The Michael Behenna Story: Part Six
EDITOR’S NOTE: On July 31, 2008, Army Ranger 1st Lt. Michael Behenna was charged with the premeditated murder of Ali Mansur, a known Al-Qaeda agent operating near Albu Toma, an area north of Baghdad. Seven months later, the leader of the 18-member Delta Company, 5th platoon of the Army 101st Airborne Infantry Division was convicted of unpremeditated murder and sentenced to 25 years confinement at Fort Leavenworth. Below is the sixth installment of a multi-part investigative series detailing the spurious case against Lieutenant Behenna, now 26, adapted from “The Michael Behenna Story (pdf)” (26 pgs., PDF) by new BMW contributor Carrie Fatigante. It picks up from “The Michael Behenna Story: Part Five.”
By Carrie Fatigante
After being ordered to release confirmed terrorist Ali Mansur because of intelligence failures in the chain of command, Michael intended to scare Mansur into giving him the information he knew Mansur possessed—specifically names of higher organized cell members and connections to terrorist financing. He knew Mansur was not only a threat to his men but also a source of information he needed to secure his troops’ operating region of Albu Toma. Michael admitted planning to take him to a remote area to question him at gunpoint even though he knew it wasn’t an authorized procedure for a platoon leader.
When the 5th Platoon convoy finally stopped to release Mansur, they were located just outside of Albu Toma near some railroad tracks and a CLC (Concerned Local Citizens) checkpoint which Michael said is where he planned to direct him once he was through questioning him.
It was dusk when Mansur was retrieved from the last truck. A dust storm had blown through and visibility conditions were poor as Michael and his interpreter “Harry” began walking Mansur toward the two consecutive roadside tunnels.
Mansur was stopped near the end of the second culvert, and Michael and SSgt. Hal Warner stripped Mansur of his clothes, a practice Harry said is done to humiliate Muslim men who culturally object to being nude in front of other males. Michael testified that he had Mansur’s street clothes — those he was wearing when he was detained on May 5 — in a utility pocket of his uniform, intending to return them to Ali before he released him.
After stripping him, Michael used his knife to remove Mansur’s zip ties and accidentally cut Mansur’s hand, a cut Harry described as only a little larger than a paper cut. Despite the small wound, Michael had Harry finish removing the zip-ties so that Michael did not cause further injury.
Once the ties were cut, Mansur was seated on a rock opposite Michael with approximately three feet between them, with Harry to the left of Michael and somewhat in between the two. (At some point during the questioning, Harry moves outside of the culvert, but exact timing was hard to determine through testimony.) Sergeant Warner had already exited the tunnel to relieve himself, climbing on top of the berm to do so.
Harry and Michael both stated that Michael pulled his Glock 9 mm pistol from his waist, aimed it at Mansur and threatened to kill him if he didn’t answer Michael’s questions. Harry admitted this threat was not unusual and was actually common practice in questioning. He insisted he was not alarmed by this action and did not believe Michael planned to kill Mansur.
Actually, Harry was so comfortable with the procedure that on this day he added his own statements to the translation to Mansur, explaining, “It wasn’t different from what Lieutenant Behenna said and what I translated, it’s just I tried to make it easier for Ali to understand. I told him, ‘You’d better talk. I mean why do you put yourself in this situation. He is going to kill you.’”
This ad lib by Harry is a critical fact in the case, because Michael recognized that Harry had changed the language of his question and that Ali had also changed his answer.
Harry testified that Mansur said, “Okay, I will talk,” but that Lieutenant Behenna fired his weapon before he could translate Mansur’s response back to Michael. Michael explained that at this point his attention is focused on Harry and his translations.
“It was going back and forth with the information and Ali saying, ‘I don’t know,’” Michael explained. “The weapon’s pointed at him. Ali says something different that I didn’t recognize. As I had my head turned toward the left, I hear a sound of a piece of concrete hitting over my left shoulder. Immediately I turned toward my—to my right. You know my weapon’s like this [demonstrating.] Ali is getting up with his hands out toward my weapon. I stepped to the left and fired two shots.”
When Harry changed the language of the question, Mansur used this exchange to divert Michael’s attention and reach for his weapon. Michael insists he fired a controlled pair, but Harry and Warner both testified that the length between the shots was longer, though neither can pinpoint exactly and recorded testimony ultimately settled at between two and four seconds.
Sergeant Warner testified that once he heard the first shot, he was able to zip up his pants while still holding his M-4 and then run a distance of at least 35 meters to the opening of the culvert quickly enough to see Michael fire the second shot.
Plus, he said he saw Mansur in a “semi-sitting” position, and this claim will be the crucial factor in the case against Michael. Again, even this testimony is questionable, because he then conceded, “I didn’t go all the way into the culvert, so I couldn’t see a lot of detail,” because of the poor visibility.
Sergeant Warner added that he felt threatened by Michael because his Glock was pointed at him and he could see the hammer was cocked. He asserts this threat as the reason he followed Michael’s supposed order to “Throw it!” — the thermite grenade.
A major fault with this allegation is that a Glock pistol is a semi-automatic with an internal hammer, so Sergeant Warner could not possibly have seen the hammer cocked.
Another problem is that Harry adamantly testified Michael never ordered Sergeant Warner to throw the thermite grenade but he did see the non-commissioned officer “pull a grenade from his belt and…he just placed the grenade” under Mansur’s head and removed the safety pin. Harry said he remembered this specifically because, “I was afraid of the grenade.”
Michael also testified that he never ordered Sergeant Warner to throw a grenade toward Mansur and said he doesn’t really remember when the NCO reappeared in the culvert. Once Michael realized what had just happened, he recounted, “I started walking back to the first culvert. Sergeant Warner was walking the opposite direction back into the culvert I just came from. I didn’t see him place anything. The only reason I knew that it was an incendiary grenade [set off] is because of the flash it makes.”
Michael admitted to feeling panic after the shooting, saying, “I wasn’t thinking clearly. After those two shots happened, just that whole situation, I wasn’t thinking clearly at all. So I left the culvert.”
Stay tuned for “The Michael Behenna Story: Part Seven.”
* * *
To read other BMW posts about Lieutenant Behenna’s case, click here.
To learn more about the case and the legal defense fund set up to help defray costs associated with Lt. Behenna’s defense, visit DefendMichael.wordpress.com.