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Fine Print: Inquiries Into Harsh Interrogations Raise Question of Inequities

Lt. Col. Allen B. West is shown in a military court, in Tikrit, Iraq, in November 2003. West acknowledged in testimony that he had threatened to shoot an Iraqi detainee to extract information about a planned attack. He was disciplined by the Army but did not face criminal charges.
Lt. Col. Allen B. West is shown in a military court, in Tikrit, Iraq, in November 2003. West acknowledged in testimony that he had threatened to shoot an Iraqi detainee to extract information about a planned attack. He was disciplined by the Army but did not face criminal charges. (By Efrem Kukatsky -- Associated Press)
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By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

At 7 p.m. on Aug. 20, 2003, in a cell used for interrogations at Forward Operating Base Gunner outside Taji, Iraq, an Army lieutenant colonel, sitting in on a session, took out his 9mm pistol, placed it on his thigh so it pointed at an Iraqi detainee, and said he would kill the prisoner if he did not provide information filling out what an informant had said was a planned attack on the officer and his unit.

Lt. Col. Allen B. West, a battalion commander, told Army investigators the next month that the Iraqi, a police officer from a nearby town, "was being evasive and belligerent" with interrogators, one of whom in an earlier session had taken out a knife and threatened to cut the detainee on his legs.

West told investigators he had brought with him three soldiers, who in the first 25 minutes he was there had sporadically hit the Iraqi with punches to the ribs, back and lower body. But the officer said he did not allow it "to get too brutal."

When another punching session did not work, West said, he ordered the Iraqi taken outside and had soldiers put him next to a "clearing barrel" -- one three-quarters full of sand that is used to test weapons. When a pistol is discharged into it, the bullet remains in the sand.

Through an interpreter, West told the beaten Iraqi that "this is where it will end," meaning that West would kill him if he did not talk. When faced with another refusal, West said, he took the Iraqi's head under his arm, pushed it into the barrel and shot twice with his pistol a foot from the Iraqi's ear. He said he pointed away so that the bullets went into the barrel.

West told investigators that after the incident, the "shocked" Iraqi finally offered the information he had sought. West reported his actions to his commanding officer.

This information comes from an Army Criminal Investigation Command document released by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2008. It is one of 2,814 documents from the Defense Department that the ACLU has collected in response to its request and lawsuit on allegations of abuse of prisoners held in U.S. custody.

The 49 CIA documents received and released by the ACLU, including the agency's 2004 inspector general's report, have helped trigger a Justice Department review of prosecutors' decision during the Bush administration not to bring criminal charges against those involved in the CIA's harsh interrogation program. Among the instances being looked at is a CIA officer threatening a high-value detainee with a gun and a power drill.

West and his men were brought up on charges, and a preliminary hearing held in Tikrit, Iraq, was covered by the news media. According to those reports, West said that he knew what he did was wrong but that he was protecting his men. Speaking of the detainee, he said he wanted to "intimidate and scare him, but I was not going to endanger his life."

Public support was almost immediate for the lieutenant colonel and was quickly reflected on Capitol Hill. At a hearing on Nov. 19, 2003, John W. Warner (R-Va.), then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff at the time: "All congressional offices have a high level of concern about this case."

Warner also said he agreed with Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), a fellow committee member, who told Schoomaker and acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee that West should be "commended for his action and interrogation."

That same week, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), and then-Rep. John McHugh, a Republican from New York who is President Obama's choice to be Army secretary, sent a letter to Brownlee saying they were "highly disturbed" that the Army was beginning criminal action against West. Referring to reports that West had fired his pistol near the detainee's head, they wrote, "To us, such actions if accurately reported do not appear to be those of a criminal."

On Dec. 12, 2003, West got a reduction of pay of $2,500 for two months as his nonjudicial punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The CIA case officer's threatening action was immediately reported back to agency headquarters and he was ordered home. He was reprimanded and reassigned, according to a former senior intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official is not authorized to talk about private personnel matters.

The CIA inspector general listed the case officer's actions -- threatening a key al-Qaeda prisoner with a gun and a power drill -- as one of his most disturbing findings. That, and other actions considered to have been undertaken outside the legal authority granted by the Bush Justice Department, are expected to be the focus of a review. Assistant U.S. Attorney John H. Durham is conducting the review to determine if a new criminal investigation should be undertaken.

The West case is one reason CIA officials wonder whether a double standard is at play -- one that penalizes intelligence officers more harshly than the military for the use of coercion in interrogating detainees.

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