Dog Handler Goes on Trial for Alleged Iraq Prison Abuse

A military dog handler goes on trial Monday at Fort Meade, Md., for allegedly using his unmuzzled dog to intimidate and threaten detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. Sgt. Santos Cardona is charged with abusing two Iraqi detainees and, if convicted, he could face 20 years in prison.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

This morning, a military dog handler goes on trial at Fort Meade, Maryland. He's accused of using his un-muzzled dog to intimidate and threaten detainees. It happened at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. Sergeant Santos Cardona is charged with abusing two Iraqi detainees, and he could face as many as 16 years in prison if convicted.

This is not the first criminal case stemming from the Abu Ghraib scandal, but this case is different, because this time a senior officer has been ordered to testify.

NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam has been following the scandal. Jackie, good morning.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the evidence against this man, the sergeant?

NORTHAM: Well, there's-first of all there are photos against this man, and of course, there's evidence taken from other officers, other soldiers, that were at Abu Ghraib as well.

He, Sgt. Cardona, is charged with - among other things - dereliction of duty, and also maltreatment of detainees and basically using his working dog to abuse the detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. He is the second dog handler that is facing court martial. Last month, Sgt. Michael Smith was found guilty of abuse for using his dog against detainees, and he got about six months jail sentence.

INSKEEP: I suppose one question here is whether the sergeant was following orders or came up with this all on his own.

NORTHAM: You know, that's the key question to this trial, and certainly all of the other trials stemming out of the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal. The defense at all the other trials have tried to say that they were just following - the soldiers were just following he orders. But that's a very hard thing to prove, because there are regulations in the military that say if somebody is given an order to do something that they know to be wrong or unlawful, not only should they not follow that order, but they should also report the senior officer that told them to do whatever it was that they were, you know, told to do - such as using dogs to intimidate detainees - allegedly. And that's one thing that the prosecution in all these cases has fallen back on.

And, I think this is what we're going to see here again, too. And they're going to say, quite likely, the prosecution in this case that starts today, that Sgt. Cardona was using his dog for fun. In other words, trying to see - there was some sort of contest, they say, to see which dog handler could frighten the detainees the quickest.

INSKEEP: One senior officer from the chain of command is expected to testify here.

NORTHAM: This is very, very interesting. His name is, he's an Army Major General named Jeffrey Miller, and he was the former commander at Guantanamo Bay. And he was sent over, he was dispatched to Iraq in 2003 by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld just to see how they could improve the interrogations over there, get more information from the detainees that they were holding.

Now, in the past, Miller has denied either recommending or approving the use of military working dogs during interrogations, but there is some dispute about that. Other senior officers have told investigators that, in fact, Miller did encourage the use of dogs. So this is going to come up, undoubtedly.

But again, Steve, this is highly unusual for an officer of Gen. Miller's level of responsibility to be called to testify. And originally, he did invoke his military equivalent of taking the Fifth, but this time, apparently, he is going to talk when he takes the stand.

INSKEEP: What does the defense hope that his testimony will show?

NORTHAM: Well, to find out, to see if, you know, obviously, that he did, you know, back up the defendant's line on whether - about the working dogs. But I think more broadly, what we're going to be seeing here is just some sort of if he can provide some illumination on other techniques that are there. And certainly, certainly to try to prove that there is some connection between the abuse at Abu Ghraib and policies that are developed by the top, by top Pentagon officials. In other words, what instructions Miller may have received about interrogations from the Department of Defense. It's going to be interesting.

INSKEEP: Jackie, thanks very much.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR National Security Correspondent Jackie Northam.

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