Thursday, October 30, 2003

The attorney for Lt. Col. Allen B. West said yesterday his client will not quit the Army, rejecting a prosecutor’s offer to resign rather than face charges he threatened an Iraqi detainee to gain information on a planned guerrilla attack.

“Col. West will not resign short of his retirement eligibility,” attorney Neal Puckett said in an interview.

Mr. Puckett said he will travel to Iraq next week to investigate the case. He will then defend Col. West at an investigative hearing, called an Article 32, scheduled for Nov. 10 in Kirkuk. If enough evidence of wrongdoing is presented, Col. West could be court-martialed and sent to prison.

The staff judge advocate for the 4th Infantry Division has charged Col. West with communicating a threat and aggravated assault for firing his pistol to scare a detainee into divulging information.

Col. West told The Washington Times in an e-mail this week that he was desperate to gain information to protect his soldiers. They face almost daily attacks as they work to impose security around Tikrit, a stronghold of Saddam Hussein loyalists.

The prosecutor has offered Col. West two choices: quit now, short of his 20-year retirement eligibility tomorrow, or face criminal proceedings that could lead to a trial. The assault charges carry a maximum penalty of eight years in prison.

Mr. Puckett is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who, as a judge advocate and military judge, handled more than 1,000 criminal cases. He said it is not unusual to suggest an officer quit rather than face charges.

“However, I’ve never seen a situation where this guy is this close to retirement,” Mr. Puckett said.

If he quit, Col. West, 42, would lose more than $1 million in pay and health benefits over his life expectancy. His wife is a cancer survivor, Mr. Puckett said, meaning medical insurance will be extremely costly.

The attorney said Col. West may consider accepting “nonjudicial punishment” at an Article 15 hearing before the division’s commander, Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno. This procedure would allow the officer to retire with benefits, Mr. Puckett said. He said it is likely that Gen. Odierno approved the “quit or court-martial” offer to Col. West.

The Army has relieved Col. West of his battalion command, an action that effectively ends his career.

“The Army doesn’t make just anybody a battalion commander,” Mr. Puckett said. “If he had stayed a battalion commander, he was almost assured of being promoted to [full] colonel in the future.”

Col. West acknowledged in his e-mail to The Times that he did not follow the rules for interrogation, which prohibit the threat of force. He has offered to resign at the lower rank of major so he can collect retirement benefits. He reaches his 20th year of service tomorrow.

At the Article 32 hearing, an officer will listen to prosecution and defense evidence. The officer would then recommend to Gen. Odierno whether to order a court-martial, dismiss the charges or handle the case administratively.

The Times contacted Col. West via e-mail earlier this week, and he responded with an account of his actions in August.

He was working as a liaison with the town council of Saba al Boor. His unit learned through an informant of impending attacks. The next day, some of his soldiers were attacked on a road leading to the town.

The informant said an Iraqi police officer was involved. Col. West had the policeman detained. When two interrogators failed to gain any information, Col. West went to the detention center, brought the detainee outside and fired his 9 mm pistol twice to scare him into talking.

Col. West said the detainee then provided the names of two accomplices and told of another planned sniper attack the next day.

“I have never denied what happened and have always been brutally honest,” said Col. West. “I accept responsibility for the episode, but my intent was to scare this individual and keep my soldiers out of a potential ambush. There were no further attacks from that town. We further apprehended two other conspirators (a third fled town) and found out one of the conspirators was the father of a man we had detained for his Saddam Fedeyeen affiliation.

“[The Iraqi policeman] and his accomplices were a threat to our soldiers and the method was not right, but why should I lose 20 years of service or be forced into prison for protecting my men?”

Col. West’s plight has struck a chord with military advocates. They complain the Army has put soldiers in a deadly environment, yet forced them to play by strict rules of conduct while their terrorist enemies do not.

Said Elaine Donnelly, head of the Center for Military Readiness: “Excuse me while I go to look up Marquis of Queensberry. No wonder we haven’t gotten any information on Hussein’s present location from all of those ‘deck of cards’ people we have captured. Has the Army lost its institutional mind? Or maybe they have forgotten that a state of war exists in Iraq.”

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