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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Abu Ghraib Informer Feared a Cover-Up

Sgt. Provance, who yearns for combat rather than intelligence work, says he has suffered for blowing the whistle on abuse.

June 15, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

HEIDELBERG, Germany — Sgt. Samuel J. Provance III began his Army career as a brush-cut idealist determined to join the Special Forces. He ended up in a military intelligence unit assigned to Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, where he heard stories about U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees.

The 30-year-old Pennsylvania native said he grew troubled that prisoners were harassed, ridiculed, stripped naked and beaten. He spoke out to military investigators and last month stunned the Army when he disobeyed an order and became the first military intelligence soldier to discuss the abuse with newspapers and television stations.

Provance says he broke ranks because he believed the military was trying to cover up the scandal. Now, as the story shifts away from him, his experience is quietly turning into a cautionary tale about the price of becoming a whistle-blower. Fellow soldiers avoid him. His security clearance has been yanked. And there's a possibility that Provance, who once studied to be a preacher, could end his Army days in disgrace with a court-martial.

"You can't imagine the stress after I spoke out," said Provance, a member of the 302nd Military Intelligence Battalion. "I felt the world just fall on my shoulders. I logged on yahoo.com news, and there I was in the top story block. Oh my God! The e-mails started coming. The first one I got was from a retired military police officer. He wrote, 'Thanks for doing the right thing.' About an hour later I got another one that said, 'You're a sorry soldier.' "

The sergeant's choice to betray Army orders seems rooted in a confluence of naivete and a disenchantment with military protocol and the opaque rules and loyalties that govern the realm of military intelligence. Provance speaks in a near-whisper, but he possesses a steely defiant streak -- at Bible college he challenged the existence of God. At the same time, he reveres the spirit of the combat soldier; the name "Caesar" is part of his e-mail address.

Military officials, including commanders in the 302nd battalion and the 205th Intelligence Brigade, declined to comment on the sergeant's case because of the Abu Ghraib investigation.

A senior Pentagon official investigating the prison scandal, Army Maj. Gen. George R. Fay, interviewed Provance in early May in Darmstadt, Germany. Provance ran the Abu Ghraib classified computer network and was not present during prisoner interrogations. But he told investigators it was common knowledge that intelligence interrogators encouraged mistreatment that included depriving prisoners of sleep, limiting food and stripping detainees naked to humiliate them.

In a sworn statement, Provance also said a military intelligence soldier, Spc. Armin J. Cruz, "was known to bang on the table, yell, scream and maybe assaulted detainees during interrogations in the booth."

"This was not to be discussed," Provance said in the statement. "It was kept 'hush, hush' by individual interrogators."

Provance later testified at a military hearing in Baghdad that Spc. Hanna Slagel had told him that guards "made [male detainees] wear women's panties, and if they cooperated, some would get an extra blanket." Provance signed an order from his commander, Capt. Scott Hedberg, not to disclose his testimony, including statements he made in a report by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba in February.

That report was eventually leaked to reporters, and Provance gave interviews to ABC News, the Washington Post, Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and other news organizations. The military whistle-blower statute protects soldiers who report abuses to members of Congress and military investigators, but it does not cover disclosures to the media.

When asked why he chose to jeopardize his career, Provance said: "I started getting bothered because innocent people were being held and they were getting lost in the system, and the military wanted to keep it secret. The abuse was being done by more than just a few bad apples. I don't think military investigators had any interest in finding out how many people were involved."

Military investigators asked Provance why he failed to disclose what he knew after he arrived at Abu Ghraib last fall. Fay, Provance said, told him, "You could have busted this thing wide open" if he had alerted officials earlier. The Army has informed Provance that he could face charges for not quickly divulging abuse allegations.

"I didn't come forward earlier because I didn't see anything," Provance said. "It was just things I had heard. If somebody denied it, I'd have looked pretty stupid. I'd be the boy who cried wolf."

He said he spoke up when he believed that other soldiers interviewed by military officials at Abu Ghraib were recounting similar stories.

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