Were Dogs Used to Torture?

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This undated photo shows an Iraqi detainee at Abu Ghraib being cornered by Army Sgt. Michael J. Smith and a dog

The court martial of Sgt. Michael J. Smith, which opened at Fort Meade, Md., this week, is a "dog bites man " story with potentially national implications. Prosecutors say that the 24-year old military dog handler from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., "tormented, terrorized and terrified" prisoners at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison, and have charged him with five counts of prisoner mistreatment, four assaults, two counts of conspiracy, one of dereliction of duty and a final charge of committing an indecent act. All involve his use of a black Belgian Shepherd named Marco at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 and early 2004 — a period during which seven low-ranking US soldiers have already been punished for committing abuse on Iraqi prisoners.

Even though the Abu Ghraib scandal has faded from the front pages, Smith's trial is attracting attention because it highlights — in a way that previous cases did not — the extent to which senior Army officers may have established guidelines that led to abuse in the first place. Lawyers for Smith, who faces a sentence of more than 24 years in prison, claim that he broke no rules but rather was merely following officially sanctioned policies handed down by superior officers. Other soldiers found guilty of abuse at Abu Ghraib, including Charles Graner and Lynndie England, were never able o demonstrate that their actions had been approved by higher-ups.

In the Smith trial, the defense will point to statements made by Army Col. Thomas Pappas, the senior military intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib, who has said he had approval from Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, a former commandant of Guantanamo who helped establish interrogation rules at Abu Ghraib. According to Pappas, Miller approved the use of dogs to extract information from detainees. In a statement given under oath on Jan. 25 after he was granted immunity from prosecution, Col. Pappas said he personally approved the use of dogs for a handful of prisoners. That approval, he said, came just days before now notorious photographs — since introduced as evidence in the Smith trial — were taken of Smith threatening a cowering prisoner with his dog. The prisoner, identified as a high-value intelligence target, was interrogated numerous times.

Pappas' s account appears to directly contradict statements to the Senate Armed Services Committee by Maj. Gen. Miller, who has said that that he authorized dogs to be used only for perimeter security, not for questioning prisoners. Pappas himself will be called to testify at the Smith trial, which could last up to two weeks, but Maj. Gen. Miller last month invoked his right not to incriminate himself and said he would not appear in court.

The stark contradiction between two senior Army officers — Col. Pappas and Maj. Gen. Miller — has upset lawmakers on Capitol Hill. On Tuesday, Sen. John Warner, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced at a hearing that he expected to have Maj. Gen. Miller testify before his panel at an unspecified date. Last month, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who also sits on the committee, made an even more pointed comment, saying, "Shame on us if we allow a story to go forward that is not true and the... dog handlers are paying the price."

To make it easier to oblige Maj. Gen. Miller to appear before the committee, both chairman Warner and Carl Levin of Michigan, its top Democrat, recently asked the Army to delay Maj. Gen. Miller's planned retirement. As for Pappas, the Army reprimanded and fined him last May for the abuses at Abu Ghraib, citing his dereliction of duty.

After Smith's trial is over, Sgt. Santos Cardona, a canine handler who worked with Sgt. Smith at Abu Ghraib, will be tried for his alleged similar abuses involving his dog. Sgt. Cardona is contesting the charges against him and is expected to invoke some of the same defense arguments as Sgt. Smith. So far in the Abu Ghraib scandal, only low-ranking soldiers have been subject to prison terms, with Graner, often described as the ringleader, sentenced to more than 10 years.