Rumsfeld should restore Colonel West

Terry Jeffrey
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Posted: Nov 05, 2003 12:00 AM

One thing we know about Army Lt. Col. Allen B. West is that he actually succeeded in collecting human intelligence in Iraq.

Another is that his emergency information gathering technique may have saved American lives without taking enemy lives. And a third is that the Army has relieved West of his command, and may now court-martial him, cancel his pension and send him to prison for up to eight years.

Can't see how this adds up? Nor can I. But this is the sum of stories broken last week by Rowan Scarborough of The Washington Times.

The Defense Department may soon inflict an injustice on an American hero, whose wife, a cancer survivor, depends on his military health benefits, and whose daughters, who first gave him up to a war, may now give him up to prison.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld can stop it.

On Fox News Sunday, Brit Hume asked Rumsfeld if he could "overrule or short-circuit" what's being done to West. "They tell me that's the case," said Rumsfeld.

But Rumsfeld -- who recently wrote a memo urging subordinates to think outside the box -- is uncharacteristically playing the careful bureaucrat. "The Army is addressing this," he told Hume. "It will move along in its normal order. And at some point, it could conceivably come to me, in which case I shouldn't say how I feel personally."

But the buck is already on Rumsfeld's desk: Will he spare West, or wait to see if the "normal order" sends him to the brig? If he wants West spared, the longer Rumsfeld waits, the longer he subjects West and his family to unnecessary anguish.

Is this prudent policy? Do we want Army officers turning their attention from catching Saddam to court-martialing this colonel?

West told his story to the Times' Scarborough via e-mail. It began Aug. 16, when guerrillas attacked some of his men en route to a town near Tikrit. An informant said a town policeman was involved.

West ordered the policeman brought in. He proved uncooperative. When West went to interrogate him personally, some soldiers roughed the policeman up. But he was still uncooperative.

That's when West pulled his pistol.

"Once I fired into the weapons-clearing barrel outside the facility alone," said West, "and the next time I did it while having his head close to the barrel. I fired away from him. I stood in between the firing and his person."

The tactic worked; the Iraqi ratted. He revealed a planned sniper attack and named three colleagues. Two were arrested, a third fled town.

West immediately informed his commanding officer. "I accept responsibility for the episode," West told Scarborough, "but my intent was to scare this individual and keep my soldiers out of potential ambush. There were no further attacks from that town."

West was not instantly charged. Only after an overall "command-climate investigation" of his brigade did an Army prosecutor cite him for assault. The prosecutor offered him a choice: resign before qualifying for his pension (which occurred last Saturday), or face court-martial.

West refused to resign. "I accept being retired at the grade of major and paying whatever fine required, but resignation and prison seems an attempt to destroy me," he told the Times.

He now faces an "Article 32" inquiry, which will determine if there is cause for the threatened court-martial.

Putting this warrior on trial would be a travesty. If West's actions were technically illegal, they were not immoral -- and are the perfect candidate for prosecutorial discretion from up the chain of command. Faced with a lethal threat against his men, West used less than lethal force to

protect them. His intention was to preserve, not destroy, life. It was justifiable self-defense.

During the Cold War, the U.S. embraced Mutual Assured Destruction to deter a Soviet nuclear attack. That worked, too. Do we regret it? If a captured terrorist knew today the location of a weapon of mass destruction hidden in New York, would we applaud -- or indict -- an FBI agent who used Lt. Col. West's tactic to find the device before it detonated?

Americans don't believe the end justifies any means. Lt. Col. West's means, however, were proportionate to the threat his men faced. Secretary Rumsfeld should say so and grant West retirement at full rank and pension.