FORT MEADE, Maryland (Reuters) – Senior U.S. officials silently condoned harsher methods at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and one general urged guards to use dogs to the “maximum extent possible” to control detainees, witnesses said on Thursday.
The testimony came on the fourth day of the military trial of Army dog handler Sgt. Santos Cardona, 32, who is accused of taking part in abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib that the U.S. government blames on rogue low-ranking soldiers.
Defense attorneys are trying to show that Cardona, who faces 16 years in prison if convicted on all charges, and other soldiers were acting on orders from their superiors.
Prosecutors say he and an already convicted colleague were “corrupt cops” who used dogs to terrify detainees into urinating and defecating on themselves.
Steven Pescatore, a former Air Force officer who worked as a civilian interrogator at Abu Ghraib, said in written testimony that silence from superiors on the treatment of prisoners was widely seen as meaning consent.
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“We still had to submit a memo requesting the harsher techniques, but we could go under the assumption that a technique was approved unless we heard back otherwise,” he said.
“There was a lot of pressure and stress among the interrogators; we were constantly being told that we needed to get more information from the detainees.”
Despite evidence of pressure from above to extract more information from prisoners, there are few signs that senior Army leaders or administration officials will be charged with condoning the abuse.
The U.S. government, which often justifies its foreign policy on the grounds of improving human rights, was severely embarrassed when photographs showing prisoners being abused and sexually humiliated were leaked in 2004.
Another witness said that the former commander of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay urged the use of dogs to control prisoners, but not in interrogations.
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller was sent to Iraq from the Cuba base to try to improve information gathering as the insurgency intensified after the March 2003 invasion.
Ten low-ranking soldiers have so far been convicted of abusing prisoners, including the use of snarling, unmuzzled dogs in late 2003 and early 2004 after Miller arrived.
“All I can recall is him encouraging using them (dogs) to the maximum extent possible,” retired Lt. Col. Jerry Phillabaum, who was in command of Abu Ghraib before September 2003, told the court in a military base in Maryland.
“I don’t recall him saying anything about interrogations.”
Miller, the highest-ranking officer to testify in the scandal, on Wednesday denied he suggested using military dogs in interrogations of Iraqi prisoners, undercutting Cardona’s defense.
Prosecutors say there were clear rules on the treatment of prisoners that were flouted by Cardona and another dog handler, Sgt. Michael Smith, who was convicted in March and sentenced to 179 days in prison.