When Army Capt. Ian Fishback told his company and battalion commanders that soldiers were abusing Iraqi prisoners in violation of the Geneva Convention, he says, they told him those rules were easily skirted.
When he wrote a memo saying Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was wrong in telling Congress that the Army follows the Geneva dictates, his lieutenant colonel responded only: “I am aware of Fishback’s concerns.”
And when Fishback found himself in the same room as Secretary of the Army Francis J. Harvey at Ft. Benning, Ga., he again complained about prisoner abuse. He said Harvey told him that “corrective action was already taken.”
At every turn, it seemed, the decorated young West Point graduate, the son of a Vietnam War veteran from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, whose wife is serving with the Army in Iraq, felt that the military had shut him out.
So he turned to those he knows best. He sought guidance from fellow infantry commanders and his West Point classmates, and learned that they agreed with him that abuse of prisoners was widespread and that officers weren’t adequately trained in how to handle them.
Then, in a lengthy chronology obtained Saturday by The Times, recounting what he saw in Iraq and his numerous efforts to get the Army’s attention, he wrote that “Harvey is wrong.” He wrote that Army guidance was “too vague for officers to enforce American values.” He concluded that violations of the Geneva Convention were “systematic, and the Army is misleading America.”
This summer, after weighing the possible effects on his career, he stepped outside the Army’s chain of command and telephoned the Human Rights Watch advocacy group. He later met with aides on the Senate Armed Services Committee. On Friday, he authorized them to make public his allegations, along with those of two sergeants, of widespread prisoner abuse they had witnessed when they served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 as members of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.
Within hours, the Army announced it had opened a criminal investigation.
The review is the first major investigation by the military of widespread prisoner abuse outside the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and the first time such a review has targeted soldiers in the regular Army rather than the National Guardsmen and reservists in the Abu Ghraib case.
But for Fishback, whom friends describe as a deeply religious Christian and patriot who prays before each meal and can quote from the Constitution, the ordeal may be just beginning.
Army officials have temporarily furloughed him from Special Operations training school at Ft. Bragg, N.C., to make him available to the Criminal Investigation Command as it sorts through his allegations.
And sources close to the case said investigators are pressing him to identify the two sergeants who have backed up his accusations -- something he does not want to do for the sake of all their careers.
“He’s a very decent, fine young man,” said Col. Dan Zupan, who teaches the rules of war at West Point and was one of Fishback’s mentors. “He doesn’t have an ax to grind. He’s just in search of the truth.”
At Human Rights Watch, Tom Malinowski, the group’s Washington director, recalled escorting Fishback, his uniform adorned with two bronze stars, to meet with staff aides on the Senate Armed Services Committee two weeks ago.
For an hour they chatted behind closed doors in the committee’s hearing room in the Russell building. Malinowski said Fishback answered all their questions unflinchingly.
“He answered them just as you would imagine an officer would -- very factual, very unemotional,” Malinowski said.
A former soldier close to Fishback, who asked not to be identified out of respect for Fishback’s own decision not to talk to the media, said Fishback “really doesn’t care what happens to him.”
“He wants to stay in the Army. But he also says, ‘This is bigger than me. I’ve got to do the right thing here.’ ”
Fishback maintains that he witnessed detainees being stripped, deprived of sleep and exposed to the elements at the behest of Army intelligence officers, who wanted the prisoners softened up for interrogation.
To back up his claims, two as-yet-unnamed sergeants came forward, telling Human Rights Watch they saw soldiers break a prisoner’s leg, kick and punch others and force others to hold large water jugs for long periods of time or stack themselves into human pyramids.
They said the practice involved numerous soldiers and lasted six months, from the fall of 2003 to spring of 2004 in the vicinity of Fallouja, a hotbed of opposition to U.S. troops.
Human Rights Watch officials said one of the sergeants had left the military and the other had been reassigned. One said he had never been trained in handling prisoners.
“We never should have been allowed to guard people who tried to kill us,” the infantry sergeant said.
Human Rights Watch said it had spoken with a third sergeant and two Army physician’s assistants who can back up the claims of brutality. But they said those individuals had not given permission to release their stories.
For now, Fishback has been instructed to remain at Ft. Bragg, where he must obtain a pass for any trips off the base farther than 50 miles.
When he came to Washington to meet with the committee two weeks ago, he came with a pass. But according to Human Rights Watch, the Army learned of that session and denied his request for a pass to return to Washington.
The Army would not discuss those matters. But Paul Boyce, a spokesman, said, “The Army does not tolerate detainee abuse.”
He added that it had conducted more than 400 investigations and 2,800 interviews on possible abuse since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He said 230 members of the Army had been punished.
Central to Fishback’s reasoning in pursuing the abuse matter is the “Cadet Honor Code” he studied before graduating from West Point in 2001. It says, “A cadet shall not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”
In his personal chronology, he wrote, “Bottom line: I am concerned that the Army is deliberately misleading the American people about detainee treatment within our custody.”
When the prison abuse scandals at the Abu Ghraib prison erupted in April 2004, he noted that he had heard of instances around Fallouja that were “even more intense.”
By June of this year, his concern had grown because it had become clear that the military was holding few soldiers accountable for Abu Ghraib beyond the half-dozen guards arrested, and that none of their superiors had been court-martialed. He asked the Army’s inspector general at Ft. Bragg for an analysis of the Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners.
“He listens to me and agrees to give me an IG investigation summary,” Fishback wrote. “It is very incomplete and provides no information that I need.”
He called the International Committee of the Red Cross for an interpretation of the Geneva Convention, and found it “much closer to my West Point education.”
Then he learned of two new incidents of abuse: Someone had “interrogated” a detainee to death in Iraq and “fed a prisoner water by saturating the sand bag over the prisoner’s head.”
That was enough for him, he wrote. He began “obtaining documents and additional points of view from fellow officers and determining possible courses of action.”
That road led him outside the Army.