WASHINGTON – Pentagon officials rejected an Army plan last year to send an experienced military lawyer — who is also a Republican member of Congress — to help oversee the unit blamed for prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib (search) complex outside Baghdad.
That left the prison complex, which holds up to 7,000 Iraqis, without an onsite lawyer to guide interrogations and treatment of prisoners.
The top lawyer for the 800th Military Police Brigade, the Army unit in charge of detainees at Abu Ghraib, later came under fire in an Army report about the abuse for being ineffective and "unwilling to accept responsibility for any of his actions."
The rejected lawyer, Rep. Steve Buyer (search), R-Ind., and other experts say having had a lawyer at the prison might have prevented or at least mitigated the beatings, sexual humiliation and other abuse detailed in photographs and the Army probe.
"It's always good to have a lawyer around so you've got a conscience for the command and an opportunity to vet questions," said retired Army Maj. Gen. William L. Nash, who commanded an armored brigade during the 1991 Gulf War.
Pentagon officials confirmed there was no onsite lawyer at Abu Ghraib, but spokesmen for Army Secretary Les Brownlee and Pentagon personnel officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment Friday. Bryan Whitman, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search), referred questions to the Army.
Buyer, a strong supporter of the Iraq war and a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, had volunteered to go to Iraq shortly after the invasion in March 2003.
In a telephone interview Friday with The Associated Press, Buyer said military officials all the way up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff had approved his assignment to the 800th Military Police Brigade, which has handled Iraqi prisoners of war since the beginning of the conflict.
Pentagon personnel officials and Brownlee rejected the assignment, saying the Army could fill the requirement another way. Brownlee also wrote to Buyer that his high-profile status could bring danger to the troops around him.
Buyer said he objected to David Chu, the Pentagon's personnel chief, and Charles Abell, Chu's deputy.
"I expressed the importance of having a (lawyer) at the camp," Buyer said. "You have to ask, when you had a qualified officer, and the civilian leaders, Dr. Chu and the secretary of the Army, said no, who did you send in his place?"
Soldiers from the 800th MP Brigade have been accused not only of abusing prisoners in Abu Ghraib but also detainees at the Camp Bucca POW facility near Basra in southern Iraq. The military also is investigating a dozen prisoner deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq, some of them in facilities run by the 800th Brigade.
Buyer served as a lawyer at a prisoner of war camp run by the 800th Brigade during the first Gulf War. His duties, Buyer said, included helping the International Committee of the Red Cross monitor conditions and ensuring guards followed international law such as the Geneva Conventions. He said he also questioned some Iraqis suspected of war crimes.
"The 800th MP Brigade performed exemplary service in the Gulf War," Buyer said. "There was no hint of any mistreatment or maltreatment of prisoners. It never happened. They had excellent leadership."
The investigation of Abu Ghraib by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba found serious problems with the brigade's leadership, including its commander, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski (search).
Taguba wrote that even after the abuse at Camp Bucca in May 2003, Karpinski did not give the unit proper training.
"I could find no evidence that BG Karpinski ever directed corrective training for her soldiers or ensured that MP soldiers throughout Iraq clearly understood the requirements of the Geneva Conventions relating to the treatment of detainees," Taguba wrote.