A U.S. Army officer is facing assault charges for allegedly frightening an Iraqi into disclosing details of an impending ambush plot, but he’s garnering support from Americans who regard him as a hero even while his daughters endure taunts from classmates.
Under threat of an attack, Lt. Col. Allen B. West, a battalion commander with the 4th Infantry Division, took charge of the interrogation of an Iraqi policeman, determined to flush out information as he warned subordinates “it could get ugly.” Threatening to kill the Iraqi if he didn’t talk, West fired a pistol near the policeman’s head, prompting a flow of information that led to arrests and the probable foiling of a deadly attack.
Lt. Col. Allen B. West, left, is greeted during a change-of-command ceremony in June in this photo by the Washington Times, which first reported his story.
In an interview with WorldNetDaily, West’s attorney, retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Neal Puckett, said he’s received about 100 e-mails in support of his client, some from veterans who served in Korea and Vietnam.
“Nearly everyone says this guy is an American hero who should be commended rather than court martialed,” Puckett said.
Army prosecutors believe, however, West’s actions on Aug. 21 in the town of Saba al Boor, near Tikrit, violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice. He faces a wide range of possible outcomes from no disciplinary action to a sentence of up to eight years in prison.
Prosecutors gave West a choice – face charges or resign early, losing retirement benefits. The 19-year veteran was scheduled to reach his 20-year retirement last Saturday.
West chose to face the charges, but already he has been relieved of his position, effectively ending a decorated military career that included a bronze star and another medal for valor in combat.
“He’s under a lot of stress and is not sleeping well,” Puckett said. “His wife is the same.”
West’s two daughters, who are with his wife Angela in Fort Hood, Texas, also are feeling the pressure.
Puckett said that since parents at the girls’ school caught wind of the news “Mr. West is in trouble,” the daughters are enduring taunts from classmates.
One of the daughters has started giving out a false last name to avoid kids making fun of her.
“The girls have been taught their daddy is a hero,” Puckett said. “But now kids are coming up to them and saying, ‘Your daddy is no hero.'”
Puckett said the family members are devout Christians, noting West is part of a Bible study.
The attorney plans to depart for Iraq Friday where he will participate in an Article 32 investigation – a procedure allowing him to present evidence supporting his argument charges should be dropped. A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 10, but Puckett has requested it be moved to Nov. 12 because he was appointed to the case late in the process.
Each individual command runs its own military justice system, he explained. After hearing the evidence and determining whether there is probable cause, the presiding colonel will make a recommendation to division commander Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who has the authority to implement the recommendation or do something completely different.
The options range from doing nothing to a general court martial, which is a felony prosecution.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has the power to intervene on West’s behalf, “but he wouldn’t normally do that,” said Puckett.
More appropriate, he says, would be action by Acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee.
“This all could be short-circuited by the secretary of the Army saying, ‘Somebody get me [West’s] retirement request and I will process it through right now,'” Puckett said.
Spokesmen at the Pentagon and the Army’s 4th Infantry at Fort Hood said they could not comment on a pending case.
The Army is concerned about what it should do to dissuade others from transgressing, Puckett acknowledged.
But he insists it’s not entirely clear West did anything wrong.
“We could have a spirited debate about whether he transgressed at all,” Puckett said. “Is firing a pistol near [the Iraqi’s] head, but not at him, aggravated assault? I don’t know. He didn’t kill anyone. He didn’t torture anyone.”
Puckett acknowledged West “certainly used a psychological ploy.”
“The fact is,” the attorney said, “two trained interrogators, both female, worked with [the Iraqi policeman] for hours and hours, and he wouldn’t talk, so they called their commander.”
West strode into the room, according to Puckett, and said to the Iraqi, “If you don’t give us this information, I’m going to kill you.”
The policeman, “as a demonstration of his seriousness,” responded to West with a smile and said, “I love you.”
West then took the Iraqi outside and, with the help of colleagues, forced his head down. With one hand on the man’s head – to provide protection – and the other holding the pistol, West fired into a weapons-clearing barrel filled with sand.
“There was an immediate outpouring of information,” Puckett said. The man told my client everything he wanted to know.”
That same evening, West made a full report to his superior and did not hear anything for many weeks.
Puckett believes U.S. forces in an intense battle in the Sunni Triangle near Tikrit with Saddam Hussein loyalists need special consideration to help ensure their success.
“Maybe we should propose interrogating a little more aggressively, as long as we don’t hurt anybody,” he said.
In July, he noted, another officer in the 4th Infantry reportedly used unorthodox methods to persuade an Iraqi general to turn himself in. According to the Washington Post, Col. David Hogg ordered the Iraqi officer’s family be rounded up and held hostage. Hogg then sent word to the general that if he wanted to see his family again, he needed to comply.
The tactic worked, and the Iraqi general appeared in front of the U.S. base and surrendered. Puckett said there is a report that Hogg has been promoted.
“Here we have a guy using what might be considered by touchy feely types to be a questionable tactic,” Puckett said. “But, in the same way, my client never intended to carry out the threat.”
In such situations, time is of the essence, he argues.
“The sooner he gets the information, the better the chance to foil the ambush,” he said of West. “Nobody can prove what would have happened had he not done that.”
Angela West also is in the process of setting up a legal fund for her husband.
Puckett said he welcomes communication with any experts in military law who might have ideas or information to pass on.