NEW YORK – Hours after four railway bombs exploded in Madrid last March 11, Spanish investigators found a piece of evidence in a white van 20 miles from the blast that they did not reveal: on a plastic bag containing bomb materials, investigators found a “perfectly formed” fingerprint they couldn’t identify, a Spanish official tells Newsweek. Spanish police didn’t find a match for the print, but when the FBI ran it through its archive, the computer unexpectedly logged a hit: the mystery print, U.S. authorities say, belonged to Brandon Mayfield, a small-time lawyer who lived in Portland, Ore. Mayfield had been fingerprinted years earlier, when he served in the U.S. Army.
The prospect of a possible U.S. link to the Madrid bombings alarmed U.S. officials, reports Investigative Correspondent Michael Isikoff in the May 17 issue of Newsweek. A U.S. counterterrorism official tells Newsweek that the fingerprint was an “absolutely incontrovertible match.” (Spanish authorities said they weren’t quite as sure). If the print is his, it still doesn’t answer how, or if, Mayfield was connected to the terrorist plot. Had he sent a package? Lent the terrorists legal expertise? Hoping for answers, the feds quickly put the lawyer under 24- hour surveillance.
Last week, as first reported on Newsweek’s Web site, FBI agents showed up at Mayfield’s law office and hauled him away in handcuffs. Mayfield was “flabbergasted,” says Thomas Nelson, a civil attorney who represented him at a hearing last week. Mayfield’s passport expired last fall and he insisted he hadn’t been out of the country in years. Even so, at the request of prosecutors Mayfield was detained as a “material witness” in a grand jury investigation – a status that allows the Justice Department to hold him, potentially for months, while the FBI tries to build its case.
Federal officials tell Newsweek that they doubt Mayfield has been innocently swept up in a case of international intrigue. Mayfield married an Egyptian woman, converted to Islam 16 years ago and was active in a local Oregon mosque whose members had openly protested government antiterror policies. But it was another thing that leapt out at investigators: in 2002, Mayfield had volunteered to provide legal help for Jeffrey Battle, one of the ringleaders of the Portland Seven – a group of local jihadists who had flown to Asia after 9/11 in an unsuccessful effort to fight with the Taliban. “If that print had matched with some little old lady in Peoria, that would be one thing,” says a U.S. official. “But what are the odds it would be somebody with this background?”
Mayfield’s brother Kent says Brandon is being “profiled” by the government. He says his brother began to suspect the Feds were watching him. He heard clicks on his phone, and twice returned home to find things slightly different than when he had left. Often, Kent says, Brandon complained that Bush-administration antiterror policies trampled civil liberties. But Kent says his brother never favored violence. “If anyone was going to say anything over the top, it would have been me.” Federal law-enforcement officials acknowledged that their probe was only beginning when they detained Mayfield, and that they had not yet checked his travel records. (“They’re going to have egg on their face,” says Nelson, who says he is confident the fingerprint match will turn out to be mistaken.)
In any case, the use of a “material witness” warrant to detain Mayfield could prove controversial. Since 9/11, law enforcement officials tell Newsweek, the Justice Department has detained between 30 and 40 terror suspects as “material witnesses” in secret proceedings. Under Attorney General John Ashcroft, prosecutors have often used the category as one way to hold terror suspects indefinitely when they don’t have enough evidence to charge them with a crime. Justice officials insist that more than half of the detained material witnesses have ended up in criminal prosecutions. “Typically, they lie to you after you detain them so you can always get them on false statements,” says one former Justice official.