Defend Our Marines main page | Read part one of the interview here and part two  here

DEFEND OUR MARINES

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“We had no reason to believe we had
done anything wrong.”
 – LtCol Jeffrey Chessani, USMC (Ret.)

Haditha Incident Commander
Speaks Out for the First Time

 

by Nathaniel R. Helms | July 28, 2010

This is the third part in a three-part series. Read part one here and part two here.

 

Correction: In this article, Defend Our Marines erroneously reported that LtCol Chessani (Ret.) is of the Catholic faith. That is incorrect. He is a Baptist. Defend Our Marines regrets the error and it has been corrected in the article below.


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“I am tired of attempting to adjust my actions to the arbitrary whims of a superior officer…. He will take no action which will jeopardize his career.”
From the diary of Marine Corps Brigadier General Evans Fordyce Carlson, famed Commanding Officer of “Carlson’s Raiders.”

About six weeks after retired Lt. Col Jeffrey Chessani was charged with crimes at Haditha, Iraq in December, 2006, the Thomas More Law Center decided to represent him. Thomas More is an advocacy law firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan which some of the other defense attorneys irreverently call “the Pope’s mouthpiece” in America. It was no joke that the Center spent almost a million dollars collected from the faithful to defend the devout Christian officer.

Two former Marines, Brian Rooney and Robert Muise, were detailed by the firm to represent him. Rooney is best known as the fiery public advocate for justice. He went on the attack the day Thomas More announced it was representing Chessani. Rooney appeared used to notoriety. Perhaps it is because he comes from the family that owns the Pittsburgh Steelers. Shunning privilege for service he joined the Marines and served with Chessani at Fallujah in the fierce 2004 November battle.

Muise was a former Marine Corps infantryman who left the Corps long enough to go to Notre Dame on his own dime before returning as a lawyer. He served more than 13 years on active duty and has 11 children. Chessani credits Muise with leading the defense that saved him from possible incarceration and almost certain loss of everything he had earned serving as an infantry officer for 20 years if he had been convicted.

Pitted against them was a team of prosecutors led by a Chicago Marine reservist named Lt. Col. Sean Sullivan. He was the Marines Corp’s designated pit bull. On June 11, 2007 Sullivan set the tone for what was to come when he told the Article 32 pre-trial hearing officer Col. Christopher Conlin there was enough probable cause to court martial Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani for horribly botching the most important job he was ever faced with – deciding what to do about the 15 dead civilians his Marines had undoubtedly killed.

"There was an absolute failure of the obligation to investigate the death of these civilians. This is a classic case of things gone wrong. You want to believe in your Marines, but sometimes things go wrong,” Sullivan opined before Conlin.

Col. Conlin was no stranger to controversy himself. He landed in the New York Times on July 31, 2003 when he aroused the decidedly un-PC male population of the holy city of Najaf by attempting to install the city’s first ever female judge. The local boys who a year later would kill a lot of Marines were out in force chanting in no time and Conlin was forced to reconsider, according to the New York Times.

Sullivan capitalized on Chessani’s uncustomary loss of temper in Iraq, upon hearing his men were being accused of murder by a Time magazine reporter, to build his case. According to Sullivan, Chessani began breaking the law as soon as he reacted angrily to the accusation by dismissing as fabrications the allegations of inquiring Time reporter Tim McGirk. According to testimony Chessani broke the law when he angrily said his men were not murderers instead of initiating an investigation, Sullivan claimed.

"We said, 'Hey, sir, this is going to get bad very fast if we don't do something,'” 3/1 Operations officer Maj. Samuel Carrasco testified. "He raised his voice, which is something he rarely did, and said, 'My men are not murderers.' We adjourned the room."

Before being called before the bar, Chessani believed civilians regrettably died when caught in the cross fire between his Marines and attacking insurgents. The insurgents had initiated the fight, not his Marines, he said.

We were getting phenomenal intel, we were getting the big fish.

Chessani’s opinion still hasn’t changed. If anything he is more certain now than he was in late January, 2006 when he received from higher headquarters the first inkling not all was well at Camp Blue Diamond where the 2nd Marine Division brass presided. A month after hearing about McGirk’s off-the-wall questions, Chessani was embroiled in a full scale investigation he ultimately suspected would lead to his relief and possible court-martial. At the time however, Chessani said he was more concerned keeping his Marines alive. The battle at Chestnut and Viper was only the opening salvo in a month long campaign that essentially wiped out the insurgents using Haditha as a showplace.

The battlefield told the story. The Haditha attack, by now condemned in the world press as a massacre, had the unintended consequence in encouraging the Iraqis who were caught in the middle between the Marines and the insurgents to decide to cooperate, Chessani said

“I wasn’t paying attention to the specific details of what happened [in the growing investigation]. I wish I had. At the time we had no reason to believe we had done anything wrong. We had operations going on all over our AO {Area of Operations}. A few days afterwards we were already able to take out of our AO many of the bad guys. We were getting phenomenal intel [intelligence], we were getting the big fish. My Marines were out there finding the bad guys every day. The ones that were still alive, the ones we hadn’t killed, we were pulling in.”

On Dec. 11, 2006, an informant named Muhannad Hassan Hamadi told the 3/1 Marines who captured him that the Haditha ambush was carried out by multiple cells of local Wahabi extremists and well-paid local gunmen from Al Asa’ib al-Iraq [the Clans of the People of Iraq] that were led by Al Qaeda foreign fighters, documents acquired during the subsequent investigations showed.

“Iraqi civilians were hearing from the terrorists every day. They had a propaganda shop, they were using letterhead; they had CD burning machines, printing presses pumping out propaganda. The terrorists were heard from daily. We stopped it,” Chessani added.

His claims were bolstered by Marine signal intercepts revealing that the al Qaeda fighters planned to videotape more attacks and exploit the resulting carnage for propaganda purposes. Time’s specious allegations were supported by videotape made by a suspected insurgent who just happened to be at Chestnut and Viper the day after the carnage subsided.

“HET (Human Exploitation Team) was so good. They were reeling in the guys that hadn’t been killed. They took away their arms and rolled up a good number of them. We also found some we had killed that had been buried. By the 20th [the day following the ambush on Viper and Chestnut] we were really rolling them up,” Chessani said.

Within a few days of the Haditha ambush 11 insurgents involved in the attack were identified by name and affiliation in the details of an intelligence summary provided to 2nd Marine Division by his attached HET operation.  All of them were killed or captured in the days immediately following the Haditha incident, according to documents obtained by US Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell during his investigation.

One of the HET reports Defend Our Marines detailed in the so-called “Bargewell Report” named five insurgents involved in setting up the IED that killed LCpl Miguel "T.J." Terrazas, the first Marines killed under Chessani’s command. One of their numbers, Majid Salah Mahdi Farraji, was killed when Marine Corps F-18s bombed the so-called “safe house” were the battle migrated to after the initial IED ambush decimated Wuterich’s squad on November 19, 2005. In time, most of them were captured or killed, the report said.

During the November Haditha ambush, the insurgents had secreted themselves among local civilians to guarantee pursuing Marines would catch innocent civilians in the ensuing crossfire. The documents and insurgents 3/1 later captured said so. On January 6, 2006 the Al Qaeda financed and led insurgency tried again. This time six insurgents were turned in to coalition authorities before they could mount a similar assault.

Again on January 18, 2006, almost two months after the infamous Haditha attack, Iraqi insurgents “planned to attack a dismounted C[oalition] F[orces] patrol". That attack was stopped by local Iraqis and the schemers arrested, the report says.

 “The Iraqis were turning them in,” Chessani said.  

The "cutout" in the White Car and other evidence ignored

All of the intelligence data including the mission reports, UAV video, and internet messages between the UAV operators, 3/1, Regimental Combat Team 2, and Multi-National Force headquarters in Baghdad  was later seized by NCIS special agents. More than a year after the coordinated attack, eight Marines from 3/1, including Chessani, were charged with multiple murder and covering up the incident. The evidence Bargewell had uncovered was never brought into play.

It was part of  a pattern of circumstances in which missing, overlooked or simply ignored mitigating battlefield intelligence that should have nipped the 56-month, manpower draining, multi-million dollar investigation at the bud disappeared.

Chessani remembered another bit of intelligence that was gleaned from the mass of documentation the prosecution piled up to prove his guilt. It involved the so-called “White Car” in which five Iraqi men later deemed suspected insurgents inexplicably showed up inside the killing sack seconds before the IED that triggered the entire “Haditha Massacre” incident blew Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas in half.

According to Chessani and Muise, a Marine Corps criminal investigator detailed to aid the defense detected a “cut out” in the front of the vehicle similar to other cars the insurgents used to videotape suicide bombers and IED events for propaganda exploitation. The cutout was an inconspicuous hole in the front of the vehicle that provided a space a hidden video camera to see out of. A few weeks before the Haditha incident a different white car was captured by Marines at a check point after videotaping a vehicle borne IED explosion in 3/1’s Area of Operations. It was equipped with a similar device.

Unfortunately, by the time the Marine CID agent discovered the ruse the white car that might have explained the mystery had disappeared. The images are contained in photographs still classified as “Official Use Only” and are not available for public scrutiny, according to Muise. The infamous white car had disappeared the day after the ambush and was never located, Chessani said.

It is the same white car that held the five men Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich is accused of negligently killing with his M-16 when it suddenly appeared inside the convoy’s 100-meter (roughly 300-foot) “security zone” Marines applied around their convoys and patrols at the time. Anything inside the security zone showing hostile intent was subject to attack, according the Standard Operating Procedures in place at the time. Wuterich was a 26-year old sergeant at his first combat action when the events occurred. He said he took appropriate action when he took a knee and pulled the trigger.

Along with Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz, Wuterich admittedly shot them down. After joining in the shooting Dela Cruz testified he urinated into the blown apart skull of one of the decedents. He admitted it after accepting immunity from the prosecution to testify against his brother Marines. Dela Cruz testified he was caught up in the moment. What really happened must wait for discovery at Wuterich’s scheduled September 13 court-martial. Dela Cruz admittedly lied twice about what happened inside the security zone during previous testimony at Camp Pendleton.

According to Neal Puckett, the Washington, D.C. based attorney representing the last Marine standing in the Haditha investigation, Wuterich is expected to stand trial for nine counts of voluntary manslaughter and additional charges of aggravated assault, dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice.

“The white car is still on the table,” Puckett said Tuesday in an email.

All the other Marines have been exonerated. Some of them are expected to be recalled to testify at Wuterich’s court-martial. Puckett said no deals have been made and none are anticipated, clearing the way for the last battle in the long campaign to wipe away the stain of injustice still plaguing the Marine Corps.

The missing white car isn’t the only potentially exculpatory evidence that is missing, Chessani said. The problem is that the weapons, documents, money and expended AK-47 cartridges littering the combat arena after the November 19, 2005 wasn’t evidence of Marine Corps misdeeds at the time. It was battlefield debris and evidence of Iraqi collusion with the insurgents.

For instance, Terrazas‘ destroyed M-16 was reassembled and hung on a wall at the school at FOB Sparta where Kilo Co. was billeted as a memorial to his death. The insurgent’s AK-47s, cartridges, photographs and other potential exculpatory evidence recovered at the scene was destroyed per Standard Operating Procedures. It was not a conspiracy to cover up anything; it was what Marines were expected to do with recovered battlefield minutia after a fight was over, Chessani said.

Daniel Conway, one of the civilian attorney’s working with Gary Meyers and their Marines counterparts to defend former Lance Corporal Justin Sharratt said they tracked the recovered enemy weapons to an arms room at Sparta and then to the battalion collection point at Haditha Dam where they were ultimately disposed of. The armorer’s log books and previous trial testimony will undoubtedly show up again, Conway said.

Sharratt, now 25, was one of the Marines charged with murder that was exonerated. On Monday he said Wuterich and he recovered two AK-47s while other Marines recovered 15 Jordanian passports, money, and clothes in a suitcase next door to the house where Sharratt used his 9mm pistol to shoot four AK-47 armed Iraqis after his light machine gun jammed. He remembered other weapons being captured as well. All of it disappeared. Sharratt said he has already been notified he will be called as a witness for Wuterich when his court-martial begins.

Pilloried for doing their duty

Chessani said he isn’t bitter about what happened to him. He is however still disturbed that his Marines were pilloried for doing their duty. On Wednesday, after reading the first two parts of this article, he told Muise to relate to Defend Our Marines that he is also not angry with retired Col. Stephen Davis, his regimental commander at Haditha. Davis was forced to resign after former Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter presented him with a Letter of Censure that destroyed his career.

“Even when made aware of the serious allegations raised by the Time magazine journalist, your response to higher headquarters was to forward incomplete, inaccurate, and inconsistent materials provided by a subordinate unit, rather than to initiate a thorough inquiry into the incident,” Winter rebuked Davis.

The following week a spokesperson for Secretary Winter said in response to a written question from Defend Our Marines that “Time magazine was mentioned as an example of an incident which garnered significant, national media interest; and yet--initially--was not thoroughly investigated. The Secretary was not giving Time magazine special consideration, nor was he suggesting that media have a specific right and/or need to know.”

In Chessani’s view, Davis was a victim of internecine politics that erupted inside the Marine Corps after the insurgents executed their brilliantly executed coup to dupe McGirk and batter Marine Corps morale. It was so effective Marine Corps Commandant General Michael W. Hagee to rush off to Iraqi to tighten the leashes on his Devil Dogs.

Chessani told Muise he thought Davis was a “stand up” Marine and a “great” regimental commander. He was forced to leave the Corps, another victim of the political storm that blew in the background while the media was focused on the Haditha defendants. Muise said Chessani felt it important to clarify that he holds no animus for Davis because he “took the 5th” and refused to testify on behalf of his subordinates.

Muise didn’t mention 2nd Marine Division Chief of Staff Col. Richard Sokoloski, the other officer who took the 5th. Sokoloski was responsible for failing to correct the erroneous press release claiming the civilians had died in the IED blast that first fired McGirk’s imagination. Later Huck alleged his chief of staff hid the influential reporter's inquiry from him while he was the Commanding General of the 2nd Marine Division. Huck first championed Chessani and then threw him under a bus along with his men by claiming he never knew about the civilian deaths until it was too late to properly respond to the angry Army generals in Baghdad.  Both men were also issued similar Letters of Censure by Winter.

Chessani also said that he was worried about any characterization of 3/1’s Marines that paints them in any way suggesting they were irresponsible blood thirsty killers. He said they acted aggressively at Haditha because Marines are trained to act aggressively when attacked. In other situations they acted with admirable restraint, he said. That noted, Chessani remains certain the Marines at Haditha are as much victims as the Iraqis who died in a war with muddled purpose and ever shifting principles dictated by political expediency rather than military purpose.

 

 

 

Read part one of the interview here and part two here.
 

 

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Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
21 July 20
10

Note: Nat Helms is a Contributing Editor to Defend Our Marines. He is a Vietnam veteran, former police officer, war correspondent, and, most recently, author of My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story (Meredith Books, 2007).

 

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© Nathaniel R. Helms 2010

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