Ex-chief of prison offers a defense

Abu Ghraib stresses led to abuses, colonel says

`Embarrassed and humiliated'

Crisis In Iraq

May 12, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

The ousted commander of Abu Ghraib prison recalls a grim period of poor working conditions last year that led inexorably to a few soldiers under his command committing "acts of abuse in clear violation of any standard of morality" at the U.S.-run prison in Iraq.

In his official response to the Army's administrative charges against him, Lt. Col. Jerry L. Phillabaum, former commander of the 320th Military Police Battalion, complains of chronic shortages of equipment and manpower, high stress and long hours for soldiers, and their lack of formal training in internment operations and rules regarding prisoners of war.

He provided a copy of his six-page account to The Sun yesterday.

"As battalion commander, I could not be everywhere at all times and therefore delegated authority," Phillabaum wrote in a rebuttal filed last month.

"If I were omnipotent, I would have ... avoided the abuse of prisoners and the disgrace to the nation," he said.

The number of prisoners at Abu Ghraib kept growing, and there weren't enough military police to manage the complex as the population swelled, Phillabaum wrote.

He portrays a daily life of danger at the prison west of Baghdad: Insurgents regularly fired guns, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and rockets at the complex, occasionally killing or wounding U.S. soldiers and prisoners.


In his rebuttal, Phillabaum offers a contrite statement of responsibility for the actions of soldiers under his command, which included the seven members of the Western Maryland-based 372nd Military Police Company facing criminal charges in the abuse of detainees.

But he also wrote that he was not in charge of the prison when 85 percent of the "egregious acts" occurred in October, noting that he had been temporarily reassigned to the 800th Military Police Brigade, which oversaw the U.S. prison system in Iraq.

Phillabaum acknowledges "failing to properly supervise" a wing at Abu Ghraib prison where most of the abuses occurred.

Photos depicting physical abuse and sexual humiliation of male Iraqi detainees have sparked outrage in the Arab world and a widening U.S. military investigation into prison conditions across Iraq.

"I have been thoroughly embarrassed and humiliated by being suspended from my duties" as head of the 320th Military Police Battalion, based in Ashley, Pa., he says.

Phillabaum was given a letter of reprimand, relieved of command and removed from the promotion list, military officials said.

In his report, Phillabaum provides a tour of Abu Ghraib and military prison camps in Iraq - each plagued by a lack of resources. Expansion of one camp was hampered by shortages of water, food, portable lavatories, lights and personnel, he says.

"During this entire deployment, I was assigned missions without the resources to accomplish the missions by doctrine," Phillabaum wrote.

The conditions he describes are echoed in a harshly worded 53-page Army investigative report by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba on abuses at Abu Ghraib.

But in his report, Taguba sharply criticizes Phillabaum, calling him an "extremely ineffective commander and leader." Taguba notes that Phillabaum had been reprimanded for lapses in accountability that resulted in several prisoner escapes.

Phillabaum contends that he tried to take "corrective measures" to deter escapes, such as better lighting and increased patrols. But he says the measures could not be adopted because of a shortage of lights and soldiers.

Taguba's report strongly criticizes Phillabaum's superior, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, for "poor leadership and the refusal of her command to both establish and enforce basic standards and principles among its soldiers."

Karpinski, who has said that she and other reservists are being made "scapegoats" by the military, heads the 800th Military Police Brigade, based in Uniondale, N.Y., which oversaw U.S. prison operations in Iraq. The 320th and the 372nd were attached to the 800th.

Senate hearing

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing yesterday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told Taguba that more serious charges might be warranted against Phillabaum and other officers who oversaw the prison.

"I would suggest to you, General Taguba, that out of this investigation not only should we focus on the privates and the sergeants and the specialists who did criminal activity, but we also should have higher accountability; that if a general or officer misrepresents what they did in terms of command and control that a letter of reprimand may not be the appropriate sanction."

Phillabaum, in his rebuttal, contends that no amount of training could have prevented the abuses committed by a few. He criticizes two soldiers under his command for leading abusive acts against detainees.

Citing an incident that occurred a year ago at Camp Bucca, a prison he commanded in southern Iraq, Phillabaum singles out Master Sgt. Lisa Girman and three other soldiers who assaulted a prisoner she believed had raped Pfc. Jessica Lynch.

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