Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Abu Ghraib Dog Handler Court-Martialed: Rogue or Scapegoat?

Michael J. Smith was a military working dog hander at the Abu Ghraib Central Confinement Facility in Iraq. MWDs were used at Abu Ghraib primarily as a show of force to deter detainees from attempting to escape or riot. Smith participated in the interrogation of Ashraf Abdullah Al-Juhayshi, believed to be connected to al-Qaeda, in late December 2003 or early January 2004. Colonel Thomas M. Pappas, then commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade in Iraq testified that he had authorized the use of MWDs in interrogations in December 2003.

During the interrogation, Smith allowed his unmuzzled MWD, a Belgian Malinois named Marco, to bark in the Al-Juhayshi’s face and to pull a sandbag off the man’s head with its teeth. In January 2004, Smith also brought the dog to the cell of two juvenile detainees who screamed in fear. Smith later said, “My buddy and I are having a contest to see if we can get [them] to shit themselves because we already had some piss themselves.”

The prosecution had to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Smith was not obeying orders. RCM [Rules for Courts-Martial] 916 provides that it “is a defense to any offense that the accused was acting pursuant to orders unless the accused knew the orders to be unlawful or a person of ordinary sense and understanding would have known the orders to be unlawful.” Orders are presumed to be lawful. There was evidence that Smith received an order to aid in the interrogation by having his dog present. Steve Stefanowicz, a civilian contractor and interrogator, wrote in his notes that MWDs were being used in interrogations with the approval of Colonel Pappas and Chief Petty Officer Rivas. Stefanowicz was not a witness at the trial but has been sued in a civil action regarding Abu Ghraib interrogations.

Colonel Pappas testified that he had approved the use of dogs in interrogating three other “high-value” detainees, but there was other evidence that participants in the interrogation of Al-Juhayshi thought there had been official approval to have the dog present. There was no evidence that Smith had been given an order to remove the dog’s muzzle or have it touch Al-Juhayshi.

Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, who later wrote a book about his experiences with the Bush administration, said that his express approval would have been necessary to use MWDs for interrogations. Sanchez was aware that MWDs could “exploit Arab fear of dogs while maintaining security during interrogations,” but there was no evidence that Colonel Pappas sought or received such approval from Sanchez for the interrogation of Al-Juhayshi. Pappas testified that he originally thought he could approve use of MWDs but then realized he was wrong. He acknowledged that subsequent requests to use MWDs in interrogations never reached Sanchez.

Military policy on MWDs is that they are to remain muzzled and under control of their handlers when near prisoners. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces determined that even if Smith had authority to have a dog at the interrogation, there could have been no lawful order to use the dog as he did. Nevertheless, Smith argued that the dog’s barking was “in earshot of MP guards, who did not respond, indicating that they were fully aware” of what he was doing. The court determined that even if MPs did not react, this did not prove that an order had been issued to use Marco as Smith did.

The commander in charge of Navy dog teams at Abu Ghraib testified that standard operating procedure was to use MWDs to “reduce escape attempts, encourage detainee compliance, and improve the effectiveness of compound searches and inspections.” Handlers were instructed to yell “stop” prior to the release of an MWD. The assumption of such a command is that the dogs are to be used to apprehend escapees.

Smith was convicted by general court-martial for maltreating prisoners and conspiracy to maltreat prisoners. Specifications alleging indecent acts and dereliction of duty were dismissed. U.S. v. Smith, 68 M.J. 316 (C.A.A.F. 2010). Colonel Pappas was later relieved of his command. News reports suggested that others should have been held accountable as well as Smith. Internal investigations may have glossed over abuses by military contractors. Other cases have mentioned the use of unmuzzled dogs during interrogations at Abu Ghraib. See CACI Premier Technology, Inc. v. Rhodes, 536 F.3d 280 (4th Cir. 2008). Tactics used at Abu Ghraib were approved earlier for Guantanamo by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, according to the Washington Post.

MWD handlers must know the limits of their activities under military law and should be aware that, even if they are encouraged to exceed those limits, they will be hung out to dry when a military prosecutor gets involved. There was a good deal of evidence that Smith was guilty as charged and convicted, but I am by no means convinced that he was a rogue.

1 comment:

  1. He was an idiot that used his dog inappropriately. A dog handler knows this is not the appropriate use when around prisoners. We can't even have the prisoners at a normal military installation around when we do searches with MWDs of their cells at a normal military base...