WASHINGTON — Lt. General William Caldwell, the American military officer who oversaw the Afghan hospital plagued by grisly "Auschwitz-like" conditions, denied to Congressional investigators Wednesday that he delayed reporting the abuses due to "political" considerations in Washington.
Caldwell — the senior military official at the center of one of the war's most horrific abuse scandals — appeared before the House Oversight Committee for the first time on Wednesday, nearly two years after military whistleblowers reported on conditions at the U.S. supervised hospital.
Caldwell, who was the commander of the U.S. training mission at the time in 2010, denied covering up any abuses, and said he took "decisive, immediate action" once the problems were uncovered.
His testimony was at odds with information provided to the committee last month by three other U.S. military officials, including a chief surgeon and a longtime Judge Advocate General lawyer. The U.S. military officials accused Caldwell of covering up the hospital abuses in order to prevent a negative news cycle prior the 2010 midterm elections.
During a committee hearing in July, Col. Mark Fassl said that Caldwell did not want to investigate the abuses because he was concerned about how it might look for President Barack Obama before the American midterm elections. In a meeting on Oct. 28, 2010, Fassl testified, Caldwell was upset that plans had been made without his consent to request help from the Department of Defense. "His first response to me was, 'How could we do this or make this request with elections coming?'" Fassl said under oath. "And then he made, again, a shocking comment, 'He calls me “Bill.'" …I took it as, that he was referring to the president of the United States."
On Wednesday, Caldwell disputed Fassl’s account of events, and said he had made such a statement only once, after he briefed the president at the White House a couple of months before the Oct. 28 meeting.
"And when I was giving that portion of my briefing to the president, I did come back and tell my staff that I was actually very impressed by the fact that he was prepared well enough during the briefing, when I had my part come on, to be able to refer to me by my nickname, instead of by my formal title," Caldwell told the committee. "And, I mean, I think anybody who has the president of the United States call them by their first name probably remembers that."
"But it had absolutely nothing, nor did I ever refer to it during the time period of the request of developing or preparing for the Department of Defense IG to come in and help us during this time period," Caldwell added.
Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who chairs the committee, appeared briefly at the hearing to make one request.
"For the record, in your words, I would ask that you say it in your own words, it is inappropriate for anyone in the armed services or anyone in the State Department to ever do anything that affects or could affect U.S. elections as a consideration of their required duty," Issa said.
"You’re exactly correct," Caldwell responded. "It’s inappropriate for us, ever, to allow any kind of political influence whatsoever to ever enter into any kind of decision-making process or actions that we’re taking."
The Congressional Oversight Committee has been investigating why the abuses — which included patients starving to death and widespread graft — were not addressed sooner.
On Wednesday, Caldwell claimed he acted as soon as he saw photos of the conditions at the hospital, on Nov. 10, 2010.
That timeline has been the subject of some debate, and U.S. Army whistleblowers have claimed that Caldwell had been made aware of the conditions at the hospital months earlier.
"The second it was identified to us, we took decisive and immediate action," Caldwell told the committee, which was presided over by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican. Even before the photos came to light, however, concerns had been raised about corruption and patient neglect at the hospital.
Caldwell confirmed to the committee that he had delayed plans to request assistance from the Department of Defense by 12 days, from Oct. 29, 2010 until Nov. 10, 2010, because he first wanted to notify Gen. David Petraeus, who was at the time the head of military operations in Afghanistan.
The midterm elections were held on Nov. 2, 2010.
"It had everything to do with the necessary and critical coordination," Caldwell said. "It had nothing to do with the [U.S.] national elections."
"I needed Gen. Petraeus’s help," Caldwell elaborated later in the hearing. "He was the senior commander. I owed him to tell him what I was doing when I was doing it."
On Nov. 10, 2010, Caldwell requested that the Department of Defense send an inspector general to the hospital, where the U.S. had committed millions of dollars to train the staff, to address the abuses.