Level of Security
WHAT CONSTITUTES A RESPITE from a grueling, seven-day-a week desk job in war-torn Baghdad? The options are limited: a meal cooked and eaten with friends or a quiet night’s sleep, uninterrupted by rockets and sirens. Occasionally, Mike Carrasco, ’99, slips away from his post as a rule of law adviser here to hit a few golf balls. But NATO golf, as played on a dirt patch in the city’s Green Zone, takes place in the bizarre landscape of a battered city trying to overcome decades of strife.
Carrasco and his diplomatic colleagues confine their sporadic outings to the old United Nations headquarters, located on Saddam Hussein’s former parade ground. From an air-conditioned viewing stand, the Iraqi president would review troops marching past a double set of looming crossed swords. Now the abandoned pitch provides some meager space for recreation, punctuated by the Islamic call-to-prayer and the thump of U.S. Blackhawk helicopters flying overhead. Carrasco describes it succinctly: “Surreal,” he says calmly.
Despite suffocating tensions and paralyzing heat — it’s 117 degrees on a recent June evening — Carrasco keeps his cool. For the past two years, the 1999 Pitt Law graduate has led a team of international security advisers helping the new Iraqi government protect its judiciary and other key cabinet-level ministers, the subjects of repeated terrorist attacks. Working with dozens of U.S. and international agencies, Carrasco has directed a $22 million project to help Iraq bolster security at sensitive facilities around the country and devise a training program for 8,000 security officers to protect its judges.
A veteran of military and diplomatic assignments from Guantanamo Bay to Afghanistan, Carrasco arrived in Baghdad by an unusual route. He’d spent the previous four years as senior counsel at a commercial litigation group based in London and New York, his hometown.
“The opportunity with the State Department arose through a friend with whom I served on active duty,” recalls Carrasco. “The assignment seemed fascinating — to be an adviser on security matters to the Iraqi government, to help strengthen its institutions. I was familiar with the environment.” He took a leave of absence from Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, packed his bags, and arrived in the city in September 2008.
Over the next two years, the American military presence in Iraq diminished, dropping from a high of 175,000 troops to an expected 50,000 this fall. But helping the country rebuild its legal infrastructure remains an important task. Carrasco’s assignment as rule of law adviser placed him on a team that developed strategies to combat narcotics trafficking and corruption, train criminal investigators, and assist the Iraqis in internal security for high ranking officials, to include the country’s chief justice and president of the Higher Judicial Council, or HJC, and the minister of justice.
“Our team is unique because of the diversity of expertise: senior diplomats who lead the office and a Justice Sector group comprised of an Australian attorney formerly with the World Bank; a Chicago attorney with vast experience in the Peace Corps; and a hard-nosed prosecutor, formerly with the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office in northern California. We have a very talented group,” says Carrasco.
While historians will debate the United States’ impact on the region for decades to come, Carrasco points to significant, tangible improvements in security nationwide, made by Iraqis with U.S. advice. Security upgrades—steel-reinforced T-walls, barriers, bulletproof windows, X-ray equipment, blast curtains, the infrastructure of the counterinsurgency—have been completed at nearly a dozen sites throughout the country, with more underway. Standard operating procedures have been developed in security. A national curriculum for training security personnel has been prepared and presented to Karima Hadi, the HJC’s acting director general for security. The formal instruction is targeted at nearly 5,000 guards and security officers, many of whom have received no prior grounding in the field. The goal: to restore Iraqi public confidence in the safety of their judicial institutions, encouraging them to seek access to courts and the rule of law.
Building that confidence during an insurgency takes time. During Carrasco’s tour in Baghdad, the HJC’s headquarters was twice struck by car bombs, killing dozens of Iraqis. In early 2010, one of the government’s prosecutors for terrorism was assassinated in his home. While overall levels of violence have dropped, the road ahead is rocky.
“It depends on what you are comparing it to,” says Carrasco. “It’s more secure than the early years [of Operation Iraqi Freedom] or even two years ago. But there are still too many bombings. The environment remains very dangerous.”
LONGING TO SERVE
Between graduation from SUNY Binghamton and entering Pitt Law School, Carrasco explored a different career: teaching. Fluent in Spanish, he spent two years at a Queens high school, teaching bilingual social studies to native Spanish speakers. Looking back, he credits the experience with helping him learn the secrets to effective communication. Those skills were honed further during his years at the law school.
“I still remember working with Professor [Kevin] Deasy both as a student and as one of his teaching fellows. Effective writing became the foundation of my journey to become a strong communicator. Pitt Law taught me how to become an effective advocate — it paved the way for my entry into courtrooms as a trial lawyer in the Air Force. The military prepared me to take on the challenges of advancing U.S. foreign policy in Iraq.”
Pitt’s international law track confirmed Carrasco’s interests in national service. When he applied to the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps, he hoped for a post as an international law prosecutor.
“I always wanted to serve in the military. I think it’s really important for citizens to give back to the community, especially those of us who are first generation Americans,” he says. When a medical issue blocked his acceptance to the Force, Carrasco had a back-up plan. His selection as a Presidential Management Fellow upon graduation brought him to Washington in the fall of 1999. Chosen from over 6,000 applicants to serve as special assistant to the late Adrian Curtis, the Department of Justice’s budget director, he began a two-year appointment working on classified programs. Six months later, responding to Carrasco’s challenge, the JAG reversed its ruling, agreeing that his eye condition did not disqualify him for service. With White House permission, he accepted a JAG post as chief of adverse actions at a classified base in southern California, trying more than 30 felony cases in Los Angeles, Japan, South Korea and finally, McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, where he returned to be closer to his family.
“It was my last window to pursue [military service], and I had a great opportunity,” he recalls. “The beauty of it was that once I completed service, I could have gone back to the White House program.”In fact, it would take Carrasco ten years to return to Washington. Assignments to determine the legal status of Guantanamo Bay detainees gave him the expertise the U.S. Department of Defense demanded with battlefield detainees in Afghanistan. With top-level security clearance, he hit the ground there running, arriving for a ten-month tour in October 2003. The grueling experience could not have been more different than courtroom work.
“It was a difficult environment in the combat zone in Bagram, west of Kabul,” he says of the highly classified mission. “When a team of operators prepares to kick down a door, they don’t know exactly what will be on the other side. You go into a town where you don’t know how you will be received, who the elders are and how their position may be compromised by working with the U.S. and coalition forces. The key was to make sure that battlefield evidence was properly collected to build a case for prosecution under the Military Commissions Act.”
Carrasco does not speak Arabic, Urdu, Pashtu or Farsi, and found the language barrier a crucial difficulty in evaluating detainees and their cases. His team relied heavily on interpreters. “We could not accomplish our mission without the right linguists, particularly in countries where these ancient languages are still spoken. They are extremely complex to master. You can miss critical details of an account.” Nevertheless, he prepared over 400 opinions over the next ten months before returning to the U.S. and starting his commercial litigation post in the fall of 2004.
“While in the military, I’d been constantly on the move,” he explains. “When I completed my tour of duty with the Air Force, my hope was to remain in litigation.” But courtroom opportunities were limited in the civilian post. When the State Department called, Carrasco returned to the high-speed world of international narcotics and law enforcement, this time as a rule of law adviser, rather than a military officer. While based in Baghdad, Carrasco was helping the Iraqis create a modern national system. “Certain provinces are very dangerous, particularly Ninewa (Mosul City) and Diyala (Baqubah City), so often, resources are dedicated to
those cities first. There are local [terrorist] networks that are funding the insurgency. Judges have requested assistance on how to prosecute modern crimes such as money laundering and how to investigate corruption cases.”
Despite living and working in the Green Zone, Carrasco was no safer than he’d been in the field in Afghanistan. He began to work with Yussif Haddad, the director general for security, on a nationwide judicial security assessment. The vulnerabilities of the fragile system were about to be tragically exposed.
“There were plenty of bombings, of course,” he begins. On August 8, 2009, one of Baghdad’s ministries, Foreign Affairs, was bombed, as Carrasco and his “team”— a private security escort — convoyed to a meeting in the city’s Red Zone. “I recall it like yesterday,” he says. Midway through the discussion, he felt a sense of foreboding. “I was uncomfortable. I cut the meeting short, and as we crossed back into the international zone, a bomb exploded at the checkpoint, just about 30 seconds after we passed through. It was a pretty significant explosion.” The American team was unhurt.
Three months later, insurgents mounted a massive attack on the Ministry of Justice itself.
The coordinated suicide car bombings on October 25 were the worst the city had experienced in over a year, leaving at least 155 Iraqis dead and about 500 wounded.
“When a bombing occurs you become frantic. You want to make sure all of your colleagues are accounted for — Americans, Iraqis and coalition partners.” says Carrasco soberly.His colleague, security chief Haddad, ran into the rubble to find his staff. He drove the wounded to the hospital in his own car. And as a result of his exposure to the toxins of the blast, he died weeks later.
“He was heroic. He slept in his office with a shotgun and worked around the clock. He loved and cared about Iraq.He cared about us, his American friends. Director General Haddad had the kindest smile,” recalls his American colleague.“He’d greet me with the traditional three kisses on the cheek.We had a special partnership.
I felt very sad for my Iraqi colleagues. I’d grown to have a lot of respect for them.”
Haddad’s successor has also earned Carrasco’s respect. She is Karima Hadi, an able administrator whom Carrasco calls Um Majid. (The traditional Iraqi term of endearment denotes her as the mother of a son). “When Director General Haddad died, she was asked to step in to assume the incredible task of heading security for the judiciary,” he says admiringly.
Female judges are not a rarity in Iraq, says Carrasco. “Iraqis are fairly progressive when it comes to government. I attended a graduation ceremony of 50 female judges a year ago. I remember being up on stage with the chief investigative judge in Iraq and looking about at the graduates. In the group there was every possible style [of dress], from fully covered in traditional Islamic garb, to miniskirts and boots. Iraqi women have choices here.”
This summer, a decade after he left Washington, Carrasco returns to a post with the State Department there. Drawing on his achievements with the Iraqis, he has been named assistant director for police operations in the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, supporting security missions around the world, from Palestine and the West Bank to Haiti, Colombia and other Latin American countries.
“The office was founded in 2006, with a vision to promote stabilization and reconstruction of societies in transition from conflict or civil strife,” explains Carrasco. “Struggling states have become breeding grounds for terrorist activity, violent crime, trafficking, humanitarian catastrophes, and trafficking in weapons of mass destruction — all of which have a substantial impact on national security around the globe.” He began his four-year term in September, relocating to the Foggy Bottom neighborhood.
Carrasco is keenly aware of his good fortune in his past assignments. Particularly in Baghdad, his lifestyle, though stressful, was in stark contrast with the living conditions of many Americans serving in the Middle East.
“A dear friend since day one of law school is Kathryn Navin [’99],” he notes. Now serving in the Marine Corps, she completed her third tour of duty in Iraq in Anbar Province. “When she saw my diplomatic apartment she was in awe. Her first request was to take a shower in a proper bathroom.”
Americans like Major Navin inspire Carrasco, and he believes they also inspire the Iraqis with whom they work. “I’m amazed at how committed Americans are to making this mission here work. We place ourselves in danger every single day, to help Iraq get stronger. Volunteers arrive in Baghdad from other U.S. embassies. The security contractors that provide our protection are amazing. They do an outstanding job and respect the primacy of Iraqi law. There are a lot of moving pieces, but the American spirit is very much alive.”