Army officer's case sparks fierce debate
By Vernon Loeb
WASHINGTON Despite criticism from leading Republicans on Capitol Hill, senior Army leaders are defending the filing of criminal charges against a battalion commander in Iraq who fired his pistol near the head of an Iraqi detainee in an attempt to frighten him into divulging information about a planned ambush against U.S. forces.
At least one member of Congress, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a member of the Armed Services Committee, said during a Nov. 19 committee hearing that the commander, Lt. Col. Allen West, should be "commended for his actions and interrogation."
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the committee's chairman, agreed during the hearing on Army issues, which involved Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker and acting Secretary Les Brownlee.
"I think you're quite correct in your observation," Warner said of Inhofe's comment. "All congressional offices have a high level of concern about this case."
Criminal charges have been filed against Lt. Col. Allen West.
"We are highly disturbed by media accounts that the Army is beginning criminal proceedings against Lt. Col. Allen B. West for taking actions in Iraq that he believed were necessary to protect the lives and safety of his men, and which he apparently reported to his chain of command," the congressmen wrote. "To us, such actions if accurately reported do not appear to be those of a criminal."
Four senior Army officials, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, defended the filing of criminal charges and said the military justice system must be allowed to run its course without interference.
After a preliminary hearing in mid-November in Tikrit, Iraq, West awaits a decision by Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division in central Iraq. Odierno will decide whether the Army will court-martial West for aggravated assault and communicating a threat, impose a lesser administrative sanction, or dismiss the matter. If convicted at court-martial, West could face eight years in prison.
"The Army has to deal with this," one official said. "They cannot walk away from somebody who fundamentally breaks the rules like this. The American Army on the battlefield carries the values of the American people, and one of those values is we do not abuse our enemy."
Even more disturbing than West's decision to fire his pistol near the head of the Iraqi detainee, the official said, was West's admission during the preliminary hearing that, before firing his pistol, he watched as his soldiers beat the Iraqi in an attempt to get him to talk.
Given that level of "abuse," the official said, "the leadership will have to take some kind of action. I'm not (necessarily) suggesting a court-martial, but they'll have to take some kind of action."
"From a moral and ethical standpoint," another official said, "the U.S. Army can never allow such purported behavior. As horrific as war is, we cannot go down that slippery slope. Everything that we stand for as an Army and a nation would be undermined."
West, relieved of his command, said during his preliminary hearing, known as an Article 32 hearing under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, that he used poor judgment in seeking to intimidate the detainee, an Iraqi police officer said by an informant to have information about a planned sniper attack on West's troops.
"I know the method I used was not the right method," West testified. "I was going to do anything to intimidate and scare him, but I was not going to endanger his life."
Wiping tears from his eyes, West, 42, added, "If it's the lives of my men and their safety, I'd go through hell with a gasoline can."
Neither West nor his attorney, retired Marine Lt. Col. Neal Puckett, could be reached for comment. Odierno also declined to discuss the case.
Odierno ordered a criminal investigation of West's conduct after receiving two anonymous letters about West's Aug. 20 interrogation of the Iraqi, according to an Army official.
The letters questioned West's conduct and the broader command climate in the 4th Infantry Division's Artillery Brigade.
Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey said West's admission that he had allowed his troops to punch the detainee was more serious than West's firing his pistol near the detainee's head.
"You can't physically maltreat prisoners, and we can't have our officer corps tolerating that," he said.
Gary Solis, a former Marine judge advocate who teaches the law of war as an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law School here, said: "Were West's actions unlawful? Yes. Clearly." But he said: "Were West's actions wrong? Not the same question, and a harder question, but, yes, his actions were wrong."
He said West's actions warranted punishment, but "not by court-martial. Not by incurring a federal conviction and perhaps losing retirement benefits he's spent an honorable career earning. I would recommend nonjudicial punishment, what Marines call a commanding general's mast, a financial fine and a career-ending written reprimand."
One senior Army official agreed that a court-martial may not be warranted once all the facts are considered.
But second-guessing by members of Congress at this point in the process, the official said, is "unfortunate."
"A key part is, what was in the mind of the leader?" the official said. "Did he exercise reasonable judgment? Did he overreact? What is his reputation? Ten people would probably have 10 answers. Only his chain of command is responsible and accountable for his actions. They need facts to make a proper decision."