The Army's intelligence chief said yesterday that he has "great confidence" in the ability of Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, the highest-ranking intelligence officer tied to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, to lead the Army's intelligence school.
"In my opinion, she's a great officer and we ought to put her in command," Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the Army's deputy chief of staff for intelligence, said in a breakfast interview with defense writers.
One of the few female Army officers to reach the rank of two-star general, Fast, 50, was chosen for the command job shortly before news of the prison scandal erupted this spring. Her transfer to the post, however, is being held up pending a review by the Army's inspector general of the actions of all senior officers in Iraq. That review, said Alexander, may be completed in a few weeks.
The U.S. Army Intelligence Center at Fort Huachuca, southeast of Tucson, is where troops learn interrogation methods and the rules of proper prisoner treatment. Taking over as deputy commandant of the school in July 2003, Fast served there only a week or so before leaving for Baghdad and becoming the chief military intelligence officer to Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Fast was responsible for assessing threats in Iraq. She also supervised two Army intelligence officers implicated in the scandal -- Col. Thomas M. Pappas and Lt. Col. Steve Jordan, both with the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, which operated the Abu Ghraib prison.
An Army investigation by three generals into military intelligence activities at the prison credited Fast with establishing structures and procedures that significantly improved U.S. intelligence-gathering in Iraq. The changes she instituted, the investigation concluded, facilitated the capture of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and other members of his ousted government and "saved the lives of coalition forces and Iraqi civilians." The investigators, who reported in August, recommended no disciplinary action against Fast.
But another report by an independent panel, appointed by the Pentagon and led by former defense secretary James R. Schlesinger, faulted Fast. It said she failed to advise Sanchez "on directives and policies needed" for conducting interrogations, operating the interrogation center at Abu Ghraib and "appropriately monitoring" separate activities at the prison by CIA interrogators.
According to several official accounts, Fast had received at least two indications of mistreatment at the prison in the weeks before January, when an Army soldier came forward with photographs depicting the abuses and triggered a criminal investigation.
In November, she learned of the death of one detainee, allegedly under the control of the CIA. In December, she was made aware of a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross documenting abusive actions at Abu Ghraib.
Her defenders say she took action, particularly in the case of the dead detainee. "There was no coverup," Alexander said.
At a Senate hearing last month, Gen. Paul Kern, who led the Army investigation, disclosed that it was Fast who had approved a CIA request to bring its prisoners to Abu Ghraib. Kern said that Fast had expected the CIA to abide by U.S. military rules regarding the humane treatment of detainees. Alexander added yesterday that there was good reason for that, citing a commitment by the CIA, FBI and other U.S. agencies operating in Iraq. "It's what the seniors [senior officers] agreed to," he said.
When Fast learned of the detainee death in November, she "went back to the agency and told them they will comply" in the future, Kern said. "She was also the one to ensure that they investigated that incident, and it was properly handled; it did not get pushed aside."
But the CIA's activities at the prison have become the focus of a separate investigation by the agency's inspector general amid reports that CIA operatives avoided registering detainees and kept them hidden from Red Cross inspectors.
Kern has also told the Senate Armed Services Committee that his investigation uncovered no "evidence that would suggest" Fast "was overlooking things that she should have" seen. He praised Fast as one of two senior officers, along with Sanchez, who "stand out" for performing well under difficult circumstances. "She did yeoman work in theater," Kern said.
Nevertheless, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the committee chairman, has asked the Army to reassess whether disciplinary action should be taken against Fast and other senior staff who served with Sanchez.