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Despite critics, Huachuca's leader focuses on future

By Carol Ann Alaimo
ARIZONA DAILY STAR

SIERRA VISTA - Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast doesn't look like a woman who's trying to escape the past.

There's determination in her piercing green eyes, momentum in her no-nonsense stride.

She speaks proudly of the accomplishments she's made in the four months since she took command of Fort Huachuca, Arizona's largest military base, and the intelligence center it houses. And there's excitement in her voice as she talks about the work she still wants to do.

Yet history haunts her, despite her resolute focus on the future.

More than a year after international scrutiny began swirling around Fast and others who led intelligence efforts at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq - and months after the military exonerated her of wrongdoing in detainee abuse that occurred there - questions continue.

Fast's name still pops up in news media around the world. There's talk of Senate hearings to see if she and other Abu Ghraib brass should be held more accountable. And global rights groups continue to clamor for independent investigations of the abuse - and of Fast's role as the head of military intelligence at the time.

But Fast is determined to hold down the fort, she said in a recent interview, her first sit-down meeting with the Star.

She's trying her best, she said, to focus on the job at hand, and ensure Army interrogators and intelligence specialists get the skills they need to thwart insurgents and prevent needless deaths. Nearly 1,800 U.S. troops have died in the Iraq war and more than 13,000 have been wounded.

"The way I feel about it, military intelligence is about saving lives," said Fast, 51, whose work in Iraq also was credited with preventing many casualties.

So she focuses on the future, whatever the headlines say on Abu Ghraib or her role there.

"Some people might say, 'How do you deal with that?' Well, you have to," she said. "You just can't dwell on it to the point it causes you to be unproductive."

Interview was limited

It is clear the Army is gun-shy when Fast agrees to a media interview.

Questions for this story had to be submitted in writing three days in advance due to "sensitivities brought on by the past year of controversy," said Tanja Linton, a spokeswoman for the fort 75 miles southeast of Tucson.

Fast would not answer any questions directly related to the many military investigations of Abu Ghraib. A pair of Army officers - Fort Huachuca's chief of staff and its head of public affairs - acted as observers during the interview, taking notes and tape-recording the session.

Despite those restrictions, Fast said she is committed to openness with the media, adding that the best way the Army can restore its damaged reputation is through a commitment to "transparency."  

"I think transparency is a big part of ensuring credibility," she said, noting that a parade of reporters, senators and others have toured Fort Huachuca and the Abu Ghraib prison during the past year or so.

"The other way we ensure credibility is by providing good intelligence - good intelligence that is ethically procured."

Praise for Iraq intel

In one military investigation of Abu Ghraib, Fast received high praise for her efforts to improve intelligence collection in Iraq as the anti-U.S. insurgency was growing in the summer of 2003.

Changes she put in place "improved the intelligence process and saved the lives of coalition forces and Iraqi civilians," said the report by Army Maj. Gen. George Fay, released in August. Fast's work also led to the capture of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and many Saddam loyalists, the report said.

But Fast was faulted in another investigation of prisoner abuse, led by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger.

That probe concluded she should have given her boss - the top commander in Iraq - better advice on the right way to run interrogations and intelligence operations.

Fast was not recommended for discipline in any report, and subsequent Abu Ghraib investigations cleared her and nearly every senior military leader in charge in Iraq during the scandal.

"I was exonerated," Fast notes when asked about the level of personal credibility she brings to her new post.

Yet, in Tucson, and around the world, there are lingering debates about the legitimacy of her vindication, and those of other senior leaders.

"It doesn't pass the smell test," said retired Air Force Maj. Vern Pall, president of the Tucson chapter of the Military Officers Association of America.

A basic principle in the military world is that of "command responsibility" - the idea that military leaders are accountable for wrongdoing by underlings on their watch, Pall said.

Punishing lower-ranking troops while absolving those of higher rank makes a mockery of that principle, he said.

"If the officers didn't know what was going on, they were remiss. And if they did know, they were remiss. There's just no other place for them to stand," Pall said.

John Myers, the incoming president of the officers' group, disagrees. Myers, a retired three-star Army general who was Fort Huachuca's deputy commander in the early 1980s, has faith in Fast and said she strikes him as "a fine military person" well-suited for her new job, despite the abuse scandal.

"I do not think it affects her ability to command," he said.

Globally, groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are urging the White House to order an independent investigation of detention operations and abuse allegations in Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

On the home front, Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, was quoted in The New York Times recently as saying he may start hearings next month to look at the accountability of senior military officers and defense officials involved in Abu Ghraib. Warner's office did not return five calls seeking comment.

Safeguards against abuse

Fast said she is committed to making sure safeguards are in place to prevent future abuses.

At Fort Huachuca, that now means extra lessons on the legalities of prisoner questioning and other changes aimed at ensuring the wrongdoing that shocked the world is not repeated. Changes were made after one military probe of the Abu Ghraib scandal said the fort's former interrogator-training program was "ineffective" in teaching soldiers the rules on proper detainee treatment.

Several military police officers and Army interrogators - none from Fort Huachuca - have been criminally charged or convicted of abusing or sexually humiliating prisoners as colleagues snapped photos. Others have been disciplined internally or allowed to resign.

The military intelligence school now puts more emphasis on laws governing prisoner treatment, Fast said.

Intelligence soldiers are taught what to do if they think they've been given an illegal order or if they witness any unprofessional conduct, she said.

"I tell people: 'Always question if something doesn't look right. Don't accept it,' " said Fast, one of the few Army women ever to reach the rank of a two-star general.

Today's students also are videotaped and observed via closed-circuit television monitors during practice interrogations, Fast said.

"If there is anything that is at all questionable, that interrogation is automatically stopped," and the student must relearn relevant material and retest in order to graduate, she said.

About 12,000 military intelligence students train here each year, and nearly one-third depart for war zones within weeks of graduation, Fast said.

She knows from experience the fears and and challenges that await them.

During her yearlong stint as Iraq's military intelligence chief, Fast said she had to travel several times a day on Iraq's so-called "Road of Death," the dangerous stretch of highway between the Baghdad airport and the Green Zone, where U.S operations are centered.

Once, her vehicle was struck by a homemade bomb similar to those that have killed hundreds of American service members. Though she escaped injury, "it certainly is an awakening experience when something like that happens," Fast said.

Skilled intelligence soldiers are key to preventing such attacks and the carnage they cause, she said. Fort Huachuca now is involved in pioneering new ways to detect IEDs - "improvised explosive devices" - before they maim or kill troops and civilians, she said.

That's the kind of thing Fast wants to discuss, to stay focused on the mission at hand.

She takes heart in looking ahead - and in the support she gets from her soldiers and this military town.

"I get a lot of hugs," she said, smiling at the memory of one.

"This little girl comes up to me and she says, 'I just want to thank you for serving our nation and when I grow up I want to be just like you,' " she said.

"And you think, 'Holy cow, am I worthy? Can I live up to this little girl, to the look in her eyes?' "

She'll keep trying, she said - for the little girl, for the many soldiers she feels depend on her and for her country.

"I'm just very honored to be able to be in command."

(This article originally ran July 31, 2005,and has been reprinted with the permission of Arizona Daily Star).


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Updated: August 19, 2005