Sgt. Samuel Provance sealed his fate as a soldier on May 21, 2004, when he went on record with ABC News. His experiences as a U.S. Army junior noncommissioned officer since committing one of the greatest imaginable mistakes in service – speaking out to the news media – have left him dazed, afraid, wondering and confused.
Today, finally, Sgt. Provance is in Washington, D.C., upon the request of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D, Mass.). Kennedy invited Provance to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee to hear of his experiences on the ground at the Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere in Iraq.
The road to Washington for this young Army NCO has not been pleasant. It has been a case study in how the Army deals with soldiers who struggle with conscience, when morality and the sense to “do the right thing” win out over going along.
What did Sam Provance do? He told the truth! In so doing he has indicted, as we come to learn, his military chain of command and many others who have been blamed for the “animal house” conditions of the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.
One of the most guilty of all is his own brigade commander, Col. Thomas Pappas, commander of the embattled 205th Military Intelligence (MI) Brigade, headquartered in Wiesbaden Germany.
Since publicly telling the truth, Provance has experienced a number of incidents in which his Army superiors have attempted to break his will, embarrass and belittle him in the eyes of his peers, intimidate him to silence. The actual impact has been to further tar-brush the true guilty parties.
Sgt. Provance has had the guts to speak from his heart and say that he believed that the Army was involved in a cover-up as to the extent of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. He also told ABC News that the sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib began as a technique ordered by military intelligence interrogators. Although he had not personally witnessed this abuse, he certainly heard the internal scuttlebutt.
In fact, one evening earlier this year, Provance was driven home by Spc. Benjamin Heidenreich, also of the 205th M.I. Brigade. Heidenreich told Provance that he, Heidenreich, and Lt. Col. Steven Jordan – head of the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center at Abu Ghraib – had teamed up to beat up an Iraqi detainee at the prison.
Provance had served in the facility with Heidenreich during the period when the alleged abuse and total chaos prevailed in 2003. As an intelligence soldier with a top secret security clearance, it was Provance’s job to administer a highly classified MI computer communication and data retrieval system.
This past spring Sgt. Provance found himself back at his home station in Weisbaden, Germany, with the 302nd MI Battalion. After he read Major Gen. Antonio Taguba’s Article 15-6 investigation report, Provance became morally committed to exposing an Army whitewash and cover-up. He is not the only person so committed.
Even when Maj. Gen. George Fay was appointed to investigate further on April 23, 2004, examining the role that Military Intelligence personnel may have played in the abuses, Provance justifiably suspected that Fay’s findings would sweep the dirt much deeper under the proverbial carpet. He had good reason to believe this after a face-to-face meeting with Major Gen. Fay.
When Fay interviewed Provance regarding what he saw, heard, or witnessed at Abu Ghraib, the young NCO stated that the general seemed interested in only the actions of the military police (MP) and not of the MI interrogators at the facility. It would be later on that same day that Heidenreich revealed to Provance the instances where MI personnel had abused prisoners.
In an attempt to further intimidate and ultimately muzzle Sgt. Provance, Fay threatened to take action against him for failing to report what he had seen or heard of, sooner. Provance explained to the general that he said nothing because he had no firsthand knowledge of prisoner abuse, and that he had also feared that he would be ostracized for speaking out.
The sergeant would eventually become intimately familiar with what ostracized really meant when the chain of command got serious about it.
Fay gave Provance a gag order at this point and discouraged him from speaking to anyone or testifying at any time. Fay told Provance to keep his mouth shut about these things if he valued his career.
As Provance and I both see it, keeping Provance silent would enable Fay to further shift the focus from the culpable MI personnel to the target audience of MPs that had already been portrayed by Army generals as “the real bad apples.”
The final release of the Fay and Schlesinger reports would bear out Provance’s concern. The reports found that MI interrogators and many other MI personnel were knee-deep in inappropriate actions, neglect, criminal malfeasance and dereliction of duty at the highest levels.
Following his first interview with Fay, and considering Fay’s threats, Provance essentially considered himself the one who was inevitably going to carry some burden of punishment for “something” that the Army would devise. Thus, Provance felt that he had nothing to lose, and maybe justice and the truth to gain.
Convinced that the truth would never come out otherwise, Provance resolved to expose the cover-up to the media.
On May 18, Provance told ABC, “I feel like I’m being punished for being honest.” With personal introspection, Provance noted, “If 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.”
This was not good enough for Sgt. Sam Provance. He was raised by a different standard. He is an honest man.
Shortly after Provance talked to ABC and the stories broke in the media, I established personal contact with the sergeant and have maintained close contact to this day. I can confirm that the very predictable reprisals against Provance began to happen very quickly.
The day after the ABC story was published, Sgt. Provance’s chain of command (headed by Col. Pappas), suspended his access to classified material. A military intelligence soldier without access to classified material is virtually worthless in his or her profession.
Next, his chain of command administratively “flagged” the sergeant. This is akin to setting a soldier’s feet firmly in a vat of concrete as far as any personnel action is concerned.
Sgt. Provance was now in a command-imposed limbo. His chain of command told him that he might face prosecution because his comments to ABC were not “in the national interest.”
Provance was then assigned duties as a helper in the unit’s NBC (Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical) room. There, when left alone, he would be personally responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of sensitive accountable items and equipment designed to protect soldiers from chemical attacks in battle. (This is not usually where unreliable soldiers should be stationed for daily duties.)
Then on July 23, Sgt. Provance’s name appeared in the press again (following an interview months earlier) in a journalistic account of what may be the biggest story of the Iraq war, the torture of Iraqi children.
Report Mainz, a German television station, exposed accusations from the International Red Cross against the United States to the effect that over 100 children are imprisoned in U.S.-controlled detention centers, including Abu Ghraib. “Between January and May of this year, we’ve registered 107 children, during 19 visits in 6 different detention locations,” Red Cross representative Florian Westphal said in the report.
The Red Cross report also delineated eyewitness testimony of the abuse of these children. Provance, who was stationed at Abu Ghraib, told the media that interrogating officers had gotten their hands on a 15- or 16-year-old girl. Military police apparently only stopped the interrogation when the girl was half undressed. A separate incident described a 16-year-old being soaked with water, driven through the cold, smeared with mud, and then presented before his weeping father, who was also a prisoner.
After these came to light, Army CID then went back to work on Provance with a whole new list of questions to be answered such as: “How was the interview with ABC News conducted?” “Did you call them or did they call you?” “How soon after your questioning [by Maj. Gen. Fay] was the interview with the press done?” and “Why did you feel as if the [Taguba] 15-6 was focused more on the MPs instead of MI?”
The summer months went by with the 205th MI Brigade nervously awaiting the results of the Fay report. For almost five months, the much-anticipated report has been thought to be a whitewash of accusations against senior MI officers that have been redirected at lower-ranking soldiers. During this time, political forces in Washington were gathering, and they wanted answers.
On Aug. 13, Sgt. Provance was present at his unit’s morning formation. Upon this occasion, his first sergeant, 1st Sgt. William Palenik, seized the opportunity to issue stern warnings to soldiers about talking to the press in light of the anticipated release of the Fay report.
Palenik went on to advise the soldiers that Army Public Affairs would be coming to brief soldiers on how they should handle themselves in the eventuality that they may be queried by the press.
Palenik then seized the opportunity to publicly and insultingly paint an analogy of a soldier at Abu Ghraib whose “only duty is to turn screws, and that such a soldier should only, ‘talk about screws,'” while indirectly referring to Provance in front of his contemporaries. During the duty day of Aug. 13, numerous other soldiers asked Provance about his “screwing responsibilities.”
In view of a command climate rife with liars, self-aggrandizing and self-preserving leaders, Palenik’s actions and his smart mouth are censurable at a minimum.
On Aug. 19, Provance was informed by his platoon sergeant that he would become the noncommissioned officer in charge of his unit’s orderly room. Provance expressed great concern to me and his attorneys at this sudden change of duty positions.
Notwithstanding, during this entire period of time, Provance had come to the attention of many people through the media and his stalwart effort to tell the truth. Largely reliant on the coordination effected by civilian attorney Hardy Vieux, the Senate Armed Services Committee requested Sgt. Provance’s appearance before the panel on Sept. 1.
A letter from Sen. Kennedy asked Sgt. Provance to be in Washington, D.C., between Sept. 3-17 in order to be available for interviews by Kennedy, his staff, and possibly other members of the Senate and their staffs. The hearings at which Sgt. Provance is requested to testify begin on Thursday, Sept. 9. The lawmakers want the straight truth from Sgt. Provance, no matter who his testimony points to. That is how the system is supposed to work. Provance was scheduled to fly to Washington last week but his chain of command refused to allow him to depart Germany. At this point, it is unknown how high up the chain of command the no-fly order came from, but as of Sunday night (Sept. 5), Provance was still in Germany. According to sources involved in the legal representation of Sgt. Provance, he was due to land at Dulles Airport at 4:00 PM, Monday, Sept. 6, 2004. It appears that despite the Army’s best efforts to silence him, Sgt. Sam Provance will finally get to speak the truth, in a forum that the U.S. Army cannot ignore.