CONTROL TEAM FAILED
TO PREVENT HADITHA MEDIA
by Nathaniel R. Helms
Monday, April 21, 2008– To forestall exactly the kind of adverse
media reports like the specious Time magazine story that led to
the disastrous “Haditha Massacre” show trials, the 1st Marine Division
created the Reportable Incident Assessment Team. Their mission was
to generate positive publicity and for immediate damage control in the
event the media uncovered potentially damaging stories about Marine
Corps combat operations in Iraq.
One important function of the damage control
team was to “afford the Commanding General with a specific means to
counteract media backlash,” unclassified RIAT documents show.
The Reportable Incident Assessment Team –
usually referred to simply as RIAT –
was conceived by Colonel John R. Ewers in late 2002 while he was a
lieutenant colonel and the 1st Marine Division Staff Judge
Advocate. The division SJA is both the division’s top lawyer and the
division commander’s personal counsel, according to documents
detailing the RIAT program.
“We are making an issue of Ewers in both
command influence and selective prosecution questions,” said Richard
Thompson, President and Chief Counsel of the Thomas More Law Center,
who represents Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Chessani, the highest
ranking officer charged in the case.
Ewers created RIAT to provide then 1st
Marine Division commander Major General James N. Mattis “ground truth”
about adverse incidents ranging from friendly fire incidents to
alleged war crimes by either side during the initial invasion of Iraq
in March 2003.
The original RIAT component included among
its list of personnel Colonel Ewers, the division Public Affairs
Officer, and a handful of other specialists tasked with defusing
adverse incidents and deflecting unfriendly reporters in Iraq before
they could exploit harmful information. The team was successfully
employed eight times during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the RIAT
The concept was eventually adopted Marine
In 2006, Ewers was assigned to assist Army
Major General Eldon Bargewell in conducting the command’s internal
investigation of the Haditha incident, Marine Corps spokesman
Lieutenant Colonel Sean Gibson said last Thursday.
Ewers was tasked with interrogating the
senior 2nd Marine Division officers who avoided criminal
prosecution for their failed leadership roles at Haditha. Among the
officers Ewers interrogated was
Colonel R. Gary Sokoloski, the
division’s lawyer and chief of staff to Major General Richard A. Huck,
the division commander, and Colonel
Stephen W. Davis, the commander of the 3/1 regimental combat team.
Bargewell’s findings also led to the
indictment of Chessani, who before being summarily relieved was the 3rd
Battalion, 1st Marines commander. His lawyers say they want
to know what role Colonel
Ewers may have played in influencing their client’s prosecution.
Chessani is charged with dereliction of duty
and disobeying orders for failing to adequately investigate and report
to higher headquarters what happened at Haditha.
“We think Ewers essentially wrote the rough
draft of the Bargewell Report,” Thompson said Friday.
into motion by a Public Affairs captain
The incident was ignited on November 20,
2005 when 2nd Marine Division Public Affairs Officer
Captain Jeffrey Pool provided reporters an erroneous press release
about the incident. Pool’s seemingly routine press release attributed
the deaths of 15 Iraqi civilians killed at Haditha to a remotely
triggered insurgent IED blast.
In fact, 24 Iraqis, nine of them later
identified as insurgents, were killed by an infantry squad from Kilo
Company, 3/1 when it counter-attacked the insurgents that ambushed its
four-vehicle convoy. The roadside bomb killed one Marine and wounded
Pool testified in a sworn statement during
the Bargewell Investigation three months later that he knew the
information was incorrect almost as soon as he released the report. At
the time Pool was by virtue of his position a member of the unit’s
told Bargewell’s investigators that he considered the erroneous press
release inconsequential because the civilian’s deaths were
precipitated by the insurgent ambush. With the approval of the
division brass Pool allowed the flawed press report to stand
uncorrected for three months, evidence has already shown.
The backlash from Pool’s press release
triggered a Time magazine story in March 2006 claiming the
Marines massacred the civilians at Haditha in retaliation for the
death of a squad member and then their officers covered it up. The
magazine report claimed the press release Pool wrote was evidence of
the alleged cover up.
In response the Marine Corps, under
tremendous pressure from the world press and American politicians,
initiated three separate investigations, mounted a public relations
campaign led by Marine Corps Commandant Gen Michael Hagee, and spent
millions of dollars investigating an alleged massacre that never
Pool was never charged with any offense and
later promoted to major.
The 2nd Marine Division’s top
three commanders were not so lucky. Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter
issued Letters of Censure
to all three officers, effectively destroying their careers. Winter
soundly condemned them for failing to adequately respond to Time
magazine inquiries regarding allegations of a Marine massacre at
Haditha, the Letters of Censure revealed.
“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
He expressed similar sentiments to the other
two officers as well.
Last November a spokesperson for Secretary
Winter said in response to a written question 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.”
Ewers to be questioned by the defense
weeks ago at Camp Pendleton, Ewers answered a spate of pointed
questions about his role in lending improper commend influence to the
proceedings during a motion hearing at Camp Pendleton for Lance
Corporal Stephen B. Tatum. The veteran infantryman was one of three
enlisted men accused of intentionally killing Iraqi civilians at
Haditha that have already been exonerated.
Ewers was grilled by Tatum’s attorney Kyle
Sampson, co-counsel in the defense team led by Jack Zimmermann that
successfully defended the Marine rifleman.
All the charges against Tatum were dismissed
on March 28, just hours before his general court-martial for
involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and reckless conduct was
to begin. Tatum was originally charged by General Mattis with murder
and other war crimes on December 21, 2006.
Ewers was called to testify because he
appeared in uniform during February on the Public Broadcasting System
television news show Frontline that dealt with the Haditha
Sampson was seeking to show that Ewer’s
comments during his appearance represented undue command influence.
Ewers denied that his introduction as one of
the Marine Corps’ top lawyers would have any effect on Marines who
listened to his subsequent comments. Ewers told Frontline that
every Marine is taught to distinguish between combatants and
non-combatants and therefore knew, or should have known, when and whom
they could shoot.
The Bargewell Report reached the same
Chessani’s defense team believes Ewers
appearance on a nationally televised news program has already
influenced the jury pool of senior officers – primarily colonels and
brigadier general. Because of Chessani’s high rank he cannot be tried
by junior Marines, limiting the jury pool to a handful of available
senior officers – almost all of whom have served with Ewers during his
On Thursday Lieutenant Colonel Gibson, the
Marine Corps spokesman at Camp Pendleton who handles all Haditha-related
inquiries, declined to reveal what “non-legal” billet Ewers was
holding in Iraq when he was appointed to Bargewell’s investigative
Colonel Ewers was in a ‘non-legal’ position
at Multi-National Forces West headquarters at the time of the Army
Regulation 15-6 investigation headed by Major General Bargewell. He
and numerous others were pulled in to assist in the preparation of the
report, Gibson said in an email.
“As we have said from the beginning, we
will provide you access to the any part of the proceedings that are
open to the press,” Gibson said. “However, I will not comment on, much
less speculate on, issues that may be addressed during the
proceedings. Getting to the ground truth about what occurred in any of
these cases is properly addressed through the investigative and
judicial process only.”
Nathaniel R. Helms Defend Our Marines
21 April 2008
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).