An Army hearing officer has recommended administrative punishment — but not a criminal court-martial — for Lt. Col. Allen B. West, who is charged with assault for firing a gun to scare a confession from an Iraqi detainee.
“It’s extremely good news,” said Neal Puckett, Col. West’s attorney, who defended him at a pretrial hearing last month in one of Saddam Hussein’s Tikrit palaces. “This is what we think the Army should have done from the very beginning.”
Mr. Puckett quoted his client as saying, “Great news indeed.”
The recommendation goes to Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the 4th Infantry Division commander, who can accept it or reject it in favor of court-martialing Col. West or dismissing the charge.
Mr. Puckett said he was informed yesterday by the division’s judge advocate that the hearing officer, Lt. Col. Jimmy Davis, recommended what is called Article 15 punishment, not a trial.
Under this procedure, Col. West would appear before Gen. Odierno. The general would be limited in his punishment options to a written reprimand, forfeiture of pay and confinement to quarters.
If court-martialed, Col. West would risk a military jury convicting him and dismissing him from the Army. A dismissal would mean losing a lifetime of retirement benefits for the married father of two children, who is based at Fort Hood, Texas.
Mr. Puckett said the staff judge advocate, who in practice is Gen. Odierno’s chief legal adviser, told him the general would make a final decision as soon as possible. Mr. Puckett said he had not yet seen the hearing officer’s written opinion.
The West case has been closely watched by pro-military groups and Army officers since its beginning.
Col. West worked in the Sunni Triangle, one of the most dangerous regions in Iraq, where soldiers face the daily threat of attacks from Saddam’s followers.
Col. West admitted he broke Army rules Aug. 20, when he pulled an Iraqi detainee out of his cell, took him outside and fired two shots from his 9 mm pistol while threatening to kill him. Col. West had been told by an intelligence officer that the Iraqi, a police officer in the town of Saba al Boor, knew of an assassination plot against the colonel and his men.
After four others tried to get the Iraqi to talk, some hitting him, Col. West resorted to the threat out of desperation. Mr. Puckett said Col. West did not order the soldiers to hit the Iraqi, whom testimony showed was not badly hurt.
“I felt there was a threat to my soldiers. … If it’s about the life of my men, I’d go through hell with a gasoline can,” Col. West testified at his Nov. 19 hearing in Tikrit.
“I love the Army,” added the 20-year officer, as he sat erect on the witness stand, holding back tears.
“I know the method I used was not the right method,” said the 42-year-old colonel. “If I had to err, I would err on the side of not losing my soldiers. … There is not a man here I would not sacrifice my life for.”
Col. West said from the start he was willing to subject himself to nonjudicial Article 15 punishment and then retire. Gen. Odierno has already relieved him of his command of an artillery battalion, a sure career killer.
Col. West has submitted a retirement request to the division commander. Ultimately, that decision rests with acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee. Mr. Brownlee may retire Col. West at his current rank, or determine he did not serve honorably and retire him at the reduced rank of major.
Mr. Puckett said the Tikrit hearing exposed a weakness in coalition interrogation techniques. He said released Iraqis promptly tell other Saddam loyalists that if taken into custody they do not have to talk.
“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,” Mr. Puckett said. “The bad Iraqis are ID’d by human sources. 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.”