Global Policy Forum

Iraq Abuse Trial Is


By Eric Schmitt

New York Times
March 23, 2006

With the conviction on Tuesday of an Army dog handler, the military has now tried and found guilty another low-ranking soldier in connection with the pattern of abuses that first surfaced two years ago at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But once again, an attempt by defense lawyers to point a finger of responsibility at higher-ranking officers failed in the latest case to convince a military jury that ultimate responsibility for the abuses lay farther up the chain of command.

Some military experts said one reason there had not been attempts to pursue charges up the military chain of command was that the military does not have anything tantamount to a district attorney's office, run by commanders with the authority to go after the cases. "The real question is, who is the independent prosecutor who is liberated to pursue these cases," said Eugene Fidell, a specialist in military law. "There is no central prosecution office run by commanders. So you don't have a D.A. thinking, I'm going to follow this wherever it leads."

Among all the abuse cases that have reached military courts, the trial of the dog handler, Sgt. Michael J. Smith, had appeared to hold the greatest potential to assign accountability to high-ranking military and perhaps even civilian officials in Washington. Some military experts had thought the trial might finally explore the origins of the harsh interrogation techniques that were used at Abu Ghraib; at the Bagram detention center in Afghanistan; and at other sites where abuses occurred.

Sergeant Smith, who was convicted Tuesday for abusing detainees in Iraq with his black Belgian shepherd, had said he was merely following interrogation procedures approved by the chief intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib, Col. Thomas M. Pappas. In turn, Colonel Pappas had said he had been following guidance from Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, commander of the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who in September 2003 visited Iraq to discuss ways to "set the conditions" for enhancing prison interrogations, as well as from superiors in Baghdad. General Miller had been dispatched to Guantánamo Bay by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to improve the interrogation procedures and the quality of intelligence at the compound in Cuba.

But in Sergeant Smith's trial, General Miller was never called to testify. Colonel Pappas acknowledged that he had mistakenly authorized a one-time use of muzzled dogs to keep prisoners in order outside their cells, but he said that he had no idea that dog handlers were using unmuzzled dogs to terrorize detainees as part of the interrogation process. Colonel Pappas had previously been reprimanded and relieved of his command, but was permitted to testify under a grant of immunity.

Previous defendants who have tried and failed to win approval from military judges to summon high-ranking officers to explain their own role in abuse cases include Charles A. Graner Jr. and Lynndie R. England, two of the Army reservists who were convicted in 2005 for their misconduct at Abu Ghraib. In denying defense requests for testimony from witnesses including Mr. Rumsfeld and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, formerly the top American commander in Iraq, an Army judge, Col. James Pohl, ruled that their actions did not have any direct bearing on the reservists' conduct.

In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Maj. Wayne Marotto, an Army spokesman, said that more than 600 accusations of detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan since October 2001 had been investigated, and that 251 officers and enlisted soldiers had been punished in some way for misconduct related to prisoners. To date, the highest-ranking officer convicted in relation to the abuses is Capt. Shawn Martin of the Army, who was found guilty last March of kicking detainees and staging the mock execution of a prisoner. He was sentenced to 45 days in jail and fined $12,000.

Sergeant Smith had faced a maximum sentence of eight and a half years, but on Wednesday was sentenced to just under six months (179 days) in prison. "A mere tap on the wrist for abusing prisoners gives the appearance that once again that the United States is not serious about its responsibility to discipline those convicted of human rights violations," Curt Goering, Amnesty International's senior deputy executive director for policy and programs, said in a statement. Sergeant Smith will also be demoted to private, fined $2,250 and will be released from the Army with a bad-conduct discharge after serving his sentence.

Several generals and colonels have received career-ending reprimands and have been stripped of their commands, but there is no indication that other senior-level officers and civilian officials will ever be held accountable for the detainee abuses that took place in Iraq and Afghanistan. The toughest official criticism Mr. Rumsfeld has faced was a relatively mild admonishment in August 2004 from a panel led by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, which faulted Mr. Rumsfeld for not exercising sufficient oversight.

But when Mr. Schlesinger was asked at the time if Mr. Rumsfeld or other high-ranking officials should resign in an ultimate act of accountability, he said that the secretary's "resignation would be a boon for all of America's enemies." President Bush later declined to accept Mr. Rumsfeld's two offers to resign.

Congress has largely retreated from any meaningful effort to hold senior officials accountable. Last year, Senator John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who heads the Armed Services Committee, vowed to hold hearings on senior-level accountability. But Mr. Warner later backed off his promise, saying it would have to wait until judicial and nonjudicial proceedings were exhausted, a process that could take several more months.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has delayed General Miller's scheduled retirement, and Mr. Warner said in an interview on Tuesday that he would call both Colonel Pappas and General Miller to testify before the committee once all court proceedings that could involve them are complete. Two other cases may yield new information. Army officials are still reviewing a possible criminal case against Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan, another former senior intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib.

The trial of a second dog handler, Sgt. Santos A. Cardona, is scheduled to begin on May 22, and it may offer another occasion for defense lawyers to try to direct blame at higher levels. Sergeant Cardona's lawyer, Harvey Volzer, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that his defense would include information not revealed in Sergeant Smith's trial. Mr. Volzer said he would seek to have Mr. Rumsfeld, Gen. John P. Abizaid, the commander of American forces in the Mideast, and General Sanchez all testify at Sergeant Cardona's trial.

Kate Zernike contributed reporting for this article.

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