The Task Force 121 Connection

Sometimes, the obvious bears repeating:a court martial like that of Sgt. Santos Cardona, accused of using his military dog to threaten and abuse detainees, is critical to determine individual wrong-doing, but it’s only a piece of the larger torture and abuse scandal. It’s no substitute (and shouldn’t be) for the necessary systemic and thorough investigation into events that took place across Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the role and responsibility of senior officers – one of the most important ways the U.S. government can say to all military personnel that abuses will not be tolerated. The obvious was brought home during testimony on Thursday from Capt. Carolyn Wood.Now, Capt. Wood is one of the “Where’s Waldos” of the abuse puzzle; she was posted to both Afghanistan and Iraq, and some of the worst abuses that have yet come to light appear to have been committed under her watch. In late 2002, Capt. Wood was in charge of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion in Afghanistan.Soldiers under her command were implicated in the deaths by torture of two Afghan detainees, Habibullah and Dilawar (see. pp. 14 and 15).Capt. Wood and members of her battalion were then transferred to Iraq, where, in July 2003, they were assigned to Abu Ghraib. Capt. Wood testified that, at Abu Ghraib, she oversaw the “screening and collection [of intelligence] operation for detainees” and became the “officer in charge for military intelligence.” Sgt. Cardona’s civilian defense lawyer, Harvey Volzer, asked Capt. Wood whether she was asked when she arrived to develop interrogation “rules of engagement.”[In the context of Abu Ghraib, the terms “interrogation rules of engagement,” or “IROE” were used to refer to authorized interrogation techniques; here is one version of the rules of engagement developed by Capt. Wood and posted for interrogators at Abu Ghraib.] Capt. Wood said no – she testified that she had been provided a copy of the rules of engagement for another task force, which she submitted to her chain of command for approval. Volzer asked which task force Wood had been referring to and Wood responded: Task Force 121.My pen faltered in my note-taking. Task Force 121 (or TF-121), which has also been referred to as Task Force 6-26, was created in the summer of 2003 and was an elite, joint military-civilian unit that included CIA and Special Operations forces, assigned (according to various reports) to search for high-ranking members of the Saddam regime and/or weapons of mass destruction. By August 2003, the military Special Operations members of TF-121 were reportedly using interrogation methods so harsh and aggressive that the CIA barred its officers from participating. By December 2003, the report of an internal military investigation conducted by retired Col. Stuart Herrington (which has not been released), found that, according to the Washington Post, TF-121 members “had been abusing detainees throughout Iraq and had been using a secret interrogation facility to hide their activities.” The Post quotes from the investigation report:”Detainees captured by TF 121 have shown injuries that caused examining medical personnel to note that ‘detainee shows signs of having been beaten,'” . . . “It seems clear that TF 121 needs to be reined in with respect to its treatment of detainees.”  In his testimony from the Taguba investigation Col. Steven Jordan, who last month was charged with cruelty and maltreatment and dereliction of duty for his role at Abu Ghraib, indicated that TF 121 had also abused detainees at Abu Ghraib. In the military courtroom, Volzer asked Capt. Wood whether she “made use of” the TF-121 rules of engagement.Wood did not directly respond – she repeated that she had “made the recommendation” for the rules of engagement to be approved, but had not received approval.Volzer asked how Wood came to have them and Wood replied, “they came from my Battallion Commander.” Volzer did not follow up. Wood’s testimony raises so many questions that will not be answered in the context of this court martial; here are just a few:what were TF-121’s rules of engagement and did they deviate from existing military and civilian regulations and laws?And if so, how?Who approved them?How did Wood’s battalion have them and were they used by military and civilian interrogators at Abu Ghraib, even in the absence of official approval?Was there tacit approval?What rules of engagement applied at Abu Ghraib before General Sanchez approved three different sets of rules in rapid succession in September and October 2003 (see my post from yesterday)? Other snippets from Thursday that cry out for more explanation:the defense introduced testimony by stipulation (a process by which both sides agree to read to the jury and into the trial record testimony previously obtained from a witness without needing the witness to appear in person) from two separate sources, concerning the interest of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in Abu Ghraib. The first testimony was from Maj. Michael Thompson, who was assigned to the 325th Military Intelligence Battalion at Abu Ghraib and reported to Col. Pappas, then head of military intelligence for the prison. According to the stipulated testimony, Maj. Thompson was frequently told by Pappas’ executive assistant that “Mr. Donald Rumsfeld and Mr. Paul Wolfowitz” had called and were “waiting for reports.” The defense also read aloud stipulated testimony from Steve Pescatore, a civilian interrogator employed by the CACI firm, who recalled being told by military intelligence personnel that Secretary Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz received “nightly briefings.” It’s obvious why it may be to the government’s advantage not to allow more questioning on the public record about the nightly briefings.I would guess that the defense thought it enough to give the jury this evidence of pressure from the top, as context for the high-stress environment in which the defense says Sgt. Cardona was working. But no official investigation to date has adequately examined the role of senior military and civilian command in the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. The defense also elicited testimony that seemed intended to cast doubt on Maj. Gen. Miller’s Wednesday testimony that, during a visit to Abu Ghraib in August-September 2003, he only recommended the use of military working dogs for detainee “custody and control” and benign collection of “passive intelligence.” According to Lt. Col. Jerry L. Phillabaum, the commander of the 320th Military Police Battalion at Abu Ghraib, “Maj. Gen. Miller encouraged the use of dogs as much as possible” and said “they were used effectively at Abu Ghraib around prisoners.” Maj. David DiNenna, the warden of Abu Ghraib prison, recalled a conversation with Maj. Gen. Miller in which they discussed the lack of resources at the prison and Miller asked about military working dogs. (Col. Pappas, head of military intelligence, was also present, according to DiNenna.)DiNenna testified that he told Miller he’d already requested working dogs for prison operations and Miller responded that he would ask for additional resources for Abu Ghraib, including the dogs. DiNenna added: “[Maj. Gen. Miller] said dogs were extremely effective.He looked at Col. Pappas and said how effective they were at Guantanamo .This struck me as funny . . . I was the MP looking for dogs, he answered MI.”How effective this testimony will be in counteracting for the military jury the strength of Maj. Gen. Miller’s denial that he recommended the use of dogs during interrogation is hard to tell. In sum, on Thursday the defense introduced the testimony of seven “live” witnesses and two witnesses by stipulation.The testimony of all the witnesses, who included a military dog handling expert, was intended to bolster the defense’s theme:Sgt. Cardona is a good dog handler and his actions were lawful and reasonable, especially in light of the confusion and chaos of military detention and interrogation operations at Abu Ghraib, where orders from above were non-existent, unclear or constantly changed. Despite aggressive cross-examination of the witnesses by the prosecution, the defense may be making some headway.Late in the afternoon, at the end of the testimony by the dog handling expert, a panel member asked (in the military justice system, the jury may submit written questions to be asked of witnesses):”Is there any guidance within the Geneva Conventions or the law of war on the use of military working dogs on detainees or in interrogations?” So in a story that started with the authorization by the Secretary of Defense of use of dogs during interrogation in Guantanamo, a member of the United States military, sitting on a jury in a court martial at Fort Meade, now wonders what the law is on how dogs can be used by the U.S. military on human beings.  Until then it had always been clear.The use of dogs to intimidate or threaten or degrade prisoners in interrogation is unlawful.It violates the Geneva Conventions.It violates U.S. policy as stated in the Army’s field manual on interrogations, and it violates the prohibitions against cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under domestic law and international treaties by which the United States is bound.It also violates the Uniform Code of Military Justice, under which Sgt. Santos Cardona has been charged with cruelty and maltreatment and dereliction of duty.In November 2005, the Pentagon issued a directive explicitly prohibiting the use of dogs in interrogations. The dog handling expert to whom the question was posed had not read the Geneva Conventions and said the subject of use of dogs on detainees and during interrogations wasn’t yet taught in the Army’s dog handling school. The jury member’s question went unanswered.And on the fifth day, the defense rested.  The trial is scheduled to resume on Tuesday.  Have a good weekend.


Published on May 26, 2006


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