel, Bergrin said one need look not only "up" at superiors, but "over" geographically.
"The intelligence community were trained in intelligence acquisition from foreign agents who had experience in dealing with Arab and Muslim prisoners. This had to come from Israeli intelligence personnel as well as CIA-trained agents who knew how to induce these types of detainees to speak," Bergrin said.
He said the intelligence gathering tactics used at Abu Ghraib were consistent with those used by agencies such as Shin Bet, the Israeli counter-intelligence and internal security service.
Some anti-war groups in the United States and pro-Palestinian organizations in the Middle East have speculated that the Israeli government provided or trained intelligence personnel at Abu Ghraib the implication being that a demonstration of Israeli involvement could cause the "coalition of the willing" to unravel.
Several such organizations homed in on the name "John B. Israel" when it became public in the Taguba report, which identifies him probably mistakenly as an employee of CACI International Inc., another intelligence firm that provided interrogators to Abu Ghraib.
Noting that the Taguba report shows John Israel lacked the appropriate security clearance at the prison, The Daily Star, an English-language newspaper out of Lebanon, reported May 11 that "although no evidence has emerged directly linking CACI's involvement in the Abu Ghraib atrocities to (the nation of) Israel ... more evidence has emerged undermining the U.S. thesis that the abuses at Abu Ghraib was (sic) the work of 'a few bad apples.'"
The newspaper said interrogation techniques such as "hooding, sleep deprivation, time disorientation and depriving prisoners (of) dignity" are "all techniques long employed by Israel."
CACI President J.P. "Jack" London's visit to Jerusalem in January further piqued critics' interest.
CACI said in a press release that members of the Senate and House Armed Services committees accompanied London on the trip, where Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz presented him with a prestigious information technology award. (U.S. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Santa Clarita and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, was not among them, McKeon's press deputy said.)
"The purpose of the mission was to promote opportunities for strategic partnerships and joint ventures between U.S. and Israeli defense and homeland security companies," CACI's press release said. "Participants also attended high-level briefings and demonstrations on innovative technologies and their application to homeland security, counter-terrorism and national defense."
Shin Bet sources in Tel Aviv have disavowed the idea of Israeli participation or influence at Abu Ghraib.
Under the heading "All evidence refutes claims of Israeli involvement in Iraqi prison affair," the Haaretz Daily commented on John Israel's connection to Titan Corp., the intelligence firm that contracted the prison translation work to SOS, his employer.
The newspaper noted that former CIA Director James Woolsey was a Titan board member and said Woolsey "is considered a close friend of (the nation of) Israel."
However, it reported, Shin Bet had its wings clipped in 1987 when an Israeli Supreme Court judge found that interrogators "had extracted confessions from prisoners under duress and unacceptable physical and psychological torture," and "since then, the Shin Bet has drafted clear regulations and orders for interrogators, from which there can be no deviation."
An unnamed Shin Bet source told Haaretz, "We did not operate (in Iraq) and did not assist the United States in running the interrogations. This is baseless slander."
"When one reads all the American documents and reports," another former senior Shin Bet official said, "it is clear that the Americans did not need us to conduct interrogations. The reports and the pictures of the torture, abuse and humiliation from the prison in Iraq portray a reality compared to which the interrogations of the Palestinians by us are really child's play."
Signal staff writer Burt Stillar contributed to this story.
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