‘CSI: Baghdad’ it isn’t: High-tech gear not a lot of help in getting Iraqi warrants
American soldiers have a host of high-tech tools at their disposal. Sprays can detect explosive residue on someone’s hands long after they’ve finished building a bomb. Retinal and fingerprint scanners help determine a suspect’s identity.
There’s just one problem: Many of those tools aren’t much help with obtaining arrest warrants.
Starting Thursday, U.S. units who want to detain an Iraqi will need to ask an Iraqi judge for a warrant, but many judges here are reluctant to accept the kind of forensic evidence that TV crime shows such as "CSI" have made so familiar to Americans.
Eyewitness accounts are the Holy Grail in Iraqi law. They are all but required for obtaining a warrant from an Iraqi judge. Soldiers must convince witnesses — usually at least two — to make a sworn statement that they saw a crime.
The witnesses must also take an oath administered by an Iraqi officer, affix their thumbprint and sign the document.
"The sworn statements are probably going to be the hardest part," said Lt. Col. Mike Pemrick, the deputy commander of 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division in Baghdad.
Units have long collected evidence in a file called a "target packet," and that usually entailed talking to people on the street. Those target packets are now the basis for the warrant requests.
Even when judges do allow forensic evidence, the Americans can’t share the classified information that’s helped them so much in the past. That means those secret methods can only be used to identify targets — then authorities must start building a case using unclassified means.
Soldiers will still take tips from witnesses who aren’t willing to give sworn testimony, but those tips usually aren’t enough anymore, said 2nd Lt. Clayton Merkley, a platoon leader in Company C, 1st Battalion, 35th Armor Regiment. To get warrants now, platoons and companies will have to constantly develop intelligence and build evidence at their level, Pemrick said.
Those challenges were reinforced during a brigade meeting earlier this month to evaluate how the units were progressing on obtaining warrants. Col. John Hort, the 3/4 BCT commander, pointed out a high-level suspect for whom the battalion had been having problems getting eyewitness accounts. Hort said the Iraqi battalion commander for the area knew a woman hurt by the suspect who’d probably be willing to testify. The units needed to use their Iraqi counterparts more, he said.
The new requirements have some perks, Merkley said. Although the soldiers must persuade witnesses to make a sworn statement, they only need one or two witnesses instead of the four to seven less-official statements they once had to obtain.
Merkley estimates that he’s actually spending the same number of man-hours collecting evidence as he always has; he’s just casting a narrow net instead of a wide one. The targets they’re getting now are also more definitive.
"As far as I know, we are already doing our very best to adhere to SOFA [status of forces agreement]," he said. "Jan. 1, I think it will be fine."
Like Merkley, most soldiers shrugged off the new requirements. That’s no surprise to Lt. Col. Mike Pappal — commander of 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment. His unit has 58 "high-value targets" and already has obtained warrants for 29 of them. The brigade as a whole has warrants for 63 of 82 high value targets — the bulk of those are battalion-level targets.
The units have also been helped by Iraqi efforts. The Iraqi army has been seeking warrants since at least February 2007 and has been especially focused on the process in the past six months. Many of those insurgents wanted by coalition forces already have warrants out for their arrests. American leaders are working with their Iraqi counterparts so they don’t have to duplicate Iraqi efforts.
At this level at least, most feel that the new requirements are simply a tweak to an already established process.
"It’s not a huge change or anything," Pappal said. "We target and we collect as we always have. We just have an extra step; we have to get a warrant from a judge first."
STRIPES SERIES:A new wayof doing business
Starting Thursday, American units in Iraq will be required to obtain a warrant for nearly everyone they detain. Their actions must follow terms set by the security agreement signed between the two countries. In a three-day series, Stars and Stripes examines how the military is preparing for this change.
Day One: Prosecution task forces• As New Year’s Day nears, U.S. troops prepare to hand over arrest authority to local judges• Soldiers learning the ropes of the Iraqi legal system, but some uncertainty over process remainsDay two: The Troops • ‘CSI: Baghdad’ it isn’t: High-tech gear not a lot of help in getting Iraqi warrantsDay three: The Iraqis• Iraqis taking a larger role in securing warrants