Sgt. Cardona had faced a maximum of 3 1/2 years prison time for dereliction of duty and assault, the two counts for which he was found guilty by the military jury yesterday. The sentence the jury imposed today does not include any prison time, however. Sgt. Cardona received 90 days hard labor, a reduction in rank to specialist, and a fine of $600/month for 12 months. In the words of Cardona’s civilian defense lawyer, as reported by AP: “It wasn’t an acquittal, but it was pretty darn good.”
What conclusions can we draw? Well, we can’t read the minds of the military jury panel, but a couple of things were clear from the court martial proceedings: the panel had before it evidence of an environment at Abu Ghraib where the rules were unclear and confusion prevailed about the standards for detainee interrogation and detention. Neither absolves Sgt. Cardona of wrongdoing — the panel after all found him guilty of not handling his dog properly and of using his dog to threaten a detainee (during detention, not interrogation) — but clarity of rules and adequate training and guidance are the responsibility of senior officers.
In Human Rights First’s study of detainee deaths in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, we found (as of February of this year) only 12 cases in which anyone was punished in any way for a detainee death (see especially the Accountability chapter, starting at p. 35). In eight of these cases, we considered the punishment lenient, compared to the circumstances of death. This was particularly the case in four deaths, which occured as a result of torture – the highest sentence was five months in prison. It’s hard to assess systemically the adequacy of punishment when, as in the Cardona case, we don’t know the deliberations of judges and juries. But it is a fact that in each torture case, in which deaths resulted from, among other things, suffocation and beatings, the accused raised as a defense a lack of training or that bad acts were authorized by their commanders. And prosecution results suggest that military judges and juries are responding to this defense. In a case Human Rights First observers also monitored , Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer argued that stuffing a detainee in a sleeping bag was a stress position authorized by General Sanchez in Iraq, and presented evidence that Welshofer’s own superior, Major Jessica Voss signed off on it (and her superior, a Lt. Col., also later expressed support for Welshofer’s role). Welshofer was charged with murder for the detainee’s death by suffocation but found guilty of negligent homicide; he got a reprimand, a $6,000 fine and 60 days of confined movement.
Sgt. Cardona was not accused of treatment that resulted in a death, but his defense was similarly premised on evidence of confusing doctrine that did allow for the use of dogs during interrogation at various times and places, and unclear or non-existent rules about how dogs and use of force could be used in detention operations. That defense appears in large measure to have been successful.
These issues go beyond Sgt. Cardona’s court martial alone — and they aren’t going away. The Pentagon has issued a directive prohibiting dogs from use during interrogation, but we need similar clarity on a host of techniques that were authorized at the highest levels of command but that are unlawful (and lead to detainee abuse), including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and the use of stress positions. We’re still waiting for revisions to the Army Field Manual on Interrogation, which are being debated. Among the topics for debate is whether the manual will include a secret annex and separate interrogation techniques for so-called enemy or unlawful combatants. But if the more than two years of experience and investigations since Abu Ghraib have taught us anything, it is that the Interrogation Manual must fully reflect the McCain Amendment, which prohibits torture and cruel treatment and demands a clear, uniform set of standards. Anything less and abuses will likely continue.