By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 13, 2006
When Army Sgt. Michael J. Smith faces a court-martial today on charges that he used his military working dog to harass and threaten detainees, one of the prime examples of that alleged misconduct will be a photograph of Smith holding the dog just inches from the face of a detainee. It is one of the notorious images to emerge from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Although officials characterized the other detainees who appeared in the Abu Ghraib photographs as common criminals and rioters, the orange-clad detainee seen cowering before the dog was different. Detainee No. 155148 was considered a high-value intelligence source suspected of having close ties to al-Qaeda. According to interviews, sworn statements from soldiers and military documents obtained by The Washington Post, Ashraf Abdullah Ahsy was at the center of a military intelligence "special project" designed to break him down, and was considered important enough that his interrogation was mentioned in a briefing to high-ranking intelligence officials at the Pentagon.
Although Ahsy -- also identified in documents by the tribal last name of al-Juhayshi -- was described without his name in an Abu Ghraib military investigation as a "high value" detainee, he has largely remained a mystery. Ahsy's story, and his months of intense interrogations, contrast with statements by U.S. officials that the images of abuse at Abu Ghraib depicted malfeasance of a few soldiers randomly selecting victims on the night shift.
Ahsy could become a central figure in Smith's trial because attorneys for the Abu Ghraib dog handlers have said that military intelligence (MI) directed the soldiers to use their animals as part of an interrogation regimen, one that top officers approved in December 2003. Unlike others implicated in the Abu Ghraib abuse, the dog handlers can point directly to approvals of the technique in question from top commanders.
In a Jan. 25 sworn statement to investigators after he was granted immunity, Col. Thomas M. Pappas, who ran the Abu Ghraib operation, said he approved the use of dogs for a few detainees in the days before the picture of Ahsy was taken, though he said he did not remember signing off on using dogs with Ahsy. Army officials confirmed that Ahsy is the one in the photograph.
"The preponderance of the evidence suggests the photo was the only photo [depicting Abu Ghraib abuse] which had anything to do with interrogations because the detainee was considered a high-value detainee," an Army official said Friday in response to questions about the case. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter is part of an ongoing court-martial.
Ahsy was interrogated dozens of times by military intelligence soldiers, civilian contractors, and members of other government agencies (OGA), a common euphemism for the CIA, according to the documents. The newly discovered accounts reveal that the military working dog in the photograph was being used in conjunction with a coordinated effort to get Ahsy to talk, an effort that continued for months.
Smith, who has been charged with dereliction of duty and maltreatment of detainees, is scheduled to be tried at Fort Meade this week. He is also accused of using his dog to threaten two other detainees and for allegedly engaging in a contest to make detainees urinate and defecate out of fear. Smith's military attorney declined requests to comment.
Smith told abuse investigators in 2004 that military intelligence and military police requested Marco, his black Belgian shepherd, for use in interrogations and to control detainees, and that he complied.
"They use us for interrogations purposes," Smith said in a sworn statement in June 2004. He described the interrogators bringing detainees out of their cells and then having his dog get about six inches from their faces.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said he found the use of dogs "disturbing."
"It's more evidence that these Abu Ghraib torture techniques were consciously developed for the purpose of gathering intelligence and not something that was dreamed up by low-ranking soldiers on the night shift," he said.
Pappas told investigators in January that generals urged him to use aggressive tactics on the detainees and that he approved the use of dogs in at least three cases.
"I thought I had the authority to approve the use of the dogs," he said, according to a 25-page unclassified transcript obtained by The Post. "In my view, it was to establish control."
Pappas said he forwarded 20 to 30 requests for use of severe tactics to Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, then commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.
"Now he did express some concerns to me about the intelligence we were obtaining and not using the full spectrum of tools and authority to obtain good intelligence," Pappas said of Sanchez, "but never did he say use dogs on any particular person or time."
Navy personnel arrested Ahsy on Dec. 9, 2003, aboard the merchant vessel Manar as it approached southern Iraq after sailing from a port in the United Arab Emirates, according to military documents.
Ahsy, then 23, told interrogators he was a Sunni Muslim originally from the al-Sowara neighborhood in Baghdad. He was a former soldier in the Iraqi military who had been living in the UAE, working as a driver for a sultan. He was captured with cars he said he was going to sell in Iraq. U.S. military officials said last week that some records showed he was Iraqi, while others listed him as Syrian.
John B. Israel, a civilian contract linguist at Abu Ghraib, told military investigators that he and others left the prison in December to pick up Ahsy on a ship south of Basrah. Upon return, Ahsy was immediately dubbed "Project #2," according to Israel's statement, which noted Ahsy was the prisoner in the photograph.
Ahsy first appears in military police logs for Tier 1A, the area of the prison where high-value detainees were held, on Christmas Eve 2003, when he is listed as being in Cell 10. At 8:15 a.m., he was "in stairwell with OGA," denoting that he was being interrogated there.
Over the next three weeks, according to the logs, doctors evaluated Ahsy twice and each time recommended him for medical care, once for severe swelling in his feet. A soldier who worked at the prison said Ahsy's feet swelled because he was made to stand in "stress positions" for hours.
"People were always making a big deal about him, and I don't know why," said Sgt. Hydrue Joyner, who ran the day shift on Tier 1A. "Whenever we took him out of the cell, they made it seem like we had Hannibal Lecter with us. They thought he was important, and OGA and MI were paying a lot of attention to him."
Interrogation summaries show that Ahsy was questioned regularly -- 63 times through April 12, 2004 -- and interrogators were frustrated by his lack of cooperation. He was threatened with being sent to a Saudi or Israeli prison, and interrogators tried to scare him with the possibility of sending him to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"The interrogation team was presented with the opportunity to use two Black Hawks as props in an attempt to convince the detainee he was going to be transported to GITMO, Cuba," interrogators wrote on Feb. 13, 2004. "The detainee was taken thru a complete set of preplanned circumstances up to taking him out to a waiting aircraft. The detainee was then returned to his cell. . . . The detainee was uncertain and very worried."
Six days later, in interrogation No. 43, they wrote: "The team has moved closer to getting the detainee on the edge of breaking."
Ahsy was referred to by the nicknames "al-Qaeda" and "Ashy," and was "considered a big fish for a while," according to Pappas's statement. Pappas said he received "several briefings on this particular detainee." He also said that during a briefing for Pentagon intelligence generals, an interrogator "stated he was in a rapport-building process with Ashy," although there was no mention of using dogs.
Military officials in Baghdad said Ahsy was released from custody in October 2004 -- 10 months after his capture -- but declined to elaborate.