WASHINGTON – 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. Gary Myers, an attorney for Sgt. Evan Vela, said Monday his client had acted "pursuant to orders."
"We believe that our client has done nothing more than he was instructed to do by superiors," Myers said in a telephone interview.
Myers and Vela's father, Curtis Carnahan of Idaho Falls, Idaho, said in separate interviews that sworn statements and testimony in the cases of two other accused Ranger snipers indicate that the Army has a classified program that encourages snipers to "bait" potential targets and then kill whoever takes the bait.
The Army on Monday declined to confirm such a program exists.
"To prevent the enemy from learning about our tactics, techniques and training procedures, we don't discuss specific methods targeting enemy combatants," said Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman.
Boyce also said there are no classified programs that authorize the murder of Iraqi civilians or the use of "drop weapons" to make killings appeared to be legally justified, which is what Vela and the two other snipers are accused of doing.
The transcript of a court hearing for two of the three accused snipers makes several references to the existence of a classified "baiting" program but provides few details of how it works. A copy of the transcript was provided to The Associated Press by Vela's father.
The Washington Post, which first reported the existence of the "baiting" program, cited the sworn statement of Capt. Matthew P. Didier, the leader of a Ranger sniper scout platoon.
"Baiting is putting an object out there that we know they will use, with the intention of destroying the enemy," Didier said in the statement. "Basically, we would put an item out there and watch it. If someone found the item, picked it up and attempted to leave with the item, we would engage the individual as I saw this as a sign they would use the item against U.S. forces."
The Post said the program was devised by the Army's Asymmetric Warfare Group, which advises commanders on more effective methods in today's unconventional conflicts, including ways to combat roadside bombs.
Within months of the "baiting" program's introduction, three snipers in Didier's platoon were charged with murder for allegedly using those items and others to make shootings seem legitimate, according to the Post.
The Post said that although it doesn't appear that the three alleged shootings were specifically part of the classified program, defense attorneys argue that the program may have encouraged them by blurring the legal lines in a complex war zone.
The court martial of one of the accused soldiers, Spec. Jorge Sandoval Jr., is scheduled to begin in Baghdad on Wednesday. Also facing premeditated murder charges are Vela and Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley.
They are part of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.