This story involves the Haditha incident, where U.S. Marines allegedly killed 24 Iraqi civilians in violation of standard procedures and established rules of engagement. It turns out, according to Paul von Zielbauer of the New York Times, that a cover up of the story was attempted at higher levels of the Marine Corps chain of command.
Recently unclassified documents suggest that senior officers viewed the killings of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in late 2005 as a potential public relations problem that could fuel insurgent propaganda against the American military, leading investigators to question whether the officers’ immediate response had been intentionally misleading.
Colonel R. Gary Sokoloski of 2nd Marine Division commander Maj. General Richard A. Huck's staff released a press release about the killings that investigators later suggested was "intentionally inaccurate" because it asserted, contrary to the facts available, that the insurgents had been killed by an insurgents' bomb.
Colonel Sokoloski told investigators “We knew the, you know, the strategic implications of being permanently present in Haditha and how badly the insurgents wanted us out of there.” But Colonel Sokoloski told investigators he believed that the news release was accurate as written. On what evidence did he base that belief? He wanted to get the information that was available to him before the press before the insurgents put out their own information. Priority one was to win the propaganda war. Ground truth wasn't a factor in the decision process.
Deny the Mess, Blame the Press
Colonel Stephen W. Davis, regimental commander of the Marines in Haditha, said to investigators that "There was nothing out of the ordinary about any of this, including the number of civilian dead, that would have triggered anything in my mind that was out of the norm. There is nothing about this incident that jumped out at any point to us."
According to Davis, his big concern was derailing enemy propaganda, which he believed was being abetted by Time Magazine reporter Tim McGirk, who blew the Haditha story open in March 2006. “Frankly, what I am looking at is the advantage he’s giving the enemy,” Colonel Davis said of McGirk.
Deny, Deny, Deny
When it came to questions of his own culpability in the Haditha incident, Major General Huck, the division commander, pulled a Sergeant Schultz. He saw nothing, he heard nothing, he knew nothing.
In a hearing at Camp Lejeune, N.C. months after the Haditha incident, Huck told investigators he didn't recall anyone telling him civilians had been killed at Haditha. “I didn’t know at the time whether they were bad guys, noncombatants, or whatever,” he testified. He was overseeing several combat operations at the time.
Huck also told investigators that he didn't recall standing orders that required him to alert his superiors and investigate the circumstances of any attack that killed at least three times as many civilians as American forces. He said that three days after the Haditha incident, he received a slide presentation of the attacks from battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey R. Chessani that did not mention civilian deaths. “I sat there and took the brief and no bells and whistles went off,” Huck told investigators.
Two and a half months later, Huck sent his boss, Lieutenant General Peter W. Chiarelli, then commander of ground forces in Iraq, an email on the Haditha incident that stated “I support our account and do not see a necessity for further investigation…Allegedly, [Time reporter] McGirk received his info from the mayor of Haditha, who we strongly suspect to be an insurgent.”
Less than five hours later, Chiarelli forwarded the email to his chief of staff, Brigadier General Donald Campbell, with an attached note that said, “Don: We need to get together at the first possible moment tomorrow morning. We’re going to have to do an investigation.”
Stuff Rolls Downhill
Four officers have been charged with failing to properly investigate the civilian killings at Haditha. One of them, Captain Randy Stone, is set to be put under hearings Tuesday Morning (May 8). Stone is accused of failing to investigate reports of civilian deaths at Haditha, but in an interview that mirrored frustrations expressed by attorneys for the other accused officers, Stone said that he didn't investigate the deaths because his superiors told him not to. “The regimental judge advocate [Major Carroll Connelly] informed me that we don’t do investigations for ‘troops in contact’ situations,” Stone said. “That’s my understanding of what higher [command] wanted,” Stone said, “and that’s why there was no investigation.” Stone added “There is a certain level of disappointment that the Marine Corps decided that, in the entire chain of command, that I am the one who should be held accountable.”
Major Connelly, the regimental JAG officer who told Stone not to do an investigation, was not charged with any crime. Instead, he was granted immunity to testify at future hearings on the Haditha incident. General Huck is also scheduled to testify at the officers' hearings, but he too faces no charges. The senior officer under investigation is Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey R. Chessani, the battalion commander who supposedly didn't tell General Huck about the civilian deaths at Haditha.
Three enlisted Marines have been charged with the killings at Haditha. They face courts martial proceedings for commission of capital crimes.
I saw some shameful things up close and personal during my career as a military officer, and have observed many others from a distance since I retired. But nothing resonates in my memory for complete lack of moral integrity as does this Haditha investigation disgrace.
If General Huck and his bird colonels are allowed to retire in their current pay grades while the O-5s and below take it on the chin over Haditha, there's no question. The entire United States Marine Corps needs to take a one-way march to the front gate, and keep going.