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An Honest Investigation Would Have Cleared
Lieutenant Pantano in Iraq
(and Other Lessons for the Haditha Hearings)

March 11, 2007

An Honest Investigation Would Have Cleared Lieutenant Pantano in Iraq (and Other Lessons for the Haditha Hearings)

Second Lieutenant Ilario Pantano was an outstanding Marine officer who did his job, including the hard business of killing the enemy, very well.

And then the government told him that he was a murderer.

On February 1, 2005, he was charged with premeditated murder and a host of other charges including dereliction of duty and damaging a terrorist’s car.

Not a single charge should have been made.

The lieutenant had shot and killed two detainees after they made a hostile move toward him. Lieutenant Pantano had warned them to stop in Arabic and English. An honest and fair investigation would have cleared Pantano and sent him back to his platoon.

Instead, a man (whose fitness report said was the best officer of his rank in the battalion) was disgraced, humiliated, and destroyed as a Marine. The emotional pain was greater than anything he’d experienced in combat. “This mental assault,” Lieutenant Pantano writes in his book, Warlord, “came from the NCIS.”

In April 2005, in an Article 32 hearing, Lieutenant Pantano’s lawyers proved that the government’s entire case was built on lies and distortions. The testimony against Lieutenant Pantano was purely vindictive, absolutely ludicrous, and easily demolished in the hearing by his defense attorneys.

The next month, Major General Richard Huck, dismissed all charges against him. With a straight face, the Public Affairs press release concluded, “The best interests of 2nd Lt. Pantano and the government have been served by this process.”

Oh, really?

Only our enemy was served when the government pulled an outstanding officer out of combat.  Only our enemy was served when Lieutenant Pantano's men were intimidated and grilled—made to turn over their computers and journals—shaken down and second-guessed in the midst of ambushes, IEDs and mortar attacks.

The Pantano case should have been a devastating embarrassment for the NCIS, perhaps even causing them to reevaluate their methods and mission. Instead, the NCIS "motherf---ers" (as Lieutenant Pantano calls them) have continued their questionable practices in Haditha and other investigations.

Outrageously, the NCIS has even claimed that they helped clear Lieutenant Pantano.

After the final summations in the hearing, a belated autopsy report partially disproved a single prosecution contention.

The government had argued that the two terrorist detainees had been shot in the back. The report, made possible by the field work of a NCIS agent, showed that one detainee--not both--had been shot in the back.

NCIS' claim of helping to clear Pantano has served to cover the agency’s failings. In reality, the autopsy report wasn’t of tremendous significance.

It was the entire case, prepared by the NCIS, that fell apart under scrutiny.

Today, we are only ten days away from the first Article 32 in the Haditha Marines case. The first to get a hearing will be Lieutenant Colonel Jeffery Chessani, a Marine who served in the invasion of Panama in 1989 and the first Gulf War in 1991.

No matter the outcome of his Article 32, like Lieutenant Pantano, Lieutenant Colonel Chessani has been destroyed as a Marine.

This seems like a good time to review some lessons learned from the Pantano case.

Lesson 1: NCIS investigators search for guilt, not for truth.

During the Lieutenant Pantano investigation, a corpsman, “Doc” Gobles, was interviewed about the incident. Gobles was one of two witnesses so his testimony was especially valuable.

Gobles told the agent he glimpsed movement before the shooting began. He thought the detainees were trying to flee.

The agent told Gobles he was wrong.

Lesson 2: NCIS does not give a Marine the benefit of the doubt. Agents will, however, believe anything anyone says against a Marine.

The principal witness in the Pantano case was Sergeant Daniel Coburn. His fitreps showed him to be an unstable and unfit Marine whose 13-year career was about to be terminated.

Lieutenant Pantano had relieved Coburn as a squad leader. Others in his platoon heard Coburn say that he hated Pantano and wanted him out of the way. None of this gave the NCIS agents a moment’s pause in taking Coburn’s word that Pantano was a cold-blooded killer.

Coburn’s testimony was easily demolished in court. He was revealed as a fool and a liar under cross-examination. Investigators who were actually seeking the truth would have discovered this for themselves.

Lesson 3: NCIS reports are a one-sided story.

During the investigation in Iraq, NCIS agents were offered negative testimony about Sergeant Coburn and positive testimony about Lieutenant Pantano. Neither was accepted or included in the NCIS report.

This is an excerpt from Lieutenant Pantano’s Article 32 hearing:

[DEFENSE ATTORNEY CHARLIE] GITTINS: So you actually saw the two Iraqi individuals that were in the car; correct?

[SERGEANT JUDD] WORD: Yes.

GITTINS: And you saw them leaning against the wall initially?

WORD: Yes.

GITTINS: And then you saw them run to the vehicle?

WORD: Yes.

GITTINS: You personally saw that with your own two eyes?

WORD: Yes.

GITTINS: And then they got in the vehicle and they drove away?

WORD: Yes.

GITTINS: And what was your conclusion about what they were trying to do at that time?

WORD: They were trying to get out of there.

GITTINS: Would you want to go to combat with Lieutenant Pantano again?

WORD: I would go to combat with him any day.

GITTINS: Were you interviewed by NCIS before you gave your testimony at some other point?

WORD: Yes, I was, several times.

GITTINS: For how long did NCIS interview you?

WORD: One time, it was just a quick briefing. They just wanted to know about Lieutenant Pantano s character. And the second time they interviewed me, they wanted to go through the details of what happened that day.

GITTINS: When they interviewed you about Lieutenant Pantano’s character, did you tell them the things that you told me today?

WORD: Yes, I did.

GITTINS: Did they ask you to create a sworn statement at that time?

WORD: They asked me to. The NCIS guy said he was going to type it up and bring it back for me to sign, but he never did.

GITTINS: So he never brought you anything to sign?

WORD: No.

….

GITTINS: Did they ask any questions about Sergeant Coburn’s character?

WORD: No, they did not.

GITTINS: So all they wanted to know was about Lieutenant Pantano’s character?

WORD: Yes.

Lesson 4: The NCIS is unfit to investigate Marines and evaluate their decisions in combat.

Away from his platoon (who would later suffer KIA, to the lieutenant’s helpless horror), Pantano describes what he felt:

I was sick in spirit, almost nauseous. I just couldn’t believe that after wasting those two f----s on the canal road this could possibly be happening. Was I supposed to let them kill me?…

Now there were NCIS agents here to question my character? It hurt. It really hurt—worse than any physical pain I’d ever suffered. I had to turn in my M-16. They were taking it with them. And I wasn’t sure why. Something about tests. I felt stripped, weak, and naked without that weapon. It had saved my life in Latafiyah, all along the Zulu perimeter, and in Fallujah.

Now they’d seized it from me. What if there was a big QRF? What if my former platoon stepped deep into the ambush s--- and we had to send every spare Marine who could shoot a rifle to save them? What would I shoot?

The priceless irony of course was that the dirty, beat-up 9 mm Beretta pistol I was issued to replace my M-16 had come hot off the thigh of Lance Corporal Simental. The soft-faced boy, always quick to help, had kept Easy Company’s communications running until he had been blown up by an IED. He had lost his leg, so he wouldn’t be needing a pistol anymore.

It got worse. Back in the states, in the battalion XO’s office, Lieutenant Pantano read the charges against him. As he writes in Warlord:

The charges went on and on for two pages of articles 109, 118, and 133. Words like “... with premeditation, murder ... by means of shooting him with an M16A4 service rifle . . .”

I looked up, my eyes running with tears. I had to shake my head to clear the disbelief and went back to reading.

“... on or about 15 April 2004, willfully and wrongfully damage an automobile by slashing four (4) tires, smashing headlights and taillights, and smashing the rear window, of an aggregate value of less than $500.00.”

 “Sir, they are charging me—” I had to take another breath. “They are charging me for disabling a bomber's car? Sir, they ... five hundred dollars ... Sir ... Do they. . . ?”

Another breath and an internal scramble to regain my composure.

“Sir, do they know how many Marines these things kill every day? What's happening here? Has anyone told them there is a war going on out there?”

My voice was now more outrage than disbelief.

“Ilario. I'm sorry.” [Major Dixon said]

Then he added, “Get a lawyer.”

Lesson 5: NCIS, and prosecutions based on their investigations, is not helping us win in Iraq.

The NCIS’ investigation of Lieutenant Pantano cost him his career and dragged a hero of the Iraq war through the mud. He and his family can never totally recover from it.

As Charlie Gittins said in his summation at the hearing, “The worst thing that could have happened to Lieutenant Pantano is that he was removed from his platoon. That was a punishment beyond words, because he was in combat with a platoon that loved him, that he loved, that he promised the families that he was going to bring their boys back.”

In the final analysis, the investigation and prosecution cost America an outstanding officer and Marine who was helping us win the war in Iraq.

The prosecution of the Haditha Marines multiplies that cost by eight.

 

David Allender

Defend Our Marines