- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2003

The attorney for Army Lt. Col. Allen B. West says a just-completed investigative hearing in Iraq showed a weak link in the U.S. military’s ability to interrogate and get information from Saddam Hussein’s fighters.

“All of the intelligence witnesses regularly expressed the fact that detainees bragged they know they don’t have to talk because we can’t do anything to them,” attorney Neal Puckett said in an interview yesterday.

The lawyer said once the detainees are released, they spread the word among Saddam’s followers that they can stay mum and not be punished.

“The bad Iraqis are ID’d by human sources,” said Mr. Puckett, who spent a week in Iraq investigating the case. “The Iraqis who are ID’d as bad guys and questioned all know we can’t touch them. We can’t even so much as threaten them.”

The officer who presided over the hearing, Lt. Col. Jimmy Davis, is writing his recommendation on whether Col. West should be court-martialed for firing his pistol twice near an Iraqi detainee to scare him into providing information on a planned attack. Col. Davis’ decision could come any day.

Col. West’s tactic violated the Army’s strict rules for questioning Iraqis amid a guerrilla war that claimed more than 80 American lives in November alone. Col. West, who worked in one of Iraq’s most violent regions, faces two assault charges and one count of threatening the Iraqi’s life.

Mr. Puckett, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, returned to the United States last week after defending Col. West at the two-day Article 32 hearing in a former Saddam palace in Tikrit.

It was Col. West’s frustration with uncooperative detainees that finally moved him to break the rules on the night of Aug. 20.

Intelligence sources had fingered an Iraqi policeman as being involved in a plot to assassinate Col. West. Officers such as Col. West are prime targets for death squads because they lead local efforts to bring democracy to Iraq, town by town.

After four enlisted interrogators failed to get the Iraqi to talk and even resorted to a few punches, Col. West took the man outside, threatened to kill him and fired a 9 mm pistol twice.

Mr. Puckett said testimony showed the police officer gave up two names of assassination plotters, plus the time and the place. The information allowed Col. West to avoid those areas as the military conducted sweeps.

The lawyer said the unit’s intelligence officer at the time of the plot testified that three Iraqi sources informed her that the policeman was in on the assassination plot.

Mr. Puckett said Col. West did not order his soldiers to strike the Iraqi.

“He did not immediately put a stop to it, and therefore, he accepts full responsibility for their actions,” the lawyer said.

Col. West admitted his misconduct to his superior, the 4th Infantry Division’s artillery officer. But nothing was done until Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno ordered a command climate investigation. The probe was sparked by a four-page letter of complaint from an artillery sergeant.

At the end of his letter, the sergeant mentioned the West incident. Col. West admitted wrongdoing and was relieved of his battalion command.

Col. Davis, the Article 32 hearing officer, basically has three options for his recommendation: a court-martial, nonjudicial punishment or dismissal of the assault charges. The final decision is up to Gen. Odierno.

Col. West, whose wife and two children live at Fort Hood, Texas, has asked the Army to let him retire at the 20-year mark.

“Colonel West wants everybody to know he is not a criminal,” Mr. Puckett said. “He assumed the risk. He knew before that what he did was not proper interrogation procedures. But he risked his career for the sake of his men because wherever he goes he is surrounded by six or seven soldiers. So whoever attacks him is attacking them because these attacks are very, very violent.”

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