- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2003

Lt. Col. Allen B. West, put on trial for discharging his service weapon to force an Iraqi to provide details of a plot to kill Americans, received good news this week. A hearing officer has recommended Col. West face nonjudicial punishment under Article 15 of the military code, rather than a court martial. Then yesterday, his commanding officer, Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, ruled that Col. West will have to pay a $5,000 fine.

Col. West will most likely be able to retire from the Army as a lieutenant colonel. Compared to a court martial, at which he risked a conviction and dismissal from the military (which would have cost Col. West his retirement and medical benefits based on 20 years of service), the fine probably comes as something of a relief. Even so, the West case and the Army’s treatment of the colonel have been deeply troubling from the outset. And there is a real possibility that this will send a dangerous message to Iraqi insurgents who have killed and injured hundreds of American and other coalition troops in Iraq: Once captured, they can thumb their noses at coalition military interrogators and get away with it.

At his military hearing last month, Col. West testified about the events of Aug. 20 at a detention center in Taji, Iraq, which ended what had been a distinguished military career. His soldiers were coming under constant attack from insurgents near Tikrit, a stronghold of support for Saddam Hussein. An informant told Col. West that there was a plot against his soldiers and that one of the plotters was an Iraqi policeman. The policeman was brought in for questioning, but refused to provide any information. Believing the 700 soldiers under his command to be in mortal danger, Col. West fired two shots in close proximity to the Iraqi captive, who gave in and provided the information. The planned attack never took place. It is no stretch to say that Col. West’s action may have saved the lives of hundreds of American troops.

In October, a military prosecutor attempted to force Col. West to choose between resigning immediately and forfeiting retirement benefits, or facing criminal proceedings that could have sent him to prison. Were Col. West to have resigned early, he would have lost more than $1 million in pay and retirement benefits. Given the fact that his wife is a cancer survivor, Col. West would have found it prohibitive — if not impossible — to obtain medical insurance for his family.

Leaving aside the ordeal faced by Col. West, the military needs to reassess some of the serious problems with its interrogation techniques that were highlighted at his hearing last month. For example, one soldier under Col. West’s command testified that “Our hands are tied behind our backs,” adding that detainees know that they “could sit all day long and not say anything and eventually walk free.” Since then, there have been other reports that Iraqi suspects, knowing the constraints being placed on American soldiers, openly taunt their captors, secure in the knowledge that they can keep information on planned attacks to themselves. This is a situation that puts the lives of our troops at risk. If anything good comes out of the West case, it will be that it served as a catalyst for the development of more realistic ways of interrogating the hardened killers our GIs encounter on the battlefield every day in Iraq.

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