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Officer fights charges after protecting troops

877 8
© 2003

A U.S. army officer who allegedly frightened an Iraqi into disclosing
details of an impending attack by firing a pistol into the air near his
head has decided to face a trial on assault charges rather than resign.

Prosecutors gave Lt. Col. Allen B. West of the Army\'s Fourth Infantry
Division a choice €“ a court martial or resign early, losing retirement
benefits. The 19-year veteran is scheduled to reach his 20-year
retirement today.

West told the Washington Times in an e-mail he was desperate to gain
information to protect his soldiers who face almost daily attacks in
their effort to impose security in Tikrit, where Saddam Hussein
loyalists are fighting back.

\"I have never denied what happened and have always been brutally
honest,\" West said. \"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 West interrogated is a policeman. He said the man \"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?\"

Attorney Neal Puckett, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, told
the Times he will travel to Iraq next week to investigate the case then
defend West at an investigative hearing Nov. 10 in Kirkuk.

If prosecutors present enough evidence of wrongdoing, West could be
court-martialed and sentenced up to eight years in prison.

The staff judge advocate for the 4th Infantry Division has charged him
under the Uniform Military Code with communicating a threat and
aggravated assault.

The Aug. 21 incident came amid fears of an impending sniper attack on
U.S. forces and reports of an assassination plot aimed at West, an
artillery battalion commander.

In a previous e-mail to the Times, West said while interrogating the
Iraqi policeman he \"fired into the weapons clearing barrel outside the
facility alone, and the next time I did it while having his head close
to the barrel. I stood in between the firing and his person. I admit
that what I did was not right, but it was done with the concern of the
safety of my soldiers and myself.\"

After informing his superior officer of the incident, West said he
heard nothing more until a broader inquiry was launched by army chiefs,
the Times said.

If West were to take the option of quitting, he would lose more than $1
million in pay and health benefits over his life expectancy, the
Washington paper said.

Puckett said West could choose a \"nonjudicial punishment,\" allowing him
to retire with benefits. He would have to appear before division
commander Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who likely is the one who approved
the \"quit or court-martial\" offer, according to the attorney.

The Times said West has offered to resign at the lower rank of major so
he can collect retirement benefits.

Military advocates argue West\'s difficult circumstances should be taken
into account, noting the U.S. soldiers must adhere to strict standards
as they fight terrorists who blend in to the populace with no regard
for rules of warfare.

\"Excuse me while I go to look up Marquis of Queensberry,\" Elaine
Donnelly, head of the Center for Military Readiness told the Times.\"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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Update on Lt. Col. West\'s case

\'Great news'for West in assault case

By Rowan Scarborough

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.\"
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