A U.S. soldier holds his sniper position on a rooftop in a Shiite enclave of Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq, in this April file photo. Army snipers hunting insurgents in Iraq were under orders to "bait" their targets with suspicious materials, such as detonation cords, and then kill whoever picked up the items, according to the defense attorney for a soldier accused of planting evidence on an Iraqi he killed. (AP photo)
The New York Times reports:
Under a program developed by a Defense Department warfare unit, Army snipers have begun using a new method to kill Iraqis suspected of being insurgents, using fake weapons and bomb-making material as bait and then killing anyone who picks them up, according to testimony presented in a military court.
The existence of the classified “baiting program,” as it has come to be known, was disclosed as part of defense lawyers’ efforts to respond to murder charges the Army pressed this summer against three members of a Ranger sniper team. Each soldier is accused of killing an unarmed Iraqi in three separate shootings between April and June near Iskandariya, and with planting “drop weapons” like detonation wires or other incriminating evidence on the bodies of the victims.
In sworn statements, soldiers testifying for the defense have said the sniper team was employing a “baiting program” developed at the Pentagon by the Asymmetrical Warfare Group, which met with Ranger sniper teams in Iraq in January and gave equipment to them.
The Washington Post described the baiting program on Monday.
An Army spokesman, Paul Boyce, said Monday that the Army did not publicly discuss specific methods for “targeting enemy combatants,” and that no classified program authorized the use of “drop weapons” to make a killing appear justified. Army officers involved in evidentiary hearings in Baghdad in July did not dispute the existence or use of a baiting program.
The court-martial of one accused soldier, Specialist Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., is scheduled to begin in Baghdad on Wednesday. The two other soldiers facing premeditated murder charges are Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley, the sniper team squad leader, and Sgt. Evan Vela. All three are part of the headquarters of the First Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, Fourth Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.
None of the soldiers deny that they killed the three Iraqis they are charged with murdering. Through their lawyers and in court documents, the soldiers say the killings were legal and authorized by their superiors. But defense lawyers raised the issue of the baiting program in response to prosecutors’ allegations that the soldiers had planted items, like wire for making bombs, on the bodies of the victims.
A transcript of the hearing was provided by a family member of an accused soldier.
Snipers are among the most specialized of soldiers, using camouflage clothing and makeup to infiltrate enemy locations, and high-powered rifles and scopes to stalk and kill enemy fighters. The three snipers accused of murder had for months ventured into some of the most dangerous areas of Iraq, said lawyers for Sergeant Vela.
“Snipers are special people who are trained to shoot in a detached fashion, not to see their targets as human beings,” said James D. Culp, one of Sergeant Vela’s lawyers. “Snipers have split seconds to take shots, and he had a split second to decide whether to shoot.”
After visiting the sniper unit in Iraq, members of the Asymmetrical Warfare Group gave soldiers ammunition boxes containing so-called “drop items” like bullets, plastic explosives and bomb detonation cords to use to pinpoint Iraqis involved in insurgent activity, according to Capt. Matthew P. Didier, a sniper platoon leader who gave sworn testimony in the accused soldiers’ court hearings.
Captain Didier, in a sworn statement about the program that was obtained by The New York Times, described baiting as “putting an object out there that we know they will use, with the intention of destroying the enemy.”
After placing the bait, snipers observed the area around it, Captain Didier said in his statement. “If someone found the item, picked it up and attempted to leave with the item,” he said, “we would engage the individual, as I saw this as a sign that they would use the item against U.S. forces.” (Engage is a military euphemism for firing on or killing an enemy.)
The Asymmetrical Warfare Group, based at Fort Meade, Md., grew out of a task force created after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 to develop methods to defeat roadside bombs. Not all of the group’s tactics were meant for sniper units, and most of them have not been publicly disclosed.
For instance, the group last year advised “kill teams” from the Third Brigade, Second Infantry Division, to dig holes resembling those used by insurgents to hide roadside bombs, and to shoot Iraqis who tried to place things in the holes, said a soldier who was briefed on the program and who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution.
The kill teams used the tactic not to kill people, but to wound them with gunshots and then capture and interrogate them, the soldier said. “It’s pretty common, and it’s pretty effective,” the soldier said in an interview. The soldier lamented the disclosure of the baiting and other anti-insurgent combat tactics because “it’s probably saving a lot of soldiers’ lives.”
James Ross, the legal and policy director for Human Rights Watch, said using fake weapons and ammunition as bait to attract and kill insurgents creates blurry ethical boundaries for soldiers fighting in Iraq, and great risk to civilians who are not legal targets in war. International law recognizes that killing “any individual who is directly or indirectly taking part in hostilities” can be justified, Mr. Ross said, but it is not precise about how such distinctions should be applied.
Mr. Ross said the dispersal of ammunition and explosives by American forces as part of an effort to attract insurgents would present obvious human rights problems.
“It seems to me that there are all sorts of reasons that civilians would want to pick up ammunition that is sitting on the ground,” he said.
Specialist Sandoval is the first of the three suspects to be tried in a court-martial. He and Sergeant Hensley were accused of leaving a spool of wire that could be used to detonate roadside bombs in a pocket of the man whom Specialist Sandoval shot in April, on Sergeant Hensley’s command.