As Liberia's humanitarian crisis was approaching its peak this summer, the Pentagon quashed a report by its team of specialists calling for an immediate U.S. intervention to stop the fighting and permit the delivery of emergency aid.
The Defense Department sent 31 military specialists to Liberia on July 7 to make recommendations for an "appropriate level of intervention," according to the mission statement in the report. 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 beleaguered country and protect civilians amid a vicious civil war, according to several U.S. officials familiar with the report.
On Air Force One, the initial draft made the rounds of State Department and National Security Council officials, including council chief 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.
State Department officials welcomed the report's conclusions, which buttressed their arguments for a quick intervention to stem the mounting humanitarian crisis, but said they were surprised at the force and specificity of its recommendations.
The report never made it to President Bush's desk and thus never officially existed.
"The Pentagon squashed it," an administration official said. "It was way too strong for their liking."
Pentagon officials, saying the assessment team had exceeded its brief, sat on the report, several U.S. officials said. While Defense Department spokesmen emphasized that it is the job of the President's top advisers to filter information for him, other Defense officials said a report like this one ordinarily would not have been recalled from consideration.
One Defense official said the move was "definitely strange." Another called it "inconsistent with our operational procedures," while denying that it was in any way a cover-up.
The assessment team's superiors at European Command told the group to rewrite the report, taking out the specific recommendation to send U.S. troops and instead focusing on humanitarian problems, and to deny to anyone curious about its conclusions that it had submitted a report at all until after Bush completed his Africa tour, said another well-placed U.S. official who asked not to be named.
The handling of the report suggests that the Pentagon tried to ensure that its conclusions reinforced the Defense Department's intention to stay out of Liberia.
"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."
The second report was filed July 16, almost one week later, with a stronger humanitarian focus and less specific language about whether the United States should provide the emergency force or merely support a West African-led one.
By the time 200 U.S. Marines arrived last week in Monrovia, the shattered Liberian capital, and four weeks after the original recommendation for U.S. intervention, more than a thousand civilians and many more fighters had been killed and thousands of displaced people were suffering from starvation and disease.
On July 25, the President ordered three U.S. ships carrying 2,300 Marines to steam toward Liberia's coast but did not commit any soldiers to go ashore. He had two conditions for putting U.S. boots on the ground: West African nations must take responsibility for their own backyard and deploy troops first, and President Charles Taylor must leave the country.
"Part of the thinking at the time was that if we go in first, we'll never see any African troops there," a U.S. diplomat said.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo dryly compared the U.S. offer of help to a fire brigade standing outside a burning house and using its hoses only after the fire was out. But he offered nearly 1,500 troops for a peacekeeping mission, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan arranged emergency U.N. funding while continuing to press Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in almost daily phone calls for a quick U.S. commitment.
In the first week of August, U.N. aircraft airlifted the first of a vanguard battalion of about 800 West African peacekeepers into Monrovia to help stop the fighting and secure a corridor for the delivery of aid. Rapturous Liberians, desperate for an end to the rebels' systematic raping and killing, lined the streets to cheer the West Africans.
"That could have been American soldiers being celebrated across Monrovia," a U.N. official said. "This could have been an easy one for them."
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