May 24, 2006
Where were the officers? Where was the leadership?
There were no surprises in the opening statements at the Cardona court martial today. I admit I had half a hope that the prosecution would pick a different theme for this court martial than the "few bad apples on the Abu Ghraib night shift." After all, it has been more than two years since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, and there's now little question that abuses were not limited, but widespread and involved hundreds of U.S. personnel: the preliminary results of a research project Human Rights First is doing with NYU's Center for Human Rights and Global Justice and Human Rights Watch found that over 600 U.S. military and civilian personnel have been implicated in credible allegations of abuse spread throughout Iraq (where the majority of alleged abuses took place outside Abu Ghraib), Afghanistan and at Guantanamo. Today, though, prosecutor Maj. Matthew Miller's refrain was consistent: "This case is about military police, cops, who were trained better and knew better but decided to do otherwise"; Cardona's alleged release of his dog on a detainee who was suspected of an escape attempt was about "corrupt cops and jailhouse justice." Leadership failure got a nod: according to Maj. Miller, Col. Pappas will admit some failings – he already has, in the court-martial of Cardona's partner, Sgt. Michael Smith. Maj. Miller promised, though, that "you will hear no testimony from anyone that anyone in the chain of command knew what the corrupt cops were doing on the night shift." Instead, according to Maj. Miller, Cardona should be found guilty of the charges of which he is accused because he is a "cop" who "decided to abuse detainees as a part of the fun and games on the night shift." Those hoping the defense might preview anything new to come from Major General Miller's possible testimony were in for another kind of disappointment. Cardona's civilian defense counsel, Harvey Volzer, repeated much of what is already in the public record: Maj. Gen. Miller brought a team from Guantanamo to assess, according to Volzer, "what was being done and should be done" at Abu Ghraib, and then wrote up a report of his findings, which included a recommendation to "integrate" and "synchronize" the detention operations of military police to "set the conditions" for military interrogation (the latter quotes are from the report). Volzer added that Miller left "standard operating procedures" from Guantanamo behind when he left Abu Ghraib, but what those specifically were and how they relate to this case, we'll have to wait for the defense's case to see. The Kern-Fay-Jones Report tells at least one version of what Miller advised and what procedures he left behind, starting on page 58. If I had to name the defense's theme, it would be "no responsibility because no system or authority." Volzer told the military jury a number of factors that should result in his client's acquittal for lack of responsibility: Cardona was part of an untrained military detention force; Abu Ghraib had multiple (with confusing lines of authority) groups of military and civilian intelligence personnel with different training and procedures; rules governing interrogation and detention were ambiguous and confusing; people guarding detainees were unqualified; Military Police command was weak; and, Abu Ghraib's detention and intelligence operations were understaffed. The two themes echoed through the subsequent direct- and cross- examination of seven witnesses (another two witnesses, Army criminal investigation agents, were called to the witness stand only to identify or "authenticate" documents that were then admitted into evidence). Among them were names familiar from other Abu Ghraib courts martial, including Ivan Frederick and Sabrina Harman. The prosecution sought to elicit testimony during each witness' first (direct) examination that would tend to show Cardona as unreasonable, someone who disobeyed his superiors' orders despite the challenges of wartime and the constant possibility of attack, and a person willing to use his military working dog to threaten or hurt detainees for his own and others' amusement. On cross-examination, the defense would try to use the same witness to further its own arguments that confusion about standard operating procedures at Abu Ghraib, and specifically about detainee detention and interrogation policies and rules of engagement, was pervasive, that Cardona's actions may have been a reasonable response to the chaos, and that, in any event, Cardona was simply following what he perceived to be the orders of his (multiple) superiors. And as the defense and prosecution each tried to make their case through the witnesses, everyone in the courtroom saw multiple times the terrible photos of Sgt. Cardona and his partner Sgt. Smith using their dogs on detainees, and the bite wounds that resulted in two instances. Almost all of these photos are available at Salon's Abu Ghraib Files website. (Salon obscures the victims' faces). By the end of the day, honors were about even on both sides. The refrain that kept going through my head during both the prosecution's and defense's questions was from something one of the panel members said yesterday during " voir dire" (the process by which potential jury members are questioned to ascertain bias). Colonel Robertson, a potential panel member, was asked whether he knew any of the likely witnesses in the case. He answered that he knew of Col. Pappas. Colonel Robertson explained that he had been a student at the Army War College during the 2003-04 academic year and one of the case studies discussed during his time there was the strategic implications of the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal. Specifically, Colonel Robertson said, the class discussed the role of military police in safety and security operations and in relation to military intelligence operations. In that context, the class discussed both Col. Pappas and Gen. Sanchez. One of the lawyers then asked whether the class came to any conclusions and Colonel Robertson replied: "We discussed . . . where were the officers? Where was the leadership? No one came up with valid answers. No one knew." Colonel Robertson is on the panel that will decide this case.