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Last week brought the first media demands that the Marines revise their original public statements (from last November) on the incident at Haditha before they complete their investigation into the event.
This week, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank joined the crowd.
"General," queried ABC News's Jonathan Karl, "all that we have, officially, on the record, from the military on the Haditha incident, is that 15 civilians were killed by a roadside bomb. Can you now correct for the record that statement and tell us if that statement was inaccurate?"Now there's more than a little pretending going on here - the reporters know that an investigation is underway, and that "the military" can't actually comment on an ongoing investigation. Witness each published report quoting an "unnamed senior Defense official" who speaks "on condition of anonymity because the investigation has not been concluded". But as Milbank's piece makes quite clear, reporters were relentless in demanding Marine Corps Commandant Michael Hagee give them the full results of the incomplete investigation right now. Since they know he can't, their line of questions serves a different purpose, and that's to serve as the basis for the sort of story Milbank delivers here - an implied "cover-up" by the military, with just a hint of tin-foil thrown in.
Hagee could not. "As I've said several times, I cannot comment on anything that has happened until the investigations are complete."
"So you're going to let stand the press release?" Karl demanded.
Hagee was. Without another word, he turned to the next questioner.
And for good measure, some sneering commentary directed at General Hagee:
There seemed to be a substantial risk that Marine Corps Commandant Michael Hagee would, at the beginning of his Pentagon press briefing yesterday, start crooning about the halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli.Since those comments helpfully lead off Milbank's post, they send a loud and clear signal that the noise level in what follows will not contribute much to the discussion. But given the number of media "investigations" into the story and the number of words on the topic they've delivered to the public over the past few weeks, it could be that there are reporters who actually have difficulty understanding what's taking so long with the official inquiry. But as we'll demonstrate, an actual criminal investigation - with the purpose of uncovering evidence of guilt or innocence (and perhaps ultimately determining punishment of any guilty parties) is a bit more painstaking a process than is the typing of a news report, with the purpose of selling papers.
He was giving the first briefing by a top Pentagon official since fresh allegations surfaced three weeks ago about Marines killing two dozen Iraqi civilians in Haditha. But, unable or unwilling to provide information about that dark episode, he chose to talk "about what it is to be a Marine."
In this discussion I'd like to cut through that abundant noise, and discover if any faint signal may be currently available. But at this point in time, it seems the best we can do is identify at least some of what is clearly noise.
Some are quick to proclaim the innocence of the Marines, others just as quickly the guilt. Do not look here in hopes of finding the mystery "solved". We all agree, of course, that elusive "justice" is the desired outcome of this event. But what's particularly disturbing about this case - unfortunately like so many others civil and military - is that too many have determined - prematurely - exactly what the requirements for "justice" are.
Speaking of which, those who have little to no knowledge of the military justice system should probably take a moment to read this before proceeding.
Obviously, that's the subject of the investigation - so we won't pretend to have all the facts, or any insight into what that official investigation has turned up so far.
But the events in Haditha on November 19th, 2005, were first reported - as with so many tragedies in Iraq - in a brief military press release:
November 20, 2005Much later versions of the story would reveal additional details of that chaotic day.
II MEF Marine killed by IED
CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq – A Marine assigned to Regimental Combat Team 2, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), was killed in action when his vehicle was attacked with an improvised explosive device attack while conducting combat operations against the enemy in the vicinity of Hadithah, Nov. 19.
The name of the deceased is being withheld pending notification of next of kin and release by the Department of Defense.
But that day, at about the same time, Iraqi insurgents attacked all three Marine companies patrolling in the Haditha area--one of them commanded by Kimber. He said he could hear over his radio the shots being fired during a running gun battle in Haditha. "They weren't just Marine weapons. You can tell from the sound," he said.Shortly after the initial casualty statement, the fallen Marine would be identified as Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas.
Nov. 19 unfolded like many other days in Iraq, Kimber said, with reports of violence. A rocket-propelled grenade was launched toward the compound of Kimber's unit, in a school in central Haqlaniyah, a few miles south of Haditha. Other nearby units also were taking mortar and small-arms fire.
On the radio, Kimber said, he heard the report from Haditha of the blast from a roadside improvised explosive device, or IED, and the death of one Marine there. He also could hear an unfolding gun battle.
In the battalion briefing afterward, he said, the events of the day in Haditha were reported as an IED ambush, an account that seemed to fit with what he had overheard on the radio.
Additional information regarding the official version of what happened immediately after the IED attack that claimed Terrazas' life would be published by Reuters on November 20(1), and repeated in a March 19 Time magazine report:
The next day a Marine communique from Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi reported that Terrazas and 15 Iraqi civilians were killed by the blast and that "gunmen attacked the convoy with small-arms fire," prompting the Marines to return fire, killing eight insurgents and wounding one other.
But in this case, the story had just begun. Time had obtained a videotape...
A day after the incident, a Haditha journalism student videotaped the scene at the local morgue and at the homes where the killings had occurred. The video was obtained by the Hammurabi Human Rights Group, which cooperates with the internationally respected Human Rights Watch, and has been shared with TIME....and statements from Iraqi citizens regarding the event. They shared that information with military officials in Baghdad. To their credit, Time didn't publish the news until a preliminary inquiry launched by the military in response to that revelation was completed. Then, a week after the military announced the case was given to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, they published:
In January, after Time presented military officials in Baghdad with the Iraqis' accounts of the Marines' actions, the U.S. opened its own investigation, interviewing 28 people, including the Marines, the families of the victims and local doctors. According to military officials, the inquiry acknowledged that, contrary to the military's initial report, the 15 civilians killed on Nov. 19 died at the hands of the Marines, not the insurgents. The military announced last week that the matter has been handed over to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (ncis), which will conduct a criminal investigation to determine whether the troops broke the laws of war by deliberately targeting civilians. Lieut. Colonel Michelle Martin-Hing, spokeswoman for the Multi-National Force-Iraq, told Time the involvement of the ncis does not mean that a crime occurred. And she says the fault for the civilian deaths lies squarely with the insurgents, who "placed noncombatants in the line of fire as the Marines responded to defend themselves."That Time report also included this frequently overlooked disclaimer:
The available evidence does not provide conclusive proof that the Marines deliberately killed innocents in Haditha. But the accounts of human-rights groups that investigated the incident and survivors and local officials who spoke to Time do raise questions about whether the extent of force used by the Marines was justified—and whether the Marines were initially candid about what took place.Time's original story attracted little notice, but was reported elsewhere - including this March 20 account from the AP:
AP March 20, 2006 The charges against the Marines were first brought forward by Time magazine, which reported this week that it obtained a videotape two months ago taken by a Haditha journalism student that shows the dead still in their nightclothes.With no additional media interest and little attention being paid to Iraq over all, the story faded from view. Another couple of months passed before the story finally exploded onto front pages, prompting many to ask...
The magazine report mirrored what was told independently to The Associated Press by residents who described what happened as "a massacre." However, Time said the available evidence did not prove conclusively that the Marines deliberately killed innocents.
What took so long?
A June 3rd report from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was the first to attempt an explanation of the months-long delay(2) in the appearance of the videotape
Student visiting hometown videotaped Haditha horrorNote that Time says they provided their information to the military in January, while this story says the video was given to Time in February. Before reading too much into that discrepancy, understand that months are different in the Muslim lunar calendar used in Iraq. However, a careful reading of the Time story reveals no claim to have provided the video to American officials that month: "In January, after Time presented military officials in Baghdad with the Iraqis' accounts of the Marines' actions, the U.S. opened its own investigation"
The incident in Haditha, in the long-restive Al Anbar province, became known in November with a Marine statement that 15 people were killed after a roadside bombing killed a lance corporal and a firefight ensued.
"When I heard that, I was so disgusted and angry because I had the real proof and I hoped at that moment that I could get this proof to the American people," said al-Hadithi.
Al-Hadithi, a calm, heavy-set man who lives in Baghdad as he tries to finish a journalism degree, says he had returned to his hometown for a visit for a few days in November, staying with his mother and grown siblings' families.
The next day, al-Hadithi says, he and two friends shot the video.
But he and the human rights group he works with failed to generate interest from international organizations and Arabic media, he says.
Al-Hadithi now bristles when some of the same agencies phone him for interviews.
In February, they took the video to the Time office in Baghdad and the magazine showed the scenes to U.S. officials, who began the probes.
So while Time acknowledges providing the testimony of Iraqi civilians at that point, they are actually vague regarding whether they had the video then too - it may have been provided later. (Note also that this has no bearing on the content of the film.)
But here's where other details of the story begin to unravel. Time would later correct their account:
In the original version of this story, TIME reported that "a day after the incident, a Haditha journalism student videotaped the scene at the local morgue and at the homes where the killings had occurred. The video was obtained by the Hammurabi Human Rights Group, which cooperates with the internationally respected Human Rights Watch, and has been shared with TIME." In fact, Human Rights Watch has no ties or association with the Hammurabi Human Rights Group. TIME regrets the error.So that the on-line passage now reads:
A day after the incident, a Haditha journalism student videotaped the scene at the local morgue and at the homes where the killings had occurred. The video was obtained by the Hammurabi Human Rights Group, and has been shared with TIME.And the "internationally respected Human Rights Watch" is no longer a part of the story - except, of course, in the original print edition.
Who are these people?
Time’s source, Thaer Thabit al-Hadithi, is not a "young man." He is not a "budding journalism student."More recent Time stories (such as this one from 4 June) refer to Thabet as a "budding Iraqi journalist and human-rights activist."
And al-Haditha is not separate and apart from the Hammurabi Human Rights Group. Nor is he a man who wanted to remain anonymous because he feared for his safety.
Al-Haditha is 43 years old. He "created" Hammurabi 16 months ago. (Before that he worked directly under the head of Haditha’s hospital, Dr. Walid al-Obeidi, who pronounced that all the victims had been shot at close range.)
In fact, al-Haditha is one of Hammurabi’s only two members. He serves as its "Secretary General" while the only other member, Abdul-Rahman al-Mashhadani, performs as its "Chairman."
But this AP story from 7 June abandons the "young journalist" storyline altogether:
Iraq Investigator Tells AP About HadithaNote that Thabet is also now described as a Haditha resident, instead of a Baghdad resident home from school on vacation at his mother's house.
Secretary-General of the Hammurabi Organization for Human Rights and Democracy Monitoring, and also a Haditha resident who witnessed parts of the incident, Thaer al-Hadithi, gives a detailed account of the alleged massacre of 24 Iraqis by U.S. Marines last year, to an Associated Press reporter at the offices of the group in Baghdad, Iraq Tuesday, June 6, 2006.
Tea for the Taliban
Of course, there actually is a journalist involved in this story. Once again, Time magazine from 4 June:
Then, in mid-December, President George W. Bush announced the military's estimate that 30,000 Iraqi civilians had died since the start of the war(3). TIME's Tim McGirk, posted in Baghdad, began to investigate cases in which Iraqi civilians had been killed by U.S. troops. In the course of his reporting, he obtained a copy of Thabet's VCD. There was plenty in the grisly images to raise suspicions, including the U.S.-issued body bags into which the victims were zipped and the scattering of shells that appeared to have come from Marine rifles.Note that this seemingly contradicts the January date given in the original Time account - but if the video was actually obtained later then the original testimony (as the AJC story implies) and given to the military at that later date then the stories are consistent - if confusing. We are denied any clarification on this point from Time, and it's likely that any attempt at clarification could raise more questions than it answers.
In early February, McGirk presented this evidence to, and asked for comment from, Lieut. Colonel Barry Johnson, U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. Johnson viewed the VCD, listened to the accounts and responded straightforwardly, "I think there's enough here for a full and formal investigation."
McGirk (Berkeley, '74) has also reported from Afghanistan - even during the US invasion:
We’re summoned to tea by the local Taliban commander, Mohammed Haqqani. Along with his bodyguards and a Taliban judge, Haqqani is fiddling with a radio, trying to reach the BBC’s Pushtu service. He finds it in time to hear that the Taliban have driven the Northern Alliance out of Maidanshahr, south of Kabul. They all beam and cheer; it reminds me a little of watching the annual Lions football game back home.More recently, McGirk expressed opposition to his own magazine's characterization of the evidence ("The available evidence does not provide conclusive proof that the Marines deliberately killed innocents in Haditha") in an "off the record" interview with The New York Observer:
The Le Monde correspondent asks what it would take to reach peace in Afghanistan. “We had peace,” Haqqani insists. “The Taliban were on the verge of defeating these bandits, until America helped them out. Now, there are robberies and killings everywhere. The Taliban will have to start all over again.”
Our missing colleagues finally arrive, and I leave thinking that maybe this evening wasn’t very different from the original Thanksgiving: people from two warring cultures sharing a meal together and realizing, briefly, that we’re not so different after all.
Time correspondent Tim McGirk, who broke the Haditha story, said that in the weeks before publication, he had lobbied editors to use the word “massacre” in the March 27 story.And here's the basis for that thought:
“That was a battle I lost,” Mr. McGirk said by phone May 30 from Jerusalem, where he is currently based. “I think the editors felt ‘massacre’ was too heavy of a word. They didn’t want to use it; they felt there was some justification for what had happened.”
“I think it was definitely a massacre,” Mr. McGirk said.
McGirk and TIME's Baghdad staff members interviewed more than a dozen Haditha locals by e-mail (travel between Baghdad and Haditha is exceedingly dangerous for Iraqis, let alone foreign journalists), including the mayor, the morgue doctor and a local lawyer who negotiated a settlement between the Marines and the families under which the military agreed to pay $2,500 compensation apiece for some of the victims--mostly the women and children. Several survivors visited TIME's Baghdad bureau, including a man in his 20s whose four brothers were killed and an orphaned girl who is now the sole caretaker of her 8-year-old brother. The bureau was also pursuing leads that a 12-year-old girl had survived the attack by playing dead. In interviews, Thabet filled in details about what he witnessed before he began shooting his VCD.Before the story was completed, Time had sent another reporter to cover it.
None of this information should be construed as proof of anything regarding the facts of what happened on November 19, 2005 in Haditha. One could make the case that McGirk has an agenda, that his characterization of the "cameraman" in the story as a "young journalism student" for reasons as yet unknown casts doubt on the remainder of the charges, or that his original version of the story citing Human Rights Watch as the source of the video does the same. But that background information, along with questions about the timing of the delivery of the video or the legitimacy of the newly discovered "Hammurabi Group" has no direct bearing on what happened in Haditha that November day.
(This discussin contiinues in part II here - note that comments will be "off" until completion of this post.)
1. published by Reuters on November 20: Much has been said about a Reuters cameraman being in Haditha at the time, focused on the lack of original massacre reports from that source. However, the Reuters story says "the town has been virtually shut down for the past two days as US and Iraqi forces try to impose order", indicating limited mobility for that cameraman. Claims that the "bodies in the street" quote is inconsistent with other reports are also mistaken - there were several attacks in Haditha that day and even in this case it's known that several Iraqis were shot by coalition forces in the streets. Additional reports that this cameraman had previously been detained by coalition forces have no apparent bearing on this story.
2. ...the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was the first to attempt an explanation of the months-long delay: A December report on the Iraqi elections quotes a member of the Hammurabi Group discussing voter turn out. Several reports have questioned why the issue of the Haditha incident wasn't raised by this individual at that time. However, as should be obvious, lack of reference to that event in the election story is no evidence that he did not attempt to do so.
3. Then, in mid-December, President George W. Bush announced the military's estimate that 30,000 Iraqi civilians had died since the start of the war.
This is a media urban legend, based loosely on fact. The actual quote was a response to a question:
Q Since the inception of the Iraqi war, I'd like to know the approximate total of Iraqis who have been killed. And by Iraqis I include civilians, military, police, insurgents, translators.The next day headlines read "Bush says 30,000 Iraqi civilians dead in war" and that's been part of the mythology of the war ever since. Another implication (not specifically made here) is that this is the number killed by US troops. That would require ignoring the fact that the vast majority of Iraqis have been killed by "insurgents". In fact, their targets have frequently been soldiers and police - and often recruits waiting to enlist, whose status as "civilians" is debatable.
THE PRESIDENT: How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis.
The media description of these attacks has changed over the past few months to "sectarian violence".