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May 19, 2004
ABC Witness Says "Cover-Up"

ABC News features an interview on its website with a "military intelligence analyst" who claims that the Army is conducting a deliberate cover-up of the abuses at Abu Ghraib. In an article by Brian Ross and Alexandra Salomon, Sgt. Samuel Provance says that "dozens" of people knew about the abuse, and that it stemmed from orders given by military intelligence. The emphasis in the excerpt are mine:

"There's definitely a cover-up," the witness, Sgt. Samuel Provance, said. "People are either telling themselves or being told to be quiet."

Provance, 30, was part of the 302nd Military Intelligence Battalion stationed at Abu Ghraib last September. He spoke to ABCNEWS despite orders from his commanders not to.

"What I was surprised at was the silence," said Provance. "The collective silence by so many people that had to be involved, that had to have seen something or heard something."

Provance, now stationed in Germany, ran the top secret computer network used by military intelligence at the prison.

He said that while he did not see the actual abuse take place, the interrogators with whom he worked freely admitted they directed the MPs' rough treatment of prisoners.

I think you can see where I'm going with this. I don't want to make too little out of Provance's testimony, but ABC News -- and I suspect the port side of the blogosphere -- makes far too much from it. What you have throughout this article is, basically, hearsay. Provance never witnessed any abuse at Abu Ghraib, and it's clear he has no idea the specific number of people involved. His statements that lead the article are filled with conjecture, saying that more people "had to be" involved. Why? Because a lot of guys walked around bragging about abusing enemy prisoners? Weak. This testimony would be almost worthless at a court-martial, I believe, although I'll let Whiskey comment on that. It would be somewhat useful for the investigation itself, if just to keep the investigators moving forward to see exactly how many people commented about abusing prisoners and to compare that to other considerations like access and opportunity.

Provance relates a couple of anecdotes about prisoners being knocked unconscious from neck blows and being stripped naked and forced to wear women's underwear, the latter of which has been known for weeks now. He then segues into allegations, also vague and interpretive, of being pressured to remain silent:

Maj. Gen. George Fay, the Army's deputy chief of staff for intelligence, was assigned by the Pentagon to investigate the role of military intelligence in the abuse at the Iraq prison. Fay started his probe on April 23, but Provance said when Fay interviewed him, the general seemed interested only in the military police, not the interrogators, and seemed to discourage him from testifying.

Provance said Fay threatened to take action against him for failing to report what he saw sooner, and the sergeant fears he will be ostracized for speaking out. "I feel like I'm being punished for being honest," Provance told ABCNEWS. "You know, it was almost as if I actually felt if all my statements were shredded and I said, like most everybody else, 'I didn't hear anything, I didn't see anything. I don't know what you're talking about,' then my life would be just fine right now."

In response, Army officials said it is "routine procedure to advise military personnel under investigative review" not to comment.

It's routine procedure not only for military investigations, but also for civilian investigations as well. As any lawyer or even crime aficionados could explain, having witnesses tell their stories on the evening news infects other possible witnesses, as well as taints the jury pool. Investigators don't want witnesses to discuss their testimony because it gives everyone an opportunity to get stories straight -- even for those who are not under suspicion but who have critical testimony for the case. One possible problem is that one witness who misremembers something will convince other witnesses of the mistaken sequence of events.

But, of course, explaining that to a computer specialist who's bound and determined to get on national TV probably is a waste of time, especially since the specialist in question doesn't appear to follow orders very well. If he's concerned about a cover-up, he had more discreet ways of making his testimony known to others, including contacting members of Congress. That his first response was to call up ABC makes his testimony seem a bit self-serving and just a little martyrish.

On the whole, Provance does not seem to be a very impressive witness. If a cover-up is in motion, it will take someone on the inside of that attempt to blow the lid off of it. Provance's conjecture adds little in the way of hard facts.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 19, 2004 7:34 AM

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