Thursday, November 30, 2006
WASHINGTON, Nov. 29 — The federal government agreed to pay $2 million Wednesday to an Oregon lawyer wrongly jailed in connection with the 2004 terrorist bombings in Madrid, and it issued a formal apology to him and his family.
The unusual settlement caps a two-and-a-half-year ordeal that saw the lawyer, Brandon Mayfield, go from being a suspected terrorist operative to a symbol, in the eyes of his supporters, of government overzealousness in the war on terrorism.
“The United States of America apologizes to Mr. Brandon Mayfield and his family for the suffering caused” by his mistaken arrest, the government’s apology began. It added that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which erroneously linked him to the Madrid bombs through a fingerprinting mistake, had taken steps “to ensure that what happened to Mr. Mayfield and the Mayfield family does not happen again.”
At an emotional news conference in Portland announcing the settlement, Mr. Mayfield said he and his wife, an Egyptian immigrant, and their three children still suffered from the scars left by the government’s surveillance of him and his jailing for two weeks in May 2004.
“The horrific pain, torture and humiliation that this has caused myself and my family is hard to put into words,” said Mr. Mayfield, an American-born convert to Islam and a former lieutenant in the Army.
“The days, weeks and months following my arrest,” he said, “were some of the darkest we have had to endure. I personally was subject to lockdown, strip searches, sleep deprivation, unsanitary living conditions, shackles and chains, threats, physical pain and humiliation.”
Fingerprint examiners at the F.B.I. erroneously linked Mr. Mayfield to the terrorist bombings in Madrid through a mistaken identification of a print taken from a plastic bag containing detonator caps that was found at the scene of the bombings. The bombings, on March 11, 2004, killed 191 people and left 2,000 injured in the deadliest terrorist attack in Europe since World War II.
Despite doubts from Spanish officials about the validity of the fingerprint match, American officials began an aggressive high-level investigation into Mr. Mayfield in the weeks after the bombings. The fact that he had represented a terrorism defendant in a child-custody case in Portland spurred further interest in him. Using expanded surveillance powers under the USA Patriot Act, the government wiretapped his conversations, conducted secret searches of his home and his law office and jailed him for two weeks as a material witness in the case before a judge threw out the case against him.
The settlement includes an unusual condition that frees the government from future liability except in one important area: Mr. Mayfield is allowed to continue a lawsuit seeking to overturn parts of the Patriot Act as a violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
Several legal experts said they considered the settlement significant because of the public apology and the substantial payment.
“You almost never see something like this,” said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, a legal clinic in New York City. “It’s extraordinary, but the harm caused him was extraordinary. What I really think it speaks to is just how clearly the U.S. government crossed the line when it went after Mayfield.”
Suzanne Spaulding, a former lawyer with the Central Intelligence Agency who specializes in national security law, said that the terms of the settlement allowing Mr. Mayfield to continue his lawsuit over the Patriot Act were also significant.
“You’ve got to think that the Justice Department did not want to make that concession,” she said. “That and the two million dollars are further evidence that they were vulnerable and that he clearly had some significant leverage in these negotiations.”
Justice Department officials said they were confident that the legal foundation of the Patriot Act, including the surveillance and search provisions challenged by Mr. Mayfield, would hold up in court.
Although the F.B.I. has acknowledged serious missteps in the case, an investigation by the Justice Department inspector general released this year concluded that the government did not misuse its expanded counterterrorism powers under the Patriot Act and that Mr. Mayfield’s Muslim faith was not the reason he was initially investigated. Still, Mr. Mayfield continued to assert Wednesday that he and his family were a target “because of our Muslim religion.”
“Our freedom of religion in this country is a sacred right,” he said, “and the exercise of one’s beliefs in a lawful manner should never be a factor in a government’s investigation of any citizen.”
In Washington, the settlement was applauded by Representative John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat who is expected to become the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in January.
“The Mayfield case cries out for checks and balances on what has been, at times, an overzealous pursuit of innocent Americans,” Mr. Conyers said. “I am heartened that Mr. Mayfield has received this small measure of justice.”
Brian Libby contributed reporting from Portland, Ore.