U.S. Apologizes to Mistaken Terrorism Suspect
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 29, 2006; 3:08 PM
The U.S. government has agreed to pay $2 million to an Oregon lawyer who was wrongfully arrested as a terrorism suspect because of a bungled fingerprint match and has issued an apology for the "suffering" inflicted on the attorney and his family.
Under the terms of the settlement announced today, Brandon Mayfield of Portland, Ore., will also be able to continue to pursue a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the USA Patriot Act antiterrorism law, which played a role in Mayfield's case.
The monetary payment amounts to an embarrassing admission of wrongdoing by the FBI, which arrested and detained Mayfield as a material witness in May 2004 after FBI examiners wrongly linked him to a portion of a fingerprint found on a bag of detonators during the investigation of the Madrid commuter train bombings.
Subsequent investigations have also found that the FBI compounded its error by failing to adhere to its own rules for handling evidence and by resisting the conclusions of the Spanish National Police, which quickly determined that the fingerprint belonged to someone else.
Mayfield--who was held for two weeks and who was subjected to surveillance and secret searches of his home and office--said in a statement issued by his attorneys that he was threatened with the death penalty while in custody and that he and his family were targeted "because of our Muslim religion."
"The power of the government to secretly search your home or business without probable cause, under the guise of an alleged terrorist investigation, must be stopped," Mayfield said. "I look forward to the day when the Patriot Act is declared unconstitutional, and all citizens are safe from unwarranted arrest and searches by the Federal Government."
Mayfield and his attorneys, including celebrity defense lawyer Gerry Spence of Jackson Hole, Wyo., are scheduled to hold a news conference later today in Portland, Ore.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos issued a statement emphasizing that the FBI was not aware of Mayfield's Muslim faith when he was first identified as part of the fingerprint match, and that the FBI "did not misuse any provisions of the USA Patriot Act."
Scolinos also said the FBI has implemented reforms to avoid a similar mistake in the future.
According to a press release from Mayfield and his attorneys, the government has agreed to destroy all material obtained during electronic surveillance of him and from clandestine searches of his home and office.
The government also issued a formal apology to Mayfield, his wife and his three children for "the suffering caused by the FBI's misidentification of Mr. Mayfield's fingerprint and the resulting investigation of Mr. Mayfield, including his arrest as a material witness in connection with the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the execution of search warrants and other court orders in the Mayfield family home and in Mr. Mayfield's law office."
The apology also "acknowledges that the investigation and arrest were deeply upsetting" to Mayfield and his family and that the U.S. government "regrets that it mistakenly linked Mr. Mayfield to this terrorist attack."
Mayfield filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department, the FBI and several FBI employees in October 2004 alleging civil rights violations, including a charge that he was arrested because he is a Muslim who had represented some defendants with alleged terrorism ties.
A report issued in March 2006 by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine found that although Mayfield's religion "was not the sole or primary cause" of the initial identification, it contributed to the FBI's reluctance to reexamine the case after it was challenged by the Spanish police.
That same report also found that the FBI used expanded powers under the Patriot Act to demand personal information about Mayfield from banks and other companies, and that the law "amplified the consequences" of the FBI's mistakes by allowing numerous government agencies to share the flawed conclusions.
The FBI and Justice Department--while acknowledging some mistakes in the case--have said repeatedly that there were unusual similarities between Mayfield's fingerprints and the one found on the bag of detonators, which was eventually identified as belonging to an Algerian national named Ouhnane Daoud. Officials have also denied that Mayfield's status as a Muslim convert influenced the FBI's treatment of him.
On March 11, 2004, terrorists later linked to al-Qaeda detonated bombs on several commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people. The FBI assisted Spanish police by comparing latent prints found on a bag of detonators nearby against its massive fingerprint database, which includes prints from former U.S. soldiers.
On March 19, the FBI lab identified 20 possible matches for one of the prints; two FBI examiners and a unit chief narrowed the match down to Mayfield. Spanish police conducted their own fingerprint analysis and informed the FBI on April 13, 2004, that its result was negative for Mayfield. The FBI disputed that finding, even dispatching an examiner to Madrid to press its case.
Fine's report concluded that FBI examiners made a number of errors, including using "circular reasoning" to firm up their conclusion and ignoring rules that an identification must be ruled out if there is an unexplained discrepancy between the prints.
FBI examiners had no way of knowing Mayfield's religion or occupation when they first identified him as a suspect, Fine's report said, but those factors likely influenced their conclusions in the weeks that followed.