Friday, December 23, 2005

An investigating officer has cleared the most senior Army officer to be charged in connection with the 2002 beating deaths of two Taliban detainees at the Bagram, Afghanistan, military prison, according to a confidential report.

Lt. Col. Thomas S. Berg, after conducting a hearing at Fort Bliss, Texas, recommended all charges be dropped against Capt. Christopher M. Beiring, who commanded the 377th Military Police Company, an Army Reserve unit based in Cincinnati. Col. Berg said taking Capt. Beiring to a court-martial would be “a big, ugly loser for the government.”

The Army charged Capt. Beiring with two counts of dereliction of duty and one count of lying. The Army accused him of failing to properly prepare his company for guard duty at the Bagram Collection Point, as the prison was called. It also said he failed to take corrective action after the first detainee died. The prisoner was shackled, beaten and hooded in isolation.

But Col. Berg portrayed the 377th as the victim of poor training in the early days of the war on terror, when the Pentagon was grappling with a policy on how to handle terrorism suspects. Col. Berg’s Dec. 8 report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, said the unit mobilized at Fort Dix, N.J., to receive training in detention operations, but received little instruction.

Capt. Beiring is represented by defense attorney Charles Gittins, who, in another high-profile war-related case, successfully defended former Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano in the deaths of two Iraqi insurgents.

In the Beiring case, Mr. Gittins said, “This investigation reached the only logical conclusion — that the charges against Captain Beiring were totally unwarranted. The deaths of two unlawful combatant detainees in Afghanistan were unfortunate. However, Captain Beiring did the best he could at a time when the Army failed to devote sufficient legal guidance, manpower, training and resources to the detainee-handling mission.”

Col. Berg wrote, “I see no evidence … that Capt. Beiring failed to perform his duty to the best of his ability. As a newly classified MP, newly assigned to command MP guard company that was going off to war to do an ill-defined mission for which it was not designed for or even notionally trained, in a crud-hold like the [Bagram Collection Point] in 2002 with [military intelligence] calling the shots, Capt. Beiring was sorely challenged at every step.”

Mr. Gittins said the Army set up a special investigative team in 2003 after the two deaths. In all, the Army has charged 15 soldiers in the 377th MP company and a military intelligence unit. Capt. Beiring is the only officer charged to date, as the investigation continues. No one was charged with homicide because it was not possible to tell which blows killed the detainees.

Col. Berg’s recommendation now goes to Brig. Gen. Robert Lennox, Fort Bliss commander. Gen. Lennox can accept Col. Berg’s recommendation, and end the case, or override it and order a court-martial or nonjudicial punishment.

In addition to Capt. Beiring, eight other 377th soldiers were charged, Mr. Gittins said. Three were acquitted; one pleaded guilty; one was convicted at trial; two received letters of reprimand; and one case is pending. The Army also charged two military intelligence soldiers with assault.

Col. Berg said the MP company’s training was woefully inadequate.

“Little of the training focused on the actual mission that the 377th anticipated that it would assume upon arrival in theater,” his report said. “Much of the 377th’s training was described as ‘notional’ in that soldiers were asked to imagine or pretend that they had the proper equipment for training exercises.”

The report mirrors the findings of investigators who probed the Abu Ghraib, Iraq, prisoner abuse scandal of 2003. They also found that MP Reserve units were not properly prepared to deal with the hundreds of captured insurgents and criminals who crowded Saddam Hussein’s former house of torture.

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