Last year, Michael Graham ’84, M.P.S., was thinking about retirement as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Naval Reserves. After more than two decades in the reserves, Graham had risen to the rank of commander. And he did so as he built a successful career as a senior lobbyist for the American Dental Association.
The Navy, however, had other ideas.
“Last spring,” recalls Graham, “when I announced that I was about to retire, they said. “No, not quite. We’ve got one last trip for you. You’re going to Iraq.”
Graham was deployed to Iraq in May of 2008 as an intelligence officer, but quickly found a new position at the Joint Task Force on Law and Order – a collaborative effort between the U.S. military and the Department of Justice to help build the capacity of Iraq’s government to investigate cases involving terrorism and major crimes and then bring them to trial. Building that capacity, Graham says, involved working closely with judges and introducing contemporary investigative techniques – including the capability to gather and analyze forensic evidence and use it in trials.
The task force also had another ambitious goal: clearing an immense docket of thousands of Iraqi detainees arrested over the past few years by Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces. Graham says that the acceleration in the tempo of adjudicated cases has led to faster due process, a substantial number of acquittals, and a rise in public trust in the new Iraqi courts.
As chief of staff of the task force, Graham was the third-ranking officer in the effort, which has its headquarters at a U.S. military base five miles from the international “Green Zone” in central Baghdad. The compound is situated on the edge of the volatile Sadr City neighborhood, which is a stronghold of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr.
“There are only two ways to get there – you get in a heavily armed convoy or you take a helicopter,” he says. “It’s a fairly dangerous place.”
Graham says that the task force worked long hours seven days a week (with time off on Sundays for religious services). As chief of staff, he split his time with judges – who were also housed on the base for their own safety – and with investigators.
“We had quite a few judges living there in what we called the Laguna Apartments,” he says. “They worried for their lives. There had been – soon before my arrival – five assassination attempts on judges, two of which were successful.”
Graham’s work with Iraqi investigators often took him out onto the mean streets of Baghdad.
“You were traveling with various [military police] units to go to police stations, sites where incidents occurred to look at the area, and even to collect evidence.”
Graham’s deployment with the task force ended in November of last year. In his six months in Iraq, he says that he saw immense progress in both the justice system and in public attitudes to investigations.
“As time went on,” he says, “we saw the level of cooperation increase dramatically. It has to do perhaps with the Iraqi people being a little tired of their lives being in danger from day to day. They’re tired of war. They’re tired of a foul economy.”
Graham also says that momentum had been gained in building an infrastructure for Iraq’s legal system. A new courthouse on the compound where he was stationed began hearing cases ahead of a scheduled ribbon-cutting ceremony for its opening.
“They took complete ownership of that,” Graham observes. “There’s a lot of pride… Iraqis say that we don’t need you to hold our hand.”
On the U.S. side, Graham points to a successful trial and guilty verdict in a high profile case that involved the kidnapping, killing and mutilation of two U.S. soldiers in 2006. The guilty verdict and death sentence for one of the three suspects arrested in the case that came down from an Iraqi court in late October was a milestone in Iraqi justice, he says, in part because of the key role that the new investigative techniques played in the conviction. Forensic evidence, he observes, “helped find the individual who was responsible for this crime.”
Graham believes that the work accomplished in Iraq will not fall apart as the United States withdraws its combat forces in the next few years.
“You can’t force Iraqis,” he observes. “It’s their country. But you can show the benefits of improving the justice system, and making it more streamlined, more efficient, and eventually more effective.”