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True lies: The Haditha
cover-up that never was
 

© Nathaniel R. Helms 2007

Defend Our Marines / August 9, 2007

True lies: The Haditha cover-up that never was

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Evidence currently before Marine Corps Lt. Gen. J.N. Mattis shows that a 2nd Marine Division public affairs officer intentionally misrepresented what happened in Haditha, Iraq twenty months ago when he claimed that 15 civilians were killed by an Improvised Explosive Device rather than Marine small arms fire. The official statement was approved at Division-level despite multiple attempts by Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani’s subordinates to correct it, investigation documents show.

Yesterday, Chessani’s second, three-hour long Article 32 hearing at Camp Pendleton, CA was held to determine if there is evidence to believe he was derelict for failing to update two combat journal (JEN) entries. During his first Article 32 examination in May and June Chessani endured 11 days of scrutiny. Col. Christopher Conlin, the Investigating Officer presiding over his hearing, has already recommended to Mattis that Chessani be charged with three counts of dereliction of duty and failing to obey orders for not accurately reporting what happened on November 19, 2005 at Haditha.

Mattis is the convening authority and final arbiter in the investigation to determine whether seven Marines from 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines are guilty of massacring civilians at Haditha and then covering it up. On Thursday he dismissed three charges of unpremeditated murder against LCpl Justin L. Sharratt and dereliction of duty charges against Captain Randy W. Stone, charged with violation of a lawful order and two specifications of negligent dereliction of duty.

Sharratt, a distinguished SAW gunner in the terrible fights in Fallujah during 2004, is the first of three enlisted Marines to be exonerated of massacring civilians. He intends to leave the Marine Corps. Stone, an SJA lawyer and volunteer for hazardous duty in al Anbar Province, was on his first combat deployment. Two other enlisted Marines and three officers still face possible disciplinary action.

According to documents obtained during various legal maneuvers preceding the charges against the Marines in December 2006, the misleading press report was written by 2nd MarDiv PAO Captain Jeffrey Pool, who has since been promoted to major. Pool was never charged with any crime and has never testified at any of the proceedings. He did however give both a deposition to Maj Gen Eldon A. Bargewell’s investigators as well as a statement to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Pool told investigators last year that he was given reports from 3/1 staff officers that accurately described the Marines' killing of 15 civilians during a firefight. Pool claimed he released the incorrect press release anyway because he believed the civilian deaths were attributable to the roadside bombing because it led the Marines to counter-attack. During the engagement 24 Iraqis and one Marine were killed and eleven Marines were wounded.

The evidence recently presented to Mattis by Chessani’s defense team shows that Pool’s press account was an intentional misrepresentation. Pool was informed about the civilian deaths before he wrote the press release.

When 3/1 Operations Officer Maj. Samuel Carrasco saw the erroneous information he immediately informed RCT-2 staff officers it was inaccurate and asked for changes to be made. His request was disregarded by RCT-2 and 2nd Division. For awhile afterwards, however, the JEN notation (20-007) Chessani is now under investigation for not updating still showed the civilians were killed in the IED blast, the evidence shows.

Later the same evening, however, Carrasco called Lt. Col. Christopher Starling, the RCT-2 S-3 (Operations) Officer to inform him of the inaccurate content of Pool’s press release. Carrasco told Starling that Kilo’s Marines were “taking fire from buildings that they had to go in and clear those buildings. When they got into the buildings there were civilians,” Starling said in a statement to NCIS investigators. “They had to clear buildings and some of the NKIA (civilian dead) were inside the structures.”

In addition, Capt. Jeffrey Dinsmore, 3/1’s S-2 (intelligence officer) prepared a story board the same day and used it to brief Maj Gen. Richard A. Huck, the 2nd Division commander. Huck had no questions for the 3/1 staff nor did he request “a detailed assessment of how these civilians died,” the evidence shows. All of this material was available to Pool and anyone else in authority concerned enough to ask for it. Nobody did until media inquires alleging a massacre at Haditha began appearing.

When the initial press report was later changed to reflect that the civilians had been killed by a squad of Kilo Company Marines storming four houses occupied by insurgent gunmen it touched off a press furor. The resulting media frenzy sparked world-wide condemnation of the Marines. Public pressure, fueled largely by a series of reports in Time magazine, was trumpeted by Congressman John Murtha (Dem-PA) as gospel.

Last year Murtha publicly labeled the Marines cold-blooded murderers and liars who covered up the crime to protect their skins. He repeatedly told reporters interviewing him on CNN and other news outlets that he obtained his evidence from the Time magazine stories. His influence both as a former Marine colonel and House appropriations czar for the Marine Corps made him a fearsome antagonist. Pragmatic Marine generals reportedly don’t fool around with Mother Murtha. 

According to a June 4, 2006 Time magazine story called “How Haditha Came to Light,” Time reporter Aparisim Ghosh got the word on March 14 2006 that the Iraqis had been killed by Marines and not an insurgent IED. That is when a U.S. military official in Baghdad “finally” responded to his inquiries, he said. 

In Ghosh’s account it took military authorities in Baghdad almost four months to find out from Marines what really happened at Haditha on November 19, 2005. According to the official, “the probe concluded that the civilians were in fact killed by Marines and not by an insurgent's bomb; that the civilian deaths appeared to be the result of "collateral damage" rather than malicious intent.” 

The “probe: was in fact a routine Request for Information that came down to 3/1 from a Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) officer wishing to know what happened at Haditha the preceding November. The RIF indicated MEF PAOs were receiving reports of atrocities of some sort at Haditha.

By then Time magazine reporter Tim McGirk had already broken the story of the alleged massacre using video tape and the personal accounts provided by Thaer [Taher] al-Hadithi and Ali Omar Abrahem al-Mashadani for evidence. McGirk elevated the two Iraqi men to near sainthood for being unwavering human rights advocates, as well as “budding” journalists and well-intentioned “students.” It would be more than a year before evidence emerged that clearly showed McGirk was an unwitting tool of a brilliant intelligence coup perpetrated by al-Hadithi and al-Mashadani. Many Marines believe the damage to Marine Corps morale by McGirk’s star witnesses could last for years.

Ironically, in the same Time story writer Jeffrey Kluger said, “If there is any beneficiary at all of the tragedy, it is Hammurabi, the human-rights group, which is flooded with new volunteers and free to do its work more aggressively.”

 

Nathaniel Helms
Defend Our Marines
9 August 2007

 

Note: Nat Helms served three tours in Vietnam and, most recently, is the author of My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story (Meredith Books, 2007)

© Nathaniel R. Helms 2007

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