Pennsylvania Congressmen John Murtha charged eight Marines with
“cold blooded murder” and “cover up” at Haditha more than two years ago,
former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld immediately formed a study
group to counter the powerful Democrat’s accusations.
study group’s analysis of the political and legal situation was used
to help decide what course of action to take against eight Marines
accused of massacre and cover up by Murtha in the deaths of 24 Iraqis
at Haditha, Iraq on November 19, 2005.
group was briefed by high ranking Marine Corps lawyers sent by
Brigadier General Kevin Sandkuhler, Staff Judge Advocate to the
Commandant of the Marine Corps. Also in the mix was Peter M. Murphy,
Counsel to the Marine Corps--a civilian who counseled
Commandants and their lawyers for 20 years, according to retired
Marine defense attorney Lieutenant Colonel Colby Vokey.
and Sandkuhler have since retired.
Vokey was the Regional Defense Counsel for West Coast
Marines at Camp Pendleton, California when the Haditha scandal erupted
in early 2006. The job of defending the defamed Marines fell on his
tiny clan of appointed Marine Corps defense lawyers.
as the SECDEF study group was formed, Marine Corps lawyers began
trooping into Rumsfeld's office at the Pentagon while Commandant General
Michael Hagee climbed up Capitol Hill to brief the money lenders on
the progress of the investigation, Vokey said.
prosecution actually believed – and still believes – it can win a
conviction. It oversold that to General Sandkuhler and he believed
it,” Vokey said.
Marine Corps has not responded to a request for comment.
Subsequently the Marines were charged with murder, assault,
dereliction of duty, lying to investigators and conspiring to conceal
the truth about what happened after a Marine died in a roadside ambush
four enlisted men charged with pulling the triggers belonged to Kilo
Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. Charged
with cover up were Kilo’s company commander, the battalion commander,
and two staff officers.
General Richard A. Huck, formerly Commanding General of the 2nd
Marine Division, Colonel Richard G. Sokoloski, former Chief of
Staff of the division and later the CoS of Multi-National Forces-West,
and Colonel Stephen W. Davis, the former commander of Regimental Combat
Team-2, the senior commander at Haditha, all received a “Secretarial
Letter of Censure” from Winter on September 5, 2007 instead of being
charged with criminal behavior.
Winter was particularly
critical of the three senior Marines’ apparent reluctance to respond
to multiple requests by Time magazine to reveal what happened
sensational reports claimed a squad of Marines under Lieutenant
Colonel Jeffrey Chessani’s command murdered 24 innocent civilians in retaliation for
an IED attack that killed one of their numbers and wounded two others.
Afterwards Chessani and his officers covered up the action to avoid
recrimination, Time magazine reporter Tim McGirk and others
“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 Colonel Davis.
said he was informed of the study group during briefings he received
from Sandkuhler in June 2006.
“Sandkuhler believed they were all guilty and the case was going to
quickly be over. I tried to tell him I didn't think so. I said,
‘General, I don't believe that is correct,’ but he thought that the
prosecutors were going to win, that everybody was going to roll over
on each other. It didn't happen that way."
Sandkuhler’s appreciations of the situation were the basis of
Rumsfeld’s apparent acquiescence to the Pentagon’s decision to
publicly crucifying the Marines in both word and deed, Vokey surmised.
briefed by my boss [Col. Rose Favors], who was briefed by Sandkuhler
on Hagee’s presentation to Murtha, Senator Carl Levin and the other
Congressional leaders who control the money.”
was nothing in his [Hagee] remarks about cold blooded murder or
massacre or anything like that.”
Rumsfeld’s endorsement, Secretary Winter launched the biggest and
presumably most expensive criminal investigation in US Naval history
from Naval Criminal Investigative Service headquarters in Washington,
unusual from the start,” Vokey said.
NCIS maintained both a field investigation and an oversight committee
in Washington that kept tabs on the progress of the investigation.
NCIS officials acknowledged during the preliminary investigation that
at least 65 special agents were occupied with the case at its zenith
in the summer of 2006.
between Murtha’s scandalous charges and the Pentagon’s burning desire
to protect its yawning purse from vengeful Democrats controlling the
purse strings, Marine Corps prosecutors sincerely believed the Haditha
defendants trying to duck the cross-fire didn’t stand a chance, Vokey
the summer of 2006 we had two major war crimes trials going on at once
(Hamandiyah and Haditha) and it was straining our resources. The
Marine Corps wanted to get them over with. Sandkuhler told me he
thought it [Hamandiyah] would be over in three or four months and then
we could get on with Haditha.”
years to life, roll over on the other Marines, and get it done," Vokey
When it didn’t happen the way Sandkuhler
Vokey was fired for assigning
“too many defense attorneys” to the Haditha and Hamandiyah defendants.
Vokey was canned in September 2007 by
Colonel Rose M. Favors, the Command Defense Counsel of the Marine
Corps. She reported to Sandkuhler.
The prosecution called in reservists,
brought in support staff, and created a task force to convict the
Marines. The Marine Corps spent millions more building a media center
staffed by recalled reservists at Camp Pendleton for the
court-martials that never were.
Favors reportedly told Vokey that assigning
more the one Marine Corps lawyer defense lawyer was unnecessary for them to receive adequate
“We had to literally beg for everything we
got,” Vokey said. “The prosecution had all the resources.”
was quietly reinstated after prominent Marine lawyers both inside and
outside the Corps cried foul.
Marine Corps Brigadier General David M. Brahms was among the lawyers
enmeshed in the Haditha murder investigation who exploded into anger
over Vokey’s firing.
Brahms said in September 2007. “The danger here is not
malevolence; it is the appearance of evil and the effect upon those in
the defense bar.”
is a Harvard Law School graduate who became the Director of the Judge
Advocate Division for three years prior to his retirement in 1988.
to Vokey’s burdens were copious leaks of sensitive NCIS documents that
washed ashore at the Washington Post and New York Times.
a defense demand for an investigation to plug the leaks they never
stopped until the well ran dry after 14,000 pages of documents reached
reporter’s hands, Vokey said.
defense team suspected the information was flowing from Rep. Murtha’s
executive assistant Gabrielle Carruth, a former career NCIS special
agent married to an NCIS special agent on duty in Washington. Nothing
ever came of their suspicions.
[civilian] defense attorneys complained the newspapers were getting
the NCIS reports evidence before they were receiving discovery
information,” Vokey said.
the huge volume of evidence revealed in the news accounts and the long
laundry list of heinous charges against the defendants, Sandkuhler
told Vokey he expected the cases to be completed by the end of 2007 at
the latest, Vokey said.
Sergeant Frank Wuterich, the squad leader and last enlisted trigger-puller facing general court-martial, on reduced charges of
manslaughter, is mired in pre-trial disputes between a television
network and government prosecutors.
prosecution claims the 60 Minutes television show has unaired footage
of Wuterich implicating himself on a thrice-aired 60 Minutes
hearing on the matter is scheduled for Wednesday in Washington.
Wuterich is represented by veteran military defense attorney Neal
Puckett and his Washington, D.C. based team of experts. Puckett calls
the government’s ploy a “fishing expedition” that merely delays the
inevitable exoneration of his client.
Recently, Haytham Faraj, a former Marine major, joined Puckett, Mark Zaid,
and Marine Corps Captain Nute Bonner (just transferred to Marine
Barracks 8th and "I" in Washington) as Wuterich's defense
worked for Vokey and was a defense team star during the summer long
pre-trial investigations in 2007.
being charged in December 2006, six other defendants have been cleared
during pre-trial maneuvering and a seventh was acquitted following his
court martial at Camp Pendleton.
government is also appealing the dismissal of all charges against
former battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Chessani, cleared early
last summer when evidence of improper command influence was revealed
during pretrial procedures.
impact of Murtha’s unrestrained remarks, coupled with media’s
specious, sensationalized accounts of the incident, was recently
underscored by Iraqi negotiators discussing the future of the Status
of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Iraq and the US.
negotiations reportedly came to a screeching halt last week when the
Iraqis refused to budge over demands that US service members be denied
immunity from Iraqi prosecution for alleged war crimes in Iraq.
Iraqi officials reportedly reached the impasse because most of the US
Marines accused of massacring civilians at Haditha have been
specious Haditha incident was identified by name during the delicate
negotiations in Baghdad to determine whether the United States intends
to give up its traditional legal sovereignty over American service
members, numerous news reports said.
Iraqis want assurances they can exact their own brand of justice on
American service members trapped in similar situations.
has SOFA agreements in 80 countries that give the US autonomy over
disciplining American troops.
Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
15 September 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).