The demise of military accountability

This is an archived article that was published on in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

At a recent meeting of about 40 retired generals and admirals who supported Sen. John McCain's legislation to forbid torture, it was fascinating to hear these no-nonsense, battle-hardened warriors express deep outrage at the Pentagon decisions which have allowed torture to corrode Army ethics and America's values.

Each scenario used to justify torture was met with, "No exceptions, no special circumstances, no use of torture or anything close to it, period, by anyone!" Said one crusty three-star: "Once you open the door at all, there's no controlling it. You have to recognize that a small percentage of soldiers actually enjoy this kind of brutality, and if we give them a license, it will prove impossible to control their conduct."

Exhibit A was last week's murder court-martial of 43-year-old Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer at Ft. Carson, Colo. I was present for much of the trial, as counsel for one of the prosecution witnesses. Welshofer is the highest ranking U.S. soldier to have been tried for criminal treatment of prisoners - in this instance, a prisoner who was clearly entitled to the protection of the Geneva Conventions.

Welshofer killed Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush by smothering him in a sleeping bag during an interrogation. That technique was contrary to Army interrogation rules and violated the Geneva Conventions. Explaining this unauthorized technique, Welshofer said that, "The sleeping bag was only a stress position to create a feeling of claustrophobia."

Welshofer opined that the Army Field Manual was "only a guide, and it is outdated and useless because it was developed for a Cold War environment where we faced industrialized, Christian enemies."

Welshofer had been through extensive interrogator training. He knew the principles and doctrine of Field Manual 34-52, Intelligence Interrogation, backward and forward, including its many statements like this: "The use of force, mental torture, threats, insults or exposure to unpleasant and inhumane treatment of any kind is prohibited by law."

A few days before he was killed, Gen. Mowhoush was taken to a room where, under Welshofer's direction, he was beaten so severely with a rubber hose, sledge hammer handles, fists and booted feet that he had seven ribs broken and 47 contusions, and was unable to walk without being partially carried.

The beating was carried out by a dozen U.S. personnel and Iraqis employed by the CIA. The CIA is not authorized to violate the Geneva Conventions, either, so one of the troubling elements of this trial was the non-public, secret testimony, which appears to have been classified as a way of shielding criminal conduct by CIA personnel from public knowledge.

The military jury convicted Welshofer of negligent homicide and dereliction of duty, but he was sentenced to only receive a letter of reprimand, two months' restriction to base at Fort Carson, and forfeiture of $6,000 in pay - a sentence that reinforces the dismal perception that there is a harsher brand of justice for Army privates than for higher ranking officers.

Charles Graner, a junior sergeant, is in prison for 10 years for his part in the Abu Ghraib abuses, and he didn't kill anyone.

Tragically, the senior Army leaders at the top have hung the junior military personnel out to dry. Welshofer's immediate commander, Maj. Jessica Voss, was primarily responsible to assure that Welshofer's interrogations operated within the law. But Maj. Voss was, for the most part, nowhere to be seen at the detention and interrogation center. Col. David Teeples, the regimental commander testified that Welshofer was an exemplary, dedicated soldier and the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment's "subject-matter expert" about interrogation. He only observed a single prisoner interrogation, in which Welshofer sat across a table from a prisoner. Teeples' deputy commander also praised Welshofer, but had not monitored his work.

Like Capt. Louis Renault in "Casablanca," all of the officers in Welshofer's chain of command were shocked, shocked, that torture was going on under their noses.

It wasn't always so lax. A 1950 Defense Department manual is still the standard: "The main safeguard against lawlessness and hooliganism in any armed body is the integrity of its officers. When men know that their commander is absolutely opposed to such excesses and will take forceful action to repress any breach of discipline, they will conform. But when an officer winks at any depredation by his men, it is no different than if he had committed the act [emphasis added]."

General Mowhoush is dead. CWO Welshofer received a ceremonial tap on the wrist; Maj. Voss was given immunity from prosecution. Col. Teeples is back at his new job as the executive assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Jail time is an exclusive perk of the enlisted ranks.


David Irvine is a Salt Lake City attorney. He was commissioned in the U.S. Army Reserve as a strategic intelligence officer in 1967 and retired as a brigadier general. He taught prisoner of war interrogation and military law for 18 years for the Sixth United States Army Intelligence School.