By Josh White and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Spec. Jorge Sandoval lay face down in the foot-high grass, staring through his sniper rifle scope at the Iraqi man holding a rusted sickle. The man had crouched down, only his head was visible. Sandoval's spotter, Staff. Sgt. Michael Hensley, relayed the order to kill.
On April 27, in dangerous terrain south of Baghdad, Sandoval pulled the trigger to fire a bullet hundreds of yards into the man's skull, killing him instantly. Moments earlier, the man, according to testimony and court documents, had been fleeing an attack on U.S. soldiers and was holding the sickle to masquerade as a farmer. After killing him, Sandoval and Hensley allegedly placed a spool of wire -- commonly used to make bombs -- on the man's body to ensure the shooting would not be questioned.
Sandoval's court-martial on premeditated murder charges for this killing is scheduled to begin today in Baghdad. As he and two other snipers face charges of killing Iraqis, legal experts are debating how large a role a classified program of "baiting" their targets played in the cases. The soldiers in the unit had the spool of wire, defense attorneys said, only because the Army's secretive Asymmetric Warfare Group had given it to them -- along with other items, such as plastic explosives and AK-47 rounds -- so the snipers could boost the number of suspected insurgents they killed by shooting whoever picked up the materials.
However, some soldiers serving in Iraq said that the program and the subsequent murder charges have caused them to rethink pulling the trigger in the field out of concern that they could be charged with crimes for doing so. As Sandoval prepared to shoot and Hensley repeatedly asked him if he had the shot, they had to make a split-second decision that U.S. troops have to make on a daily basis: Kill the man and possibly face scrutiny, or let him go and possibly put U.S. service members in jeopardy in the future.
The charges against Sandoval, Hensley and a third sniper, Sgt. Evan Vela, have caused some of their sniper scout platoon's shootings to be questioned, as well.
"I just came to a unit, Delaware, that they will not pull the trigger on people," said Sgt. Andrew G. Murphy III, according to transcripts of a Baghdad court hearing. "Now they're like, 'What's going to happen if?' And I'm like, 'I don't know; I can't tell you. If you feel threatened, take the shot, and I hope, I pray, that your command takes your back, because you have split and milliseconds to make decisions like this.' "
Since the beginning of the Iraq war, 69 U.S. service members have been charged in connection with Iraqi civilian deaths, and 31 have been convicted of a crime, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.
Murphy, who has been investigated for one such shooting, testified that snipers in the unit at times felt that they should consider placing some of the classified materials on dead bodies to legitimize shootings that they thought might draw scrutiny. While the unit felt pressure for more kills, it also felt pressure to make them all seem ironclad.
The materials reached the "painted demons" platoon of the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, in January, after members of the Asymmetric Warfare Group suggested using them. Officers described the program, in unclassified statements obtained by The Post, as involving the placement of the items in insurgent areas and killing those who picked them up.
The Asymmetric Warfare Group is modeled after the Army's secretive Delta Force and grew out of a decision by Army leaders in 2003 to seek new ways to counter insurgents' use of roadside bombs, snipers and suicide bombs. The group is classified by the Army as a Special Mission Unit and was formally established in January 2006.
The teams, similar to the small, Special Forces A-teams, circulate among military battalions in Iraq, where they teach new counterinsurgency tactics. A more overarching goal of the Asymmetric Warfare Group is to act as a catalyst "to change the way the Army thinks," said one Special Forces officer familiar with the group. It also analyzes new threats, generates new tactics, and identifies gaps in capabilities and equipment, according to the Army.
Retired Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Romig, a former judge advocate general for the Army, said the group's baiting program, as described publicly, opens up the possibility for indiscriminate shootings -- based on little information -- that could lead to the death of scavengers or curious passersby. He said that when troops kill civilians by mistake, it can harm the war effort.
"In those cases where there are lots of questions, sometimes shooting is not the right answer, because it has a huge potential for being indiscriminate," said Romig, now dean of the Washburn University School of Law in Kansas. "When guidance becomes fuzzy and the response is 'When in doubt, shoot,' then we have problems."
Army Maj. Gen. Richard Sherlock, director of operational planning for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon briefing yesterday that he would not discuss the sniper case, but he noted that U.S. soldiers are not trained to kill indiscriminately. "The laws of land warfare do not include engaging someone simply for picking something up on the battlefield," Sherlock said.
Staff writer Joshua Partlow in Baghdad and researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.