Spanish say FBI rejected proof in lawyer's favor
Agency stuck with its flawed analysis of his fingerprint
THE NEW YORK TIMES: June 5, 2004

  PORTLAND - Two weeks after U.S. authorities cleared a Portland area lawyer of any connection to the deadly terrorist bombings in Madrid, high-level Spanish law enforcement officials are challenging key aspects of the United States' version of events in the case, touching off a muddy dispute between the two allies and painting a portrait of FBI officials who repeatedly rejected evidence that they had the wrong man.
  Much of the disagreement between the two countries continues to center on the fingerprints lifted from a blue plastic bag discovered near the scene of the March 11 bombings, which killed 191 people and left 2,000 injured in the deadliest terror attack in Europe since World War Il.
  FBI officials once maintained the prints matched those of Brandon Mayfield of Portland, and at one point they told federal prosecutors that Spanish law enforcement officials were "satisfied" with their conclusion.
  But in interviews this week, Spanish officials vehemently denied ever backing up that assessment, saying they had told U.S. law enforcement officials from the start, after their own tests, that the match was negative.
  The Spanish officials said their American counterparts relentlessly pressed their case anyway, explaining away stark proof of a flawed link - including what the Spanish described as tell-tale forensic signs - and seemingly refusing to accept the notion that they were mistaken.
  They had a justification for everything," said Pedro Luis Melida Lledo, head of the fingerprint unit for the Spanish National Police, whose team analyzed the prints in question and met with the Americans on April 21. "But I just couldn't see it."
  The Spaniards, who continued to examine the fingerprints, eventually made their own match, to an Algerian national, whom they then arrested.
  Carlos Corrales, commissioner of the Spanish National Police's science division, said he was also struck by the FBI's intense focus on Mayfield. "It seemed as though they had something against him," Corrales said, "and they wanted to involve us.
  A senior FBI official, in an interview this week, sought to smooth over differences with the Spanish and said that the United States was solely to blame for the faulty match.
  "The Spanish did not cause the misidentification to occur," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It was squarely on the shoulders of the FBI."
  He also denied that there were any tensions between his office and Madrid or that U.S. officials had applied any pressure on the Spanish to concur with their finding about the Mayfield match.
  The only purpose in going to Spain for the April 21 meeting was to explain the process the FBI used in matching the print and "to explain our conclusions," he said.
  His comments were in stark contrast to those made only last week by senior FBI officials during several closed-door briefings for congressional staff members looking into how the mistakes could have happened. There, according to several congressional aides who attended, officials strongly suggested that the Spanish authorities were partly responsible for the fingerprint fiasco and signaled that relations with them were strained.
  "It's really coming down to a 'he said, he said,"' said one aide who attended a briefing. "They said over and over again that 'we asked the Spanish for the best possible evidence.' The dear impression was they asked the Spanish for all this, and they didn't give it to them."
  An examination of court records and transcripts as well as interviews with Spanish and U.S. law enforcement officials and with Mayfield and his lawyers reveal that the twists and turns of the case go far deeper than problems of diplomacy.
  In pursuing what proved to be a flawed case against Mayfield, the FBI was also beset by internal dissension between officials in Portland and Washington, a language barrier with the Spanish, and a fingerprint examination that the bureau now concedes was flawed from the start.
  The result was what William Baker, former assistant director of the FBL describes as "a major black eye" comparable to the wrongful arrest of Richard Jewell in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombings,
  The FBI "can't afford too many more of these," Baker said. "You start losing your credibility, and then judges start losing their confidence."
  As far as who is right in the dispute, "dearly Spain holds the high card here," Baker said.
  Amid all of the turmoil was the frightening experience of a bewildered lawyer from Portland, who grew more and more panicked that his fate was being sealed and there was nothing he could do about it.
  "That's not my fingerprint, your honor," a baffled Mayfield said at one point to the judge during a hearing after his arrest, pleading not to be taken to jail. "I have never seen this bag. I have no awareness about that bag."
  The bizarre tale began days after the March 11 attack after the FBI received several fingerprint images from Spain. The agency said it had found a match to the digital image of a print from the blue bag, which held seven copper detonators like those used on the train bombs.
  Mayfield's prints were in the FBI's central database of more than 44 million prints because they had been taken when he joined the military, where he served for eight years before being honorably discharged as a second lieutenant.
  The FBI officials concluded around March 20 that it was a "100 percent match" to Mayfield, according to court records and prosecutors in Portland. They informed their Spanish counterparts on April 2 and included Mayfield's prints in a letter to them.
  But after conducting their own tests, Spanish law enforcement officials said they reported back to the FBI in an April 13 memo that the match was "conclusively negative. "Yet for five weeks, FBI officials insisted their analysis was correct.
  In Portland, meanwhile, investigators were quickly building their case against Mayfield, 37, a Muslim convert, and arrested him on May 6 on a material witness warrant. Civil liberties advocates charge that the Bush administration has abused that technique in an effort to fight terrorism.
  Though Mayfield was never charged with an actual crime, court transcripts and interviews with him show he was told that he was being investigated in connection with crimes punishable by death and jailed for 14 days.
  On May 24, after the Spaniards had linked that same print from the, plastic bag to the Algerian national, Mayfield's case was thrown out. The FBI issued him a highly unusual official apology, and his ordeal became a stunning embarrassment to the U.S. government.