WASHINGTON - At least two U.S. senators received letters and other contacts nearly a year ago from relatives of four Army reservists who were accused of abusing detainees at the Camp Bucca prison in southern Iraq, detailing dangerous conditions and low morale.
The troubles at Camp Bucca, which surfaced as early as a year ago, in some ways foreshadowed what happened last fall at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, where allegations of abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners have triggered investigations by the military and by Congress.
The man who commanded Camp Bucca when four soldiers were accused of assaulting prisoners there, Lt. Col. Jerry L. Phillabaum, was promoted to run Abu Ghraib, where photos and videos of sexual humiliation and brutal treatment of Iraqi detainees shocked the world and led to criminal charges against seven soldiers from the Western Maryland-based 372nd Military Police Company.
The two senators, Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter, both Pennsylvania Republicans, said yesterday that in response, they had contacted the Pentagon and made an attempt to meet with at least one of the soldiers to investigate the charges.
A June 2003 letter to Specter from David J. Girman recounts a "horrifying" incident at Camp Bucca referred to as the "PALM SUNDAY RIOTS, a revolt in which thousands of Iraqi prisoners attempted to overthrow the [military police guards] and create a hostage situation, and from several accounts were within minutes and feet of doing so."
Higher-ranking soldiers "failed to quell the uprising," said Girman, whose sister, Master Sgt. Lisa Girman, was one of four reservists who were accused of abuse at Camp Bucca. She and Staff Sgt. Scott McKenzie, Sgt. Shawna Edmondson and Spc. Timothy Canjar received administrative punishments early this year on charges that included dereliction of duty and maltreatment of prisoners, according to an Army letter sent to Specter.
Girman also asserted that his sister and the other accused soldiers were acting in self-defense and had been accused of abuse by other soldiers as retaliation for complaints she made about higher-ranking officers.
"The morale of the entire camp," he wrote, "is pitiful."
An Army report that details the abuse at Abu Ghraib, written by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, also refers back to the case of the four Pennsylvania reservists, who were accused of punching and kicking detainees while transporting them to the prison from an air base.
It describes Camp Bucca as overcrowded and undermanned. The report lists "inexperienced guards, lapses in accountability, complacency, lack of leadership presence, poor visibility, and lack of clear and concise communication between the guards and the leadership."
Many of these problems, Taguba makes clear, were replicated at Abu Ghraib.
In interviews aired Wednesday on CBS' 60 Minutes II, Lisa Girman and Canjar corroborated that account. They described a prison riot by detainees armed with shanks and rocks, and they called their commanders neglectful and often absent.
Edmondson's mother, Linda Edmondson, said her daughter had been "repeatedly stoned" by prisoners at Camp Bucca. "All I can say is that she was following orders," she added.
Her daughter had basic military police training, but no training about how to guard a prison, and was in charge of 500 to 700 people by herself, Edmondson said. She asserted that her daughter's "other-than-honorable-conditions discharge" from the military was far too harsh.
"She was told what to do," Edmondson said of her daughter. "It all stemmed from one incident, not repeated" abuse.
Girman and Canjar told CBS that they had tried to draw attention to the troubles at the prison by writing to the Defense Department and to several senators, including Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, and Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, as well as Santorum and Specter.
Spokesmen for Levin and Lieberman said they had no record of communication with the families of any of the four soldiers accused of abuse at Camp Bucca.
Santorum and Specter said they heard from the soldiers' families only after the soldiers had been accused of abusing prisoners at Camp Bucca.
Santorum set up a meeting with Girman in February, but a ricin scare on Capitol Hill forced him to cancel the meeting, and an offer to reschedule it was never answered, Santorum said yesterday.
Specter wrote to the Defense Department in July 2003 seeking information about the four reservists' legal status. He said he waited more than six months for a response. In February, the Defense Department wrote to Specter to tell him that the four had received administrative punishments from the Army, including "other than honorable" discharges for Lisa Girman and Edmondson and demotions for Canjar and McKenzie.