Tuesday, February 06, 2007

FBI Betraying Fr. Kaiser ... Again

By Stefan Lovgren

On the morning of August 24, 2000, an American Catholic priest, John Kaiser, was found dead at a Kenyan roadside, killed by a gunshot wound to the back of the head. Suspicion quickly fell on the Kenyan government. During the 36 years he spent in the East African nation, Father Kaiser, a Minnesota native and former U.S. Army paratrooper, had earned a reputation as a tireless champion of the poor and a bold critic of corruption among the country's power elite. He had recently accused the powerful minister for internal security, Julius Sunkuli, of systematically raping young schoolgirls over several years.

A U.S. congressional resolution called Kaiser's death an "assassination." To appear transparent in its handling of the case, the Kenyan government enlisted the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was the first time the FBI had been dispatched abroad to investigate the death of a single U.S. citizen. After a seven-month-long probe, in which 145 witnesses were interviewed, the FBI concluded in an 80-page final report that Kaiser had killed himself.

The church was outraged, dismissing the investigation as a mere cover-up. (It's also worth nothing that, according to Catholic doctrine, committing suicide constitutes the gravest of sins.) The Kenyan public, well-aware of its government's sordid history of covering up political murders -- even of clergy members -- was similarly incensed. Early whispers of suicide from top officials had been dismissed by Kenyans remembering the unresolved 1990 murder of Robert Ouko, the Kenyan foreign minister and corruption whistle-blower. Initial police reports then absurdly suggested suicide, even though Ouko's body had been tortured and shot twice before being dropped from a helicopter and set on fire.

Detectives from Scotland Yard were brought in to investigate Ouko's death, but their efforts were blocked at every turn and the inquiry did not even produce a final report. With the Kaiser investigation, there is reason to believe that the Kenyan police led the FBI down a path toward suicide. Witnesses were coached by Kenyan police before being interviewed by U.S. agents. FBI investigators were encouraged to focus on leads highlighting Kaiser's erratic behavior in the 96 hours prior to his death, while ignoring forensic evidence and expert opinions rendering suicide impossible. In the end, it appears from its report that the FBI built its forensic case solely around the testimony of a Texas medical examiner who reached his conclusion of suicide by looking at three dozen blurry photographs, some of which had been taken at a crime scene that had been severely compromised.

Did the world's pre-eminent law enforcement agency kowtow to the will of the Kenyan government? If so, why? The explanation may be floating in the murky waters of geopolitics. Kenya is considered a haven of stability in a part of the world that includes basket cases like Sudan and Somalia. It has been an important U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism. The FBI cultivated a strong relationship with Kenyan police during the investigation of the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. The late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, who championed the Kaiser case, said he had evidence there was pressure from the U.S. State Department on the FBI to go easy on the Kenyans. Kaiser may have been sacrificed to keep diplomatic relations smooth.

But in 2002, Kenya's ruling KANU party lost the national election. The new government soon announced a public inquest into the death of Father Kaiser. This inquest began more than three years ago and is still continuing in a Nairobi court. Witnesses once afraid to share information have stepped forward. Their testimony has helped piece together a different picture of what may have happened to Kaiser that fateful night. A security guard says he saw two men following Kaiser and pulling him out of his car before killing him.

Yet one witness has been conspicuously absent at the inquest: the FBI. The bureau has so far ignored requests by the court to testify. It considers the conclusion of its final report just that -- final. But only the FBI can shed light on some key evidence in the case. It still has in its possession crucial exhibits. No ballistics information has been made available. Experts who reportedly carried out such analysis have not been identified, nor have their statements been taken. The FBI should also be able to explain why some key witness testimonies given to its agents never made it into the official file.

It is troubling that Father Kaiser's killers may never be brought to justice -- indeed who killed him may never be known -- but the tragedy is compounded by the arrogance shown by the FBI in ignoring requests to appear at the ongoing inquest. The findings in itsreport may never change, but the FBI has a responsibility to at least explain how it arrived at its conclusion. Father Kaiser's legacy of truth and justice deserves no less.