Iraq War whistleblower, Paul Bergrin, 59, has been moved by the federal Bureau of Prisons to the highly restrictive Communication Management Unit (CMU) at Terre Haute, IN. Bergrin is currently serving six life sentences after having been convicted in 2013 of nearly two dozen counts including murder conspiracy and racketeering. Prior to his conviction, Bergrin had been a high profile, hugely successful defense attorney.
Bergrin's first trial ended with a hung jury. His trial judge, USDJ William Martini remarked afterwards that had he been on the jury, he would have voted for acquittal. Prosecutors responded by having Martini replaced for the retrial. Lawrence Lustberg, Bergrin's defense attorney, spoke soon thereafter about how rare it is for a federal appeals court to remove a sitting judge from a criminal case. Lustberg said the ruling could be intended to send a message to Martini, perceived to be by prosecutors, unfairly defense friendly.
A reliably pro-government jurist, USDJ Dennis Cavanaugh, was installed by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals for the retrial. The government's accusations against Bergrin were utterly fantastic. Their theory was that when clients retained Bergrin's legal services, along with top flight representation would also come an agreement to sell drugs and murder witnesses. In short, the feds were asserting that Bergrin was running a "one stop shopping" outlet for criminals. The sensational allegations garnered national attention.
Government prosecutors never addressed why a highly successful defense lawyer would engage in such practices. Instead, they relied upon perhaps the most sordid collection of witnesses ever assembled for a federal trial. And while there is certainly nothing new about federal prosecutors using informants to suborn perjury, the Bergrin trial arguably saw the practice taken to previously unforeseen heights.
Leaving nothing to chance for the retrial, federal prosecutors cut deals with a variety of miscreants serving lengthy prison sentences. A parade of perjurious criminals was presented to parrot the government's lies in return for having their prison sentences greatly mitigated. Those willing to recount the government's version of events were handsomely rewarded. Cavanaugh allowed prosecutors to present drug addled, as well as mentally impaired witnesses. His courtroom took on an air of absurdity as visitors had to be warned by court personnel not to laugh while witness after witness was tripped up by the defense in woeful efforts to pass off blatant falsehoods.
The essence of the government's case against Bergrin involved the murder of federal informant Kemo Deshawn McCray. The prosecutor's theory was that Bergrin conspired in McCray's murder in order to aid the defense of Bergrin's client, William Baskerville. In reality, the fed's zeal in targeting Bergrin had nothing to do with the murder of an inconsequential, low level drug dealer. )
Bergrin served as a JAG lawyer and was among the first military people to expose evidence that hooding, nudity and the use of dogs were extensively used at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison. In 2004 and 2005, he sought to have Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and other administration officials held accountable for various humanitarian violations in Iraq that constituted war crimes. When Bush announced in 2004 that he wanted Abu Ghraib destroyed, Bergrin got a court order to stop the action, declaring the prison a crime scene.
Bergrin is also the only attorney in U.S. military history to win the right to put a high ranking military official, Col. Michael Steele, on the stand. In 2006, Steele commanded a unit of the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. Under his command, Iraqi civilians were repeatedly detained and villages regularly raided by U.S. soldiers. One such raid, Operation Iron Triangle, involved the killing of four unarmed Iraqis. U.S. soldiers, one of whom Bergrin represented, were given orders to shoot on sight any Iraqi male.
In April 2009, Bergrin announced his intention to reopen one of the Abu Ghraib cases after the Obama administration released documents implicating the Bush White House in the authorization of torture at the prison. The following month, Bergrin was arrested on a variety of federal charges. At his bail hearing, prosecutors filed a detention request by a Drug Enforcement Agency special agent claiming that Bergrin should be denied bail. The government claimed in their filing that Bergrin had overseas assets, four false passports and had ordered an FBI informant to kill a witness. Bail was denied.
Many believe it to be no coincidence that Bergrin's federal charges followed his dogged whistleblowing against various elements within the U.S. government. His actions made him a thorn in the side of those overseeing the ongoing illegalities in Iraq and his subsequent takedown could hardly be seen as a surprise. The feds were pulling out all stops to permanently muzzle him.
The effort to silence Bergrin has now been raised to a whole new level with his transfer to the CMU, often referred to as "Guantanamo North." The idea of closely monitoring specific prisoners was initially proposed under the George W. Bush administration as part of its War on Terror. The bulk of the CMU's prisoners have been Muslims not convicted of terrorism offenses, but rather thought or alleged to be peripherally terrorist affiliated. Non-Muslims have been sparingly added to the CMU's population, mainly, critics allege, to serve as "balancers." This is the term reportedly given by guards working at the CMU to non-Muslim prisoners.
The CMU at Terre Haute FCI is one of two such units, the other located at Marion FCI in Illinois. All communication including letters, phone calls and visits are limited, tightly restricted and closely monitored. Even the living and recreation areas are spied upon and a counterterrorism team in West Virginia reportedly monitors verbal communication remotely.
The restrictions are onerous. Phone calls made by prisoners are limited to one 15 minute call per week and must be in English. Contact visits, normally afforded in federal prisons, are strictly prohibited. With the exception of legal mail, letters both to and from prisoners in the CMU are closely examined, archived and evaluated before being cleared for release. This often results in lengthy delays in both sending and receiving mail. Those designated to a CMU are there until the Bureau of Prisons deems otherwise. Not a single prisoner has ever successfully appealed his placement in a CMU.
Bergrin has been selected for an enhanced level of punishment. Even if one were to believe the government's allegations of murder and drug dealing, these crimes are in and of themselves are not cause for designation to a CMU. This harsh result strongly suggests that other factors are behind Bergrin's placement in de facto isolation.
The aforementioned whistleblowing remains a sore point with the federal government and is likely playing a major role in the decision to further remove Bergrin from those sympathetic to his plight. Numerous efforts by the defense to raise this issue at trial were immediately silenced by Judge Cavanaugh. Even during the sentencing hearing, when defendants are typically afforded wide latitude, Cavanaugh would hear none of Bergrin's references to Iraq.
Bergrin's placement in a CMU is puzzling, but those familiar with his ongoing battle with the federal government see it as just another injustice in a long line of abuse. The CMU will not only effectively cut off Bergrin from the outside world, but also greatly hamper ongoing efforts to reverse his controversial conviction. The notion of attorney-client privilege is questionable at best under the harsh conditions of the CMU. The government appears to be determined to forcefully silence a leading Iraq War critic and whistleblower.