By Dana Milbank
Thursday, August 23, 2007
"Don't speak," the judge advised a prosecution lawyer at one point yesterday during the court-martial of the lone officer charged in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
It was good advice.
The more prosecutors and prosecution witnesses speak in the trial of Army Lt. Col. Steven Jordan at Fort Meade this week, the better Jordan's defense looks.
"To the best of my knowledge, [Jordan] had nothing to do with interrogations," testified Staff Sgt. James Beachner -- and he was a prosecution witness.
Pvt. Chip Frederick testified, also (ostensibly) for the prosecution, that Jordan "had nothing to do with those detainees being abused."
"I never saw Lieutenant Colonel Jordan sign off on anything," testified yet another prosecution witness, Sgt. Michael Eckroth, who described Jordan as a good leader who was "trying to get something done to improve our less-than-austere conditions."
With a prosecution like this, who needs a defense?
This may explain why military prosecutors opposed the decision by top brass to bring Jordan to a court-martial in the first place.
Unable or unwilling to find a higher-ranking officer to prosecute, the generals who ordered the charges against Jordan would have had a big PR problem if they hadn't brought any officer before a court-martial for the Abu Ghraib abuse. A higher-ranking officer from the prison in Iraq, Col. Thomas Pappas, ended up with a reprimand and a fine, though he admitted approving the use of dogs in interrogations.
But the 51-year-old Jordan, portly and bespectacled, wasn't an ideal choice: He isn't in the infamous photographs from Abu Ghraib, and he had nothing to do with interrogations there; the most serious surviving charge against him is that he spoke about the investigation after being ordered not to -- and even that unraveled in court yesterday.
The judge, Col. Stephen Henley, clearly wasn't impressed with the prosecution. He made an eye-rolling gesture as he overruled one prosecutor, Lt. Col. John Tracy; Henley reminded Tracy that the source of his objection was something that Tracy himself had introduced into the record. He interrupted the prosecutors' legal arguments with complaints of "Stop, stop" and "Just give it to her."
At one point, Maj. Jon Pavlovcak, another prosecutor, handed an exhibit to the jurors but then quickly took back the copies after realizing he had attached information not meant for the jury. "Trying to save paper?" Henley inquired.
Later, Tracy permanently dismissed one of his witnesses before getting him to discuss the Abu Ghraib prison logs for the court record. "You have not laid the proper foundation," the judge upbraided Tracy.
Finally, after an afternoon recess, Tracy wasn't at his spot when the judge called on him to introduce his next witness. "He stepped outside," a sheepish Pavlovcak told the irritated judge before going to fetch his colleague.
Eight of the 12 charges against Jordan have already been dismissed. This week, prosecutors dropped the charge that Jordan lied to investigators because they determined that the chief investigator of the Abu Ghraib abuse, Maj. Gen. George Fay, had not read Jordan his rights. Prosecutors also abandoned plans to use the graphic photos of the prisoner mistreatment.
Though pinning little to Jordan, the prosecution did manage to revive the memories of the Abu Ghraib abuse. Pvt. Frederick, one of the low-level soldiers already convicted for his role in the abuse, gave a matter-of-fact recounting of his work at the "hard site" in Abu Ghraib's Tier 1. "They were placed in a naked pyramid, humiliated" in "sexual positions," he said in a courtroom decorated in the style of a budget hotel, with portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on the wall. "Sometimes they'd be wearing female panties."
A defense lawyer, Maj. Kris Poppe, took Frederick through a bizarre checklist.
Were the inmates stripped?
"Simulated homosexual acts?"
But then Poppe got to the point. "Lieutenant Colonel Jordan had nothing to do with those detainees being abused, did he?" Poppe asked.
A member of the jury -- which consists of nine colonels and a brigadier general -- asked if he had ever seen Jordan walk through the prison when detainees were unclothed.
"No," Frederick testified.
Unable to draw blood from Jordan, the prosecutors wandered. They had Sgt. William Cathcart talk about the Abu Ghraib "sleep-management program" -- a euphemism for sleep deprivation. This presentation proved so innocuous that the defense mounted no cross-examination.
"What state were the dogs in?" the prosecution inquired of Navy Chief Petty Officer William Kimbro, a handler of bomb-sniffing dogs.
"They were exhausted," testified Kimbro.
Just what the health of the hounds had to do with Jordan wasn't clear. "Do you know if that's Lieutenant Colonel Jordan?" a defense lawyer asked, beckoning toward the accused.
"No, I do not."
"You've never seen him before?"
So the person giving orders "was certainly not Lieutenant Colonel Jordan?"
Wisely, the prosecution decided to rest what was left of its case.