Witnesses: US general opposed hospital abuse probe

July 24, 2012 - 3:44 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — An active duty Army colonel testified Tuesday that the three-star general who headed the training mission in Afghanistan made him retract a request for an inspector general's investigation into corruption and horrible conditions at a U.S.-funded Afghan military hospital.

Col. Mark Fassl, who was inspector general for the training command, said he was shocked when Lt. Gen. William Caldwell cited the then-upcoming 2010 congressional elections and asked, "How could we ... make this request with elections coming? He calls me Bill."

Fassl said he believed this was a reference to President Barack Obama.

Two retired colonels who worked with the training command also told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Caldwell did not want an inspector general's investigation of the Dawood National Military Hospital. One said in his statement that the hospital had "Auschwitz-like conditions."

Caldwell is now head of U.S. Army North Command and senior commander of Fort Sam Houston in Texas. North Command spokesman Col. Wayne Shanks said, "I am sure that Lt. Gen. Caldwell would welcome the opportunity to respond to any inquiry, and I'm confident that once the facts are presented and examined, all allegations will be proven false."

Congressional officials said Caldwell could be called to testify in a future hearing.

Fassl said that Caldwell "was visibly upset we had made the DOD request." He added that he retracted the request as ordered.

The colonel said he had expected Caldwell would want to immediately visit the hospital and see the conditions. "That's what I was expecting and I didn't get that," he said.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who chaired the panel, told the witnesses, "It takes commitment and guts" for them to testify. He added, "this is not over." Chaffetz displayed pictures of patients with horrible injuries who were not receiving care from medical personnel.

Chaffetz introduced a Sept. 12, 2011, memo from the training command that he described as an attempt to destroy evidence. The memo ordered destruction or deletion of unofficial audio and video recordings and photos of patients and conditions at the hospital.

"Under no circumstances will they be shared outside of this command, transmitted via email, posted to the internet, or duplicated in any way without prior approval of the Command Surgeon...." the memo said.

Chaffetz said after the hearing: "With an ongoing IG investigation and a looming congressional inquiry, the Defense Department issued a memorandum announcing the destruction of evidence. The lack of transparency with lawmakers, the inspector general, and the American people is stunning."

Retired Army Col. Gerald Carozza Jr., who was chief of legal development assisting the Afghan Army and defense ministry, also said Caldwell expressed concern that the request was too close to the 2010 congressional elections. But Carozza added that in his view, Caldwell "did not want the request to go to the DOD IG (Defense Department inspector general) at all."

"The general did not want bad news to leave his command before the election or after the election," Carozza's statement said.

In September 2011, The Wall Street Journal reported from Kabul that U.S. officers found that patients at the hospital were routinely dying of simple infections and starving to death, while corrupt doctors and nurses demanded bribes for food and basic care.

A memorandum written by another committee witness, retired Air Force Col. Schuyler Geller, confirmed the poor treatment and corruption. Geller, who was a command surgeon attached to the training mission, agreed in a memo that Caldwell did not want an inspector general's investigation.

Geller told the hearing that when senior U.S. medical personnel visited the hospital, "they got a dog and pony show" to hide the abuses. Even the Army's surgeon general said he had been coming to the facility for seven years and nobody told him about the conditions, Geller testified.

Carozza added that Caldwell told his subordinates that their mission was to build up Afghan ministries and not deal with the corruption of the Afghan government.

Fassl, testified that the Afghan generals he tried to train in investigative techniques were themselves people who had taken bribes. He said Afghans used the techniques he taught to continue their corruption without getting prosecuted.

Eventually, Caldwell agreed to ask for a limited investigation, but Carozza said his request for the inquiry "would not mention the Auschwitz-like conditions at the National Military Hospital."

It appears the inspector general went further than a limited investigation. Committee officials said the inspector general has now opened two investigations in response to complaints into the conduct of Caldwell and a deputy, now-Maj. Gen. Gary Patton.

One investigation is focused on the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, which prohibits commanders from restricting subordinates' communication with the inspector general. The second complaint involves allegations of reprisal from a complainant who alleged that Caldwell and Patton cited partisan reasons for requesting postponement of an investigation until after the 2010 elections.

Carozza said the committee should be considering a broader issue than conditions at the hospital.

"What this hearing should about are attempts to over-control the message," he will tell the panel. "It is about some leadership that puts the best foot forward and relies on the hard built reputation earned by the military to soften any belief that there is a need to see the other foot."

Carozza said he spoke to three officers who were called to a meeting with Caldwell, and all of them offered the same description of the general's comments.

"Lt. Gen. Caldwell screamed at these three officers, waving his finger at them for trying to bring in the DOD IG," Carozza said. The general was quoted as saying, "There is nothing wrong in this command that we can't fix ourselves."

Carozza said he was in a meeting with Caldwell's deputy, Patton, when Patton "informed the group that Lt. Gen. Caldwell was upset about making the request to DOD IG so close to the election and we were to consider postponing it until afterwards."

"It was a stunning moment for me," Carozza said.

The retired Air Force surgeon, Geller, wrote in a memo that he was at a briefing presented to Caldwell about the need for an investigation.

"LTG Caldwell continued to press for why any external review should be called," Geller said. "It became clear he did not support the investigation."

Geller said Caldwell raised his voice and told one participant, "You should have known better." He said Caldwell then made the same statement to Geller and another participant.

The surgeon added he was not allowed to speak to the media about his memo.