The WaPo reports today on a classified program where U.S. snipers laid out bait for Iraqi insurgent targets.
A Pentagon group has encouraged some U.S. military snipers in Iraq to target suspected insurgents by scattering pieces of "bait," such as detonation cords, plastic explosives and ammunition, and then killing Iraqis who pick up the items, according to military court documents.The military have refused to comment, saying only that "we don't discuss specific methods targeting enemy combatants." But is this a legitimate targeting method?
The classified program was described in investigative documents related to recently filed murder charges against three snipers who are accused of planting evidence on Iraqis they killed.
"Baiting is putting an object out there that we know they will use, with the intention of destroying the enemy," Capt. Matthew P. Didier, the leader of an elite sniper scout platoon attached to the 1st Battalion of the 501st Infantry Regiment, said in a sworn 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."
In documents obtained by The Washington Post from family members of the accused soldiers, Didier said members of the U.S. military's Asymmetric Warfare Group visited his unit in January and later passed along ammunition boxes filled with the "drop items" to be used "to disrupt the AIF [Anti-Iraq Forces] attempts at harming Coalition Forces and give us the upper hand in a fight."
Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said such a baiting program should be examined "quite meticulously" because it raises troubling possibilities, such as what happens when civilians pick up the items.
"In a country that is awash in armaments and magazines and implements of war, if every time somebody picked up something that was potentially useful as a weapon, you might as well ask every Iraqi to walk around with a target on his back," Fidell said.
Soldiers said that about a dozen platoon members were aware of the program, and that numerous others knew about the "drop items" but did not know their purpose.
Confederate Yankee has a thoughtful post which correctly differentiates between the program itself and the uses defense lawyers are putting it to in the cases of soldiers accused of planting bait items on dead Iraqis after killing them, although he is reluctant to acknowledge that the first certainly seems to have provided opportunity for the second. In his post, CY examines the legitimacy of this targetting method using bait. It's worth quoting at length:
Imagine, for a moment, that you are an Iraqi returning from a fellow tribesman's home in the afternoon heat. To gain some shade, you step off the main road and decide to take a shortcut down a path through a grove of trees. Before you, on the path, is a spool of wire often used by insurgents in building IEDs. Seeing no one around, you pick it up with the intention of giving it you your brother, a soldier in the Iraqi Army...Confederate Yankee seems to be genuinely unsure whether the gamble is acceptable or not - conflicted between his own sense of honor and rightness and a wish to see insurgents killed.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a member of the Islamic State of Iraq. You wear no uniform, no insignia that identifies you as anything other than a civilian. Late to a meeting with cell members at a nearby safehouse, you step off the main road to take a shortcut down a path through a grove of trees. Before you, on the path, is a spool of wire often used by your fellow insurgents in building IEDs. Seeing no one around, and wondering if one of your fellow cell members may have use for it, you warily pick it up with the intention of giving it to you cell's bomb builder...
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a U.S. Army sniper in a concealed position a hundred meters away, watching these scenarios play out. Can you cipher their intentions and determine which man is the insurgent, and which is the civilian, based merely upon the decision to pick up the spool of wire?
...In a country where every household is expected to have small arms for protection, using bait such as small arms, magazines, or ammunition for these small arms would be entirely and unquestioningly unacceptable. It would be far too tempting for civilians to pick up such found implements that they could legally own, use, or sell.
On the other hand, if the unit was using bait items that could only be use by insurgents and terrorists--say, artillery rounds or plastic explosives--then the baiting becomes more targeted and less likely to ensnare innocent civilians. But when the penalty for picking up such objects and attempting to carry them away is a marksman’s bullet, is it acceptable to take that gamble?
But I would say that the gamble is an unacceptable one, not merely on ephemeral ethical grounds but on grounds of international law and the Geneva Conventions. The fourth Geneval Convention and the two Additional Protocols make it clear that civilains should not be targetted. This includes direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks against areas in which civilians are present. I would argue that, by the simple thought experiment Confederate Yankee outlines, this baiting tactic is insufficiently discriminatory between legitimate targets and civilians. As such, the formulation, advocacy and implementation of the tactic is a war crime.
And yes, I know that the bad guys don't observe the Conventions but that a murderer kills doesn't give an automatic right to lynch a suspected murderer in cold blood without observance of the law. Lynching a suspect in a murder case is itself murder by every law of jurisprudence. To incite a lynching is to be an accessory to murder.
Likewise, killing a man with a sniper's bullet based entirely on the sniper's opinion of that man's likely motives in picking up bait is entirely unlawful and criminal, as is inciting such actions.
Need I also mention that it is a terrible "hearts and minds" counter-insurgency tactic? Imagine you are an Iraqi mother who has kids playing in an area where this baiting is taking place. Do you trust the good heart of American snipers to decide your kid is too young to be an insurgent when he picks up the bright, shiny spool of wire they have left out in his path?