Propaganda Fear Cited in Account of Iraqi Killings

New York Times

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.

Col. R. Gary Sokoloski, a lawyer who was chief of staff to Maj. General Richard A. Huck, the division commander, approved a news release about the killings that investigators interviewing him in March 2006 suggested was “intentionally inaccurate” because it stated, contrary to the facts at hand, that the civilians had been killed by an insurgent’s bomb.

According to a transcript of the interview, Colonel Sokoloski told the 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 them he believed that the news release was accurate as written. “At the time,” he said, “given the information that was available to me and the objective to get that out for the press” before insurgents put out their own information, “that is what we went with.”

The documents also show that derailing enemy propaganda was important to senior Marine commanders, including Col. Stephen W. Davis, a highly regarded regimental commander under General Huck, who played down questions about the civilian killings from a Time magazine reporter last year, long after the attacks and the civilian toll were clear to the military.

“Frankly, what I am looking at is the advantage he’s giving the enemy,” Colonel Davis said of the reporter, Tim McGirk, whose article in March 2006 was the first to report that marines had killed civilians in Haditha, including women and children. In their sworn statements, General Huck and his subordinates say they dismissed Mr. McGirk’s inquiries because they saw him as a naïve conduit for the mayor of Haditha, whom the Marines believed to be an insurgent.

Four officers were charged with failing to properly investigate the civilian killings. The first hearing against one of the officers, Capt. Randy W. Stone, is set for Tuesday morning, in a military courtroom at Camp Pendleton, Calif. Three enlisted marines are charged with the killings. Their hearings, to determine whether the charges warrant general courts-martial, are set to begin in the coming weeks. As Marine Corps prosecutors prepare their evidence against Captain Stone and his fellow officers, the unclassified documents suggest that senior Marine commanders dismissed, played down or publicly mischaracterized the civilian deaths in ways that a military investigation found deeply troubling. The documents suggest that General Huck ignored early reports that women and children were killed in the attack, and later told investigators that he was unaware of regulations that required his staff to investigate further.

The documents, including a report by Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell of the Army, copies of e-mail messages among Marine officers in Haditha and sworn statements from several ranking officers, focus only on how the Marine chain of command handled the killings and have not been made public. Portions of the report and commanders’ reactions to the killings were reported by The Washington Post in January and April. The documents were provided to The New York Times by people familiar with the investigation only on condition that they not be identified.

Captain Stone, 34, of Dunkirk, Md., is accused of failing to investigate reports of the civilian deaths. In an interview that repeated similar frustrations voiced by lawyers for other accused officers, Captain Stone said he did not investigate the killings because his superiors told him not to.

“The regimental judge advocate informed me that we don’t do investigations for ‘troops in contact’ situations,” said Captain Stone, referring to the regiment’s lawyer, Maj. Carroll Connelly. Troops in contact is military language for combat against enemy fighters.

“That’s my understanding of what higher wanted,” Captain Stone said, referring to his superior officers, “and that’s why there was no investigation.”

“I don’t think I did anything wrong,” he went on. But he 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, who was not charged with any crime, has been granted immunity to testify at the coming hearings, said Captain Stone’s civilian lawyer, Charles W. Gittins.

After weighing evidence and arguments from prosecutors and defense lawyers, an investigating officer presiding over the hearing will determine whether there is sufficient evidence to recommend a general court martial. The other three officers facing dereliction charges are: Capt. Lucas M. McConnell, the company commander; First Lt. Andrew A. Grayson, a Marine intelligence officer; and Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, the battalion commander.

The Haditha investigators pored over thousands of e-mail messages, slide presentations, sworn statements and field reports, sifting through sometimes contradictory information and conflicting points of view to determine what officers at each level knew and when they knew it.

The documents and interviews produced in the Bargewell investigation indicate that investigators had suspected possible wrongdoing, at least initially, at even higher levels.

“As you go up the chain of command, the question always becomes, ‘Where do you stop?’ ” said John D. Hutson, a former Navy judge advocate general, now the dean of the Franklin Pierce Law Center in New Hampshire. “You have to be reasonably certain that you’ll get a conviction.”

Intangible considerations can also influence military lawyers in deciding whether to recommend charges when wrongdoing is more ambiguous. “If you know the guy and he’s done well and he’s never done anything dishonest before,” Mr. Hutson said, “you might give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Documents declassified by the military last week include an e-mail message within three hours of the Haditha attack from a battalion operations officer to the regiment, a superior command, saying that 15 civilians had been killed, “seven of which were women and kids.”

Senior commanders told investigators that such early field reports were passed on to General Huck’s staff.

In a statement he gave at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in April, nearly five months later, General Huck told investigators that he could not recall being informed of reports that 15 civilians had been killed. He said he was overseeing several combat operations at the time, and that he had no reason to believe that the civilians killed in Haditha were not enemy fighters.

“I didn’t know at the time whether they were bad guys, noncombatants, or whatever,” General Huck said, according to a transcript of the interview. Later in the interview, he added, “They may have been guys pulling the trigger, for all I know.”

General Huck, who is expected to testify at the accused officers’ hearings, told investigators he did not recall orders, called commanders critical information requirements 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.

General Huck said that three days after the Haditha episode, in the midst of two combat operations, he visited Colonel Chessani, the battalion commander, who showed him an electronic slide show of the attacks that, according to investigators, did not mention the civilian deaths.

“I sat there and took the brief and no bells and whistles went off,” General Huck told investigators.

The bells, the general said, sounded two and a half months later, on Feb. 12, after he sent his boss, Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the commander of ground operations in Iraq at the time, an e-mail message with Colonel Chessani’s slide presentation attached to it.

“I support our account and do not see a necessity for further investigation,” General Huck wrote in the message to General Chiarelli in Baghdad, adding: “Allegedly, McGirk received his info from the mayor of Haditha, who we strongly suspect to be an insurgent.”

Less than five hours later, records show, General Chiarelli forwarded the e-mail message to his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Donald Campbell, with a note.

“Don: We need to get together at the first possible moment tomorrow morning,” he wrote. “We’re going to have to do an investigation.”

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