By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, the meteoric top intelligence officer in Iraq, hasn't been tarnished by revelations of prisoner abuse - yet.
When the Delta Zeta sorority honored her as its "Woman of the Year" in 2000, Brig. Gen. Barbara Fast touted the opportunities for women in the military.
"You can break the glass ceiling," she told the sorority magazine, the Lamp. "I meet many people, and I know they look to me as a role model. It is most rewarding to see that you've been a positive influence."
Fast went on to become a major general - one of only a few women to attain that rank - and the top military intelligence officer in Iraq. She is responsible for gleaning information from prisoners that can be used to counter the violent insurgency against coalition forces.
But as the world has discovered, the interrogation of detainees has been rife with physical, sexual and mental abuse. A growing number of soldiers and lower-ranking officers find their careers on the line. Even Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the chief U.S. military official in Iraq, is being reassigned and probably will lose his chance to become a four-star general.
Yet Fast has remained largely out of view, still on track to become commander of a key U.S. military base and only the second three-star female general in Army history.
"They're keeping her away from the media, but she was the general in charge of military intelligence, and this happened on her watch," said retired Army Col. David Hackworth, a commentator on military affairs.
Those who know her say it is not surprising that Fast, 50, has risen so high or that the Army would try to shield its most promising female officer. A former reservist who worked with Fast in Germany describes her as a team-builder who solicited ideas from her staff.
"She's very outgoing. She likes to be around her folks," said Eliot Jardines, an expert on intelligence issues. "She was in our work spaces at least a couple of times a week, and I'd brief her fairly regularly. I was impressed with her professionalism and her interest in the individual soldiers."
Another supporter fears that Fast could still become a "sacrificial lamb" as the prison scandal unfolds.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "went into Iraq light and then had to make up for it by throwing money and contractors into the breach at the last minute," said Robert David Steele, who runs a popular Internet intelligence site.
"Barbara Fast and the U.S. Army are paying for Rumsfeld's arrogance and stupidity. He basically forced the Army to deal with National Guardsmen, reservists and contractors, none of whom trained for this delicate job."
Fast, still in Baghdad, has declined interviews because of a pending investigation into the role of military intelligence in the prisoner abuse.
Born in 1953 in Montgomery, Ala., Fast was reared in a military clan: Her father was a chief master sergeant in the Air Force, and her mother served in the same branch before leaving to raise a family.
In 1971, Fast enrolled at Central Missouri State University, near Kansas City, where she joined the sorority that would play such a large role in her life. When Delta Zeta honored her in 2000, sorority sisters she had met nearly 30 years before gathered in Virginia for the ceremony.
"They had a lovely reunion," said Karly Burns, the former national president, who lives in Tierra Verde. "I know everyone was impressed not only by meeting her but by the words she had to say, talking about how a woman can go wherever she wants to go and that drive and fortitude will get you there."
In 1973, Fast transferred to the University of Missouri, where she graduated with a degree in education. According to her official biography, she also got a master's degree in business administration from Boston University in 1980. That could not be verified; she has put a restriction on release of her records.
By then, Fast had spent four years in the Army and was stationed in Germany, where she met and married another officer. Paul Fast never rose as far as his wife; he retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel and "is truly my partner in everything I do," Fast told the Lamp.
From the start, Fast decided military intelligence "was the most interesting" area of the Army and "where I felt I could contribute the most." In 1997, she wrote a report that presaged the intelligence gathering challenges she would face years later in Iraq.
With the end of the Cold War, "each service is addressing its warfighting business, looking for ways to operate with a smaller, yet more lethal force," she wrote. "Accessing information and leveraging technology are central to a new way of warfighting."
At the time, Fast commanded the 66th Military Intelligence Group, based in Augsburg, Germany. She was in charge of gathering data that could be used to protect U.S. peacekeepers in Bosnia and to track down war criminals.
Jardines met Fast on Thanksgiving Day 1997, when she stopped by the base cafeteria to make sure the meal was good. He and a friend were the only ones left, and Fast offered to give them a ride back to their barracks.
For a colonel, that was "very unusual, and it was obviously a very good first impression," Jardines said. "She was asking us questions, getting to know who we were."
Fast discovered that Jardines was an expert in "open-source intelligence" - using publicly available material such as newspaper stories and Internet discussion lists to augment more clandestine forms of intelligence gathering.
"She said, "I'd like to pick your brain about what we might be able to do,' " Jardines said. "Shortly afterward, we talked, and I was reassigned to head up that effort. By the time I left, things had grown to the point where what we were doing got a lot of publicity."
Jardines said Fast sometimes jogged with her soldiers and liked talking to him in Spanish since both were fluent. She also had "an affinity for her dog," Jardines recalls. "It was a little fluffy dog - I don't remember the name."
After returning home to the Washington, D.C., area, Jardines again had contact with Fast when she worked for Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, the only woman ever to become a three-star general. Fast and Kennedy were developing the Army's Intelligence Task Force XXI. Jardines was asked to help.
"We were looking at how to reinvent our business of intelligence now that the Soviet Union doesn't exist and we're having all these nontraditional engagements and involvements."
Last summer, Fast became deputy commander of Fort Huachuca in Arizona, home of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center. But she soon transferred to Iraq as chief military intelligence officer.
In September, Fast set up the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison. There, detainees were questioned for whatever light they could shed on the insurgency.
Fast's involvement, if any, in the abuse remains unclear. She was in charge of military intelligence officers at the prison, including Col. Thomas Pappas, who is accused in an Army report of being "directly or indirectly responsible" for the abuse. According to the New York Times, Pappas emerged from meetings with Fast and Sanchez "clutching his face as if in pain."
Fast also had oversight of civilian interrogators at the prison, two of whom are implicated. And another female general says Fast was largely to blame for the overcrowding at Abu Ghraib.
Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who ran Iraq's prison system until February, said Fast refused to release prisoners who were no longer security threats and ordered them "back in the box" for more questioning.
Jardines said that does not surprise him:
"She's someone who's always looking to provide the best possible intelligence. For her to say that some of these folks needed to stay there longer is not unusual."
In February, as investigators were deep into their still-secret probe of prisoner abuse, the Senate confirmed Fast's promotion to major general. On March 1, Sanchez pinned the second star on Fast's collar in a ceremony seen via videoconferencing at Fort Huachuca, where her husband watched, and at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, near where her parents now live.
At the same time, it was announced that Fast would return to Fort Huachuca this summer in the plum post of commanding general.
"She's done outstanding things," said Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary, "and I expect more in the future."
- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at email@example.com