Abu Ghraib chief called good officer in tough job

His family background, military career conflict with images from prison

Crisis In Iraq

May 17, 2004|By Gail Gibson and Tom Bowman | Gail Gibson and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Amid the chaos of incoming mortar strikes, uncooperative detainees and ineffective policing that had come to define Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, U.S. officials abruptly installed a new commander in November - a veteran Army intelligence officer named Col. Thomas M. Pappas - and assigned him no small task.

Pappas, commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, was expected to create order at the increasingly unruly detention facility west of Baghdad. He also was under intense pressure to extract from prisoners "actionable intelligence" that could help defeat the rising insurgency.

"The feeling at the time was, we really have to get this," a military intelligence officer who worked with Pappas recounted. "There was a lot of pressure for that. Anything that could effect the safety of our soldiers."

Pappas now is an unseen but central figure in the prisoner abuse scandal that unfolded under his watch. He is the most- senior officer under investigation, with military examiners trying to determine whether his orders led to Iraqi prisoners being beaten, stripped and forced into sexually humiliating poses.

The 45-year-old Pappas, who wanted to be a soldier from the time he was growing up on the New Jersey shore, has received a severe reprimand that will probably end his military career. He left his command post at Abu Ghraib before the abuses became public and returned to Wiesbaden, Germany, where the 205th is based.

Experts in military law say Pappas could be charged criminally in the case. An investigation by Army Maj. Gen. George Fay into the role of military intelligence in the abuses could be completed this month.

"Nonjudicial punishment does not equal jeopardy for the purposes of the double-jeopardy law," said Eugene R. Fidell, a Washington attorney who serves as president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

A `quiet guy'

Pappas did not respond to repeated requests for comment. While other players in the scandal have gone before congressional committees or television cameras over the past two weeks, Pappas has remained out of sight. Some of his subordinates in Germany say they were unaware that he had faced disciplinary action until the first news reports about Abu Ghraib.

Even in Iraq, they said, Pappas remained largely out of view - working from the living quarters that doubled as his office and frequently in meetings with Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. general in Iraq, and Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, the top intelligence officer reporting to Sanchez.

"He went to an awful lot of meetings with those folks," said the military intelligence officer who worked with Pappas and spoke to The Sun on condition of anonymity.

The officer described Pappas as a "pretty quiet guy, didn't seem like a screamer." But he would press subordinates to interrogate more people and come up with more information. If Pappas wasn't satisfied, he would say, "That's all? You guys have to do more," the officer said.

Command questions

A Nov. 19 order from Sanchez made Pappas the commander of Abu Ghraib, where his 205th Brigade already was conducting interrogations and gathering intelligence.

In his now widely publicized internal investigation of the abuse allegations, Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba criticized the order for effectively putting military intelligence in charge of military police serving as guards at the prison.

"This is not doctrinally sound due to the different missions and agendas assigned to each of these respective specialties," Taguba said.

That arrangement has prompted questions of whether guards facing criminal charges in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners were acting on the direction of intelligence officers - "softening up" detainees for questioning, as some of the accused, reservists of the 372nd Military Police Company based in Western Maryland, have contended.

The change in command also created tension between Pappas and Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski, whose 800th Military Police Brigade had overseen the prison operations. The 372nd and another military police unit, the 320th, were attached to the 800th.

Even at a congressional hearing Tuesday, the question of who was running Abu Ghraib late last year was a point of disagreement - with Taguba testifying that Pappas had tactical control over the prison and Stephen A. Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, saying that Karpinski retained some control.

"The place [was] being mortared and attacked frequently, and the local commander was unable to bring order to that place," Cambone told the senators. "And for that reason, I would argue, General Sanchez looked to Colonel Pappas ... and gave him the responsibility, then, for taking care of Abu Ghraib as an installation."

Military officials have said that the order from Sanchez did not give Pappas "command oversight" that would have allowed intelligence officers to order military police to prepare prisoners for interrogation.

Opposing views

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