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Team in Liberia Sought Fast Aid

Pentagon specialists called for rapid U.S. intervention to restore order, but the report was revised before it reached the president.

August 17, 2003|Maggie Farley, Ann Simmons and Paul Richter | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As Liberia's humanitarian crisis was approaching its peak this summer, the Pentagon quashed a report by its own team of specialists calling for an immediate U.S. intervention to stop the fighting and permit the delivery of emergency aid.

The Defense Department had sent a team of 31 military specialists to Liberia on July 7 "to make recommendations for an appropriate level of intervention," according to the group's mission statement. After assessing the situation on the ground, the team completed its analysis and delivered it within 72 hours to Air Force One during President Bush's Africa trip that week.

The team urged that the United States immediately deploy a 2,300-strong Marine Expeditionary Unit to stabilize the country and protect civilians amid a vicious civil war, said several U.S. officials familiar with the report. Instead, Bush sent a 200-member force into Liberia five weeks later and with a narrower mission.

On Air Force One, the initial draft of the team's report made the rounds of State Department and National Security Council officials, including national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, according to officials on the trip. The report was also distributed to top officials in the Army's European Command, which oversaw the team, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But before the president saw the report, Pentagon officials pulled it back.

"The Pentagon squashed it," an administration official said. "It was way too strong for their liking."

Pentagon officials said the assessment team had exceeded its authority, and decided to sit on the report, several U.S. officials said. One defense official said the withdrawal of the report was "definitely strange." Another called it "inconsistent with our operational procedures," while denying that it was in any way "a coverup."

The assessment team's superiors at the European Command told the group to rewrite the report, said another well-placed U.S. official who asked not to be named.

The revised report was filed on July 16, almost one week later, with a stronger humanitarian focus and less specific language over whether the U.S. should provide the emergency force or merely support a West African-led one.

"Security must be established so that humanitarian organizations can undertake an appropriate emergency response," the revised report said, according to a copy obtained by The Times. "The U.S. should provide and/or support a security force which will ensure safe access of NGO/IOs [nongovernmental organizations and international organizations] to needy populations and protect civilians from human rights violations."

The team's initial assessment collided with Pentagon preferences.

"You have to know your boss' intent before you develop a plan that fits his intentions," said a defense official, who asked not to be named. "No one wants the perception of the U.S. being in the lead in Liberia."

By the time seven a liaison team of U.S. Marines arrived in Monrovia, the shattered Liberian capital, on Aug. 6, more than 1,000 civilians and many more fighters had been killed and thousands of displaced people were suffering from starvation and disease.

A Pentagon spokesman said the conclusions of the Humanitarian Assistance Survey Team, which was headed by a Navy captain, were just one factor in deciding whether to go into Liberia.

Lawrence Di Rita, an aide to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the department's acting top spokesman, said the team had been assigned to "assess the situation" but not to offer a recommendation on whether the White House should send troops.

"They weren't asked to advise on a 'go' or 'no go' decision," he said.

The question of whether the United States should intervene militarily in Liberia went beyond disagreements within the Defense Department -- it has been the subject of a contest of wills between the State Department and the Pentagon.

State Department officials, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, argued that the United States needed to demonstrate leadership and commit troops to end a conflict that was destabilizing the entire region. But Pentagon officials strongly resisted, saying the military could not afford a risky and vague mission at a time when U.S. troops are spread thin around the world.

With the decision to send 200 U.S. Marines, who arrived in the country last week, the White House has found a sort of compromise between the two sides. Princeton N. Lyman, a veteran U.S. diplomat in Africa, said Bush's decision should be regarded as a split verdict.

As the political tug of war played out over the summer, Liberians, aid groups and U.N. diplomats issued increasingly urgent appeals that the longer action was delayed, the worse the crisis would become.

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