Members of Congress, Web sites back officer who faces punishment in Iraq interrogation case
ARLINGTON, Va. — The Army’s investigation of an officer accused of crossing the line in an attempt to get information from an Iraqi detainee is generating a grass-roots protest among some Americans who say the safety of troops trumps any temporary violation of interrogation rules.
Army Lt. Col. Allen B. West, who is assigned to the 4th Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 20th Field Artillery Regiment, in Tikrit, Iraq, stands accused of actions that occurred Aug. 20, at a detainee holding site in Taji, Iraq.
Some members of Congress, meanwhile, are asking whether those rules may not be too strict in light of the all-out war on terror.
“We’re trying to bring democracy and a better way of life to [Iraq], and you don’t do that by employing terrorist tactics in reverse,” John M. McHugh, R-N.Y., said in a Tuesday telephone interview. “But how many American lives are we willing to trade for ideals?
“Maybe the days of putting someone in a comfortable chair and giving them a cigarette are over.”
In testimony during his Article 32 hearing last week, West, 42, said he had received information that Yahya Jhodri Hamoodi, an Iraqi policeman, was allegedly involved in a plot to attack him and his troops.
Article 32 investigations are pretrial proceedings that determine whether a servicemember should face court-martial.
West said he had Hamoodi brought in for questioning, but that the Iraqi would not cooperate, so West led him out of the detention facility to a weapons cleaning area, gave him to a count of five to talk, and then fired two shots near the detainee.
Hamoodi then gave information that led to the detention of additional suspects in the attack.
West said he immediately filed a report to his commanding officer, detailing the incident.
“I knew [my career] was over,” West said during the trial. “I know that the method that I used was not the right method … [but] to protect my soldiers, I’ll go to hell with a gasoline can in my hand.”
One month later, West was relieved of his command. A preliminary investigation by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division alleged that West’s actions were in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
With the Article 32 hearing concluded, the case “is now in the hands of the investigative officer,” Lt. Col. Jimmy Davis, according to Master Sgt. Robert Cargie, a spokesman for the 4th ID in Tikrit.
There are three “courses of action” Davis could recommend, Cargie said in a Monday telephone interview: dismiss the case; proceed with Article 15 charges, which are administrative, internal sanctions; or “continue to process to a court-martial.”
Davis will make his recommendation directly to the 4th ID’s commanding officer, Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, Cargie said.
West has been assigned administrative duties while awaiting the outcome of the investigation, Cargie said. He refused to discuss details of West’s case, citing the pending recommendation.
In a Monday e-mail from Iraq, West also declined to comment on specifics concerning his case.
“I never wanted a public event as such we have,” West wrote. “I will not open my voice until this is resolved and I stand in embrace with my wife and daughters, all that matters right now.”
He referred additional questions to his attorney, retired Marine Lt. Col. Neal Puckett, who is in Tikrit with West awaiting the outcome of the investigation. Puckett did not reply to e-mail and telephone messages seeking comment.
West’s case has caught the attention of many Americans, including several who have e-mailed Stars and Stripes with their concerns.
Typical of those e-mails was this missive from retired Air Force member Roy S. Alba II of San Antonio:
“If the United States Army wants to improve morale they should promote LTC West way ahead of his peers,” Alba wrote. “Besides providing tardy justice to West it will also say to the enemy, ‘We’re taking the gloves off so don’t screw with us!’” wrote Alba.
Alba concluded: “Nice guys finish last!”
Angela West, West’s wife of 14 years, said in a Tuesday telephone interview that she has personally received “five or six thousand” letters and e-mails regarding her husband’s predicament, and that they have been running “almost 100 percent positive.”
“People are being very supportive of him, and I’m glad,” Angela West said. “It’s a huge support base, especially [responses from] the military.”
Grass-roots support for West appears to be largely driven by the Internet, where at least two dozen Web sites and chat rooms are tackling the controversy.
Most of the sites lean conservative or are devoted to military and veteran’s issues. At least two outlets, liberty.conservativepetitions.com/petitions.php and patriotpetitions.us/colwest/, have electronic petitions prepared they say will be sent to members of Congress, the Pentagon and White House.
On the liberty conservative petition site, opened Nov. 10, 640 people had registered their signatures as of Wednesday. There is no signature count associated with the patriotpetition site.
West also has champions in Congress, including McHugh, who is chairman of the House Armed Service’s Committee’s Subcommittee on Total Force, which has jurisdiction over military personnel matters, and House Armed Service Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.
Hunter and McHugh have sent two letters to acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee, requesting copies of the CID report and the Article 32 hearing transcripts involving the West case.
“We’re looking for the facts,” McHugh said. “We’re not urging a specific outcome here, or suggesting that what [West] did is totally OK, [but] we are looking for justice.”
McHugh said he heard about West “six or eight weeks ago,” while listening to a talk radio show by conservative host G. Gordon Liddy.
Subsequently, “more than two dozen members [of the House] have come up to me to comment, complain about [West’s case] or demand some kind of action on it,” McHugh said, calling such numbers “surprising.”
“When you have that level of member concern, you try to respond to it,” McHugh said.
Senior Army officials at the Pentagon will not discuss the West case, spokesman Maj. Steve Stover said Monday, “because we want to avoid undue command influence” on the outcome of the hearing.
View from the Hill
It’s difficult to say whether the congressional interest will help or harm West, according to attorney Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice in Washington.
“The value of congressional inquiries [into military justice cases] is not very clear,” Fidell said in a Monday telephone interview. “They often prove perfunctory, or worse yet, can backfire and harm the person that they are seeking to help,” because military officials resent the interference.
McHugh, however, said that while the West case “is obviously important for Colonel West, there are a number of larger, legitimate questions here” about the use of force in interrogations.
“We’re concerned about the longer-term implications,” McHugh said. “The challenge is that there are far too many detainees who don’t take us seriously.
“No one is saying we should engage in wholesale beatings and intimidation, but this is a new era,” he said. “The question we might ask ourselves is, within the bounds of humane treatment, should we be a little less strict” regarding the rules of interrogations?
Angela West agreed.
“There’s a bigger picture here,” she said. “We’re really not getting information from these guys (the Iraqis).”
“If [West’s] actions prevented four [soldiers’] lives from being lost, then I wish their families a great Thanksgiving,” Angela West said.
Sidebar: Article 32
In an Article 32 Investigation Process, the investigating officer conducts hearings.
While the Article 32 process is often called the military’s counterpart to the civilian grand jury, it provides the accused soldier with procedural rights not found in grand jury proceedings:
• The accused is also afforded legal representation.
• He may attend and present any information he deems important for consideration.
• Testimony, documents and other evidence considered by the investigating officer is available to the defense.
• The defense may cross-examine all witnesses.
After the hearings, the investigating officer is required to report his findings and make a recommendation as to the disposition of the charges to the convening authority, senior officers who ordered the hearing.
A copy of the report and recommendations is provided to the accused.
The recommendation from the investigating officer is not necessarily binding.