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The Story of Prisoner 200343

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and

Maybe we'll pay better attention now. Maybe since the story was splashed Monday as a two-column lead on the front page of The New York Times. Maybe since the alleged victim in the case is a white American with an easy-to-pronounce name and not a dark "foreigner" named "Hussein" or "Mohammed." Maybe since he is an ex-Navy vet and not a foot soldier for the Taliban or some poor sap caught up in the chaos of post-Saddam Baghdad. Maybe.

The story that Donald Vance is telling is a familiar one to people who have paid attention to the way U.S. military personnel all too often have handled their detention duties and responsibilities in Iraq even since the scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison there. It is both a familiar and a simple tale. Detain first, ask too few earnest questions along the way, mistreat in a way that smudges legal and moral lines, grudgingly and belatedly concede the mistake by releasing the prisoner, and then blame it all on the "fog of war," or worse, refuse to take any blame at all.

This time, apparently, there are no pictures to generate and sustain the world's scorn and the nation's shame. But it hardly matters to Vance. As Michael Moss of the Times relates, Vance went to Iraq as a security contractor but soon ended up as an informant for our government, passing along to the Federal Bureau of Investigation information about suspicious activities at the Iraqi firm at which he worked. This makes him, it's sadly not too obvious to mention, part of the solution and not part of the problem in Iraq today.

Vance should have gotten a medal for trying to stop the burgeoning arms trade in the war-torn area. Instead, reports Moss, he got three months' worth of prison time at "Camp Cropper," America's maximum security prison site in Baghdad. Why? Because in classic bureaucratic mindlessness, one hand didn't know what the other was doing. The military in Iraq determined that Vance was connected with the very people he was "spying" on for the FBI. Of course he was connected with the bad guys in Baghdad. That was the whole point of his effort on behalf of our domestic law enforcement agency.

It's bad enough that our military initially apprehended Vance and then refused to immediately check out his story. I'm sure that every person detained in Baghdad (or Boston or anywhere else) always has a story. What is truly astonishing is that even after military officials were told about Vance's legitimate connections, even after they had reason to know from their own fellow government officials that Vance was not a security threat, they still refused to release him until over two more months had passed. And, not only that, he was treated in a manner unbecoming our military and our nation's values even after his captors knew or should have known he was not a bad guy.

Vance tells the Times that he now intends to sue the government and the individuals responsible for the way he was treated. His lawsuit isn't likely to go far –perhaps he'll get a modest settlement out of the feds – but with a little bit of luck and a stern federal trial judge the complaint may force military officials (and the FBI for that matter) to explain, formally and under oath, how it could come to pass that a U.S. citizen who was helping his own government ferret out fraud and crime in Baghdad could end up, as Moss writes, begging in vain for his freedom from the very people who would benefit from those efforts.

Here are just a few of the questions, for example, that ought to be answered through any litigation that emerges from this scrape. Why didn't the FBI act more quickly to help out its informant? And if the military did not believe the story offered in Vance's defense on behalf of the FBI, why not? What did military officials know, or thought they knew, that required them to keep Vance on ice even after the FBI corroborated his story? And why, at a minimum, after the feds told their colleagues in Baghdad about Vance's informant role, did Vance's captors not treat him better, just in case he was telling the truth?

The Vance story emerged as big news just a few days after military officials announced the release of 18 more men who had been detained for years as terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. These men no doubt are among the hundreds currently held at Gitmo who already have been determined by our own military not to have taken up arms against the United States or to have belonged to the al Qaeda terrorist organization. These men have been held as detainees in many cases more than 10 times as long as Vance was held.

They did not, like Vance, have the support of friends and family (never mind federal agents) back here in the States. Their voices will never be heard on American television and their words will never grace the front pages of the Times or any other newspaper. But surely they, and their treatment, are as much a part of the story of our country's military detentions as Vance is. The worst excesses of America's military guards may have ended at Abu Ghraib. But that doesn't mean that lesser scandals aren't happening even now. Just ask Vance. Like all the other detainees he's got a story to tell and maybe this time, because of the color of his skin and the land of his birth, we'll at last muster up the decency to listen a little more closely.

By Andrew Cohen