Exclusive: Mysterious Fingerprint

"I had nothing to do with the bombings in Madrid," a visibly relieved Brandon Mayfield announced outside the Portland, Ore., courthouse last Thursday. Earlier this month, federal agents arrested Mayfield, a lawyer and Muslim convert, as a material witness in the investigation of the March 11 attacks in Madrid. Federal officials said Mayfield's fingerprint had mysteriously turned up on a plastic bag found in a van in Spain used by the bombers. Mayfield had steadfastly maintained his innocence. And Spanish law-enforcement agencies had publicly expressed doubts that the fingerprint was definitely Mayfield's. But U.S. officials had insisted the fingerprint was, in the words of one, an "absolutely incontrovertible match."

Now they're not so sure. Last week a federal judge set Mayfield free and Spanish investigators concluded that the fingerprint belonged not to Mayfield but to Ouhnane Daoud, an Algerian living in Spain. Mayfield's civil lawyer, Thomas Nelson, hinted that the family may consider suing the government for damages. "We think the way this thing has been handled is just awful," he told NEWSWEEK. "We're going to consider the full range of options." Federal officials cautioned against assuming that Mayfield is in the clear, and said he is still a material witness in the probe; yet because of a gag order that binds both sides, the officials said, they couldn't explain why. It could mean that the judge still has suspicions about Mayfield--or just wants to make sure he is available while they clear up the confusion surrounding his arrest.

The FBI isn't yet ready to concede that it misread the fingerprint. One law-enforcement official told NEWSWEEK that the bureau is still confident of its initial analysis but was at a loss to explain how Spanish investigators came to such a different conclusion. "We're still trying to work through this," said the official. Another official added that even if the print is Mayfield's, they still have no answer to the biggest question: "How the hell did it get there?"