Tattoo Search Draws Apology

Tattoo Search Draws Apology
June 13th, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: Tattoo Search Draws Apology

Tattoo Search Draws Apology
Albuquerque Journal
June 12, 2007
Pg. 1
Investigation Was 'Mishandled'
By Thomas J. Cole, Journal Investigative Reporter
A top Army general apologized Monday to members of a New Mexico National Guard unit who were ordered to strip to their athletic shorts and searched for gang tattoos while deployed for the Iraq war.
The apology to officers and soldiers of the Rio Rancho-based Task Force Cobra came from Brig. Gen. Rodney L. Johnson, provost marshal general of the Army and commanding general of the Army's Criminal Investigation Command.
Members of Task Force Cobra and state National Guard commander Kenny C. Montoya have alleged the unit was targeted for the tattoo search in Kuwait in May 2006 because of its large number of Hispanic soldiers.
Johnson said in a three-paragraph letter that the tattoo investigation of the unit "had been gravely mishandled" by his agents.
Johnson wrote that, "Although the search was lawful, it is also critical that my agents ensure that all soldiers are treated appropriately and respectfully.
"I sincerely regret that we failed to do so in this case and want to assure you that we have learned from this experience," he added.
"I appreciate your bringing this matter to the attention of senior Army leaders and apologize sincerely for the manner in which this investigation was conducted and the loss of trust that was resulted."
The general's letter didn't detail the specific actions of the agents, and a spokesman for the Criminal Investigation Command couldn't be reached for questions on the letter.
Sgt. 1st Class Frank Ramirez of Rio Rancho, a member of Task Force Cobra, said the apology was appropriate and welcome.
"I'm proud to be part of an organization that can do that ... ," said Ramirez, a National Guard member for 19 years. "They could have swept it under the rug and let it go."
The sergeant was one of about six soldiers in Task Force Cobra who initially refused to comply with the tattoo search.
Ramirez said he hopes the Army follow-up to the incident doesn't stop with the apology. "Learning from it I hope means it won't happen again," he said.
A welcome first step
The Journal first reported on the search and the allegations of racial profiling in a story published April 22.
The state's congressional delegation subsequently asked the acting secretary of the Army, Pete Geren, to investigate the claims of racism.
In a joint statement Monday, the delegation said the Johnson apology was a welcome first step in clarifying the allegations of racism and rectifying wrongdoing.
"I am anxious to further hear from the Army regarding their plans to fully investigate the situation," said Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, the senior member of the delegation.
The tattoo search was based on an uncorroborated allegation by a soldier from Wisconsin that the New Mexico unit was rife with gang members.
After being told to strip to their black athletic shorts, nearly 60 members of Task Force Cobra were checked for gang tattoos by a special agent with the Criminal Investigation Command. No tattoos were found.
More soldiers in Task Force Cobra were scheduled to be checked for tattoos, but the investigation was stopped after a backlash among the unit's members and leaders.
The Johnson letter of apology was a sharp reversal in the Army's official position.
An Army investigation conducted shortly after the tattoo check found that the search was lawful and authorized and that the special agent of the Criminal Investigation Command had acted appropriately.
An internal inquiry by the Criminal Investigation Command also cleared the agent of wrongdoing.
"I am writing to personally apologize for the actions of the special agents assigned to the U.S. Army Investigation Command during this investigation in May 2006 regarding alleged gang activity," Johnson wrote.
For New Mexico's Montoya, the apology was long overdue. He requested one for his soldiers within days of the tattoo search being conducted. Montoya also alleged in a letter to the Army chief of staff in June 2006 that Task Force Cobra was racially targeted for the tattoo search and illegally searched.
Montoya has said he believes Army leaders scuttled his promotion to brigadier general because of his allegations of racism. While he holds that title because of his position overseeing the New Mexico guard, his official rank is colonel.
He couldn't be reached for comment on the Johnson apology.
Task Force Cobra, now disbanded, was made up of nearly 190 soldiers from various National Guard units around New Mexico.
The unit was deployed in November 2005 to provide security for military convoys in Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. The soldiers returned home in November 2006.
Under Army regulations, a soldier can be disciplined for having a tattoo of an extremist group such as a gang that advocates racism or violence.

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