WASHINGTON - As Liberia's humanitarian crisis was approaching its peak this summer, the Pentagon quashed a report by its own team of specialists calling for an immediate U.S. intervention to stop the fighting and allow the delivery of emergency aid.
The Defense Department sent a team of 31 military specialists to Liberia on July 7 to make recommendations for an "appropriate level of intervention," according to the mission statement in the report. The team completed its analysis and delivered it within 72 hours to Air Force One during President Bush's Africa trip that week.
The team urged that the United States immediately deploy a 2,300-strong Marine Expeditionary Unit to stabilize the beleaguered country and protect civilians amid a vicious civil war, said several U.S. officials familiar with the report.
On Air Force One, the initial draft made the rounds of State Department and National Security Council officials, including NSC chief Condoleezza Rice, according to officials on the trip. The report was also distributed to top officials in the Army's European Command, which oversaw the team, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
State Department officials welcomed the report's conclusions, which buttressed their arguments for a quick intervention to stem the mounting humanitarian crisis, but said they were surprised at the force and specificity of its recommendations.
The report never made it to the president's desk, and thus never officially existed.
"The Pentagon squashed it," an administration official said. "It was way too strong for their liking."
Pentagon officials, saying that the assessment team had exceeded its brief, sat on the report, several U.S. officials said. While Defense Department spokesmen emphasized that it is the job of the president's top advisers to filter information for him, other defense officials said a report such as this one ordinarily would not have been recalled from consideration.
One defense official said the move was "definitely strange." Another called it "inconsistent with our operational procedures," while denying that it was in any way "a cover-up."
The assessment team's superiors at European Command told the group to rewrite the report, taking out the specific recommendation to send U.S. troops and instead focusing on humanitarian problems, and to deny to anyone curious about its conclusions that it had submitted a report at all until after Bush completed his Africa tour, said another well-placed U.S. official who asked not to be named.
The handling of the report suggests that the Pentagon tried to ensure that its conclusions reinforced the Defense Department's intention to stay out of Liberia.
"You have to know your boss's intent before you develop a plan that fits his intentions," said a defense official, who asked not to be named. "No one wants the perception of the U.S. being in the lead in Liberia."
The second report was filed July 16, almost one week later, with a stronger humanitarian focus and less specific language over whether the United States should provide the emergency force or merely support a West African-led one.
"Security must be established so that humanitarian organizations can undertake an appropriate emergency response," the revised report said, according to a copy obtained by the Los Angeles Times. "The U.S. should provide and/or support a security force which will ensure safe access of NGO/IOs [nongovernmental organizations and international organizations] to needy populations and protect civilians from human rights violations."
By the time seven U.S. Marines arrived in Monrovia, the shattered Liberian capital, four weeks after the original recommendation for U.S. intervention was submitted, more than 1,000 civilians and many more fighters had been killed and thousands of displaced people were suffering from starvation and disease.
A Pentagon spokesman said the conclusions of the assessment team, which was led by a Navy captain, were just one factor in deciding whether to go into Liberia.
Lawrence DiRita, an aide to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the department's acting top spokesman, said the team had been assigned to "assess the situation" but not to offer a recommendation on whether the White House should send troops.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.