Propaganda in Haditha: Al Qaeda's
victory keeps on giving
by Nathaniel R. Helms
November 1, 2007 – Words
and pictures used by al Qaeda fighters after the incident in Haditha
inflicted more harm to the Marine Corps than the bullets
and shrapnel on November 19, 2005 that killed one Marine and wounded eleven others.
The impact of the insurgents ingenious propaganda campaign is still
wounding the Marine Corps almost two years after al Qaeda agents spoon
fed their artfully conceived deception to the gullible Western press.
war crimes expert and author H. Wayne Elliott says al Qaeda’s
brilliant campaign of lies was also a violation of the Geneva
Convention and international law because al Qaeda agents responsible
for disseminating images of the dead Iraqis to Western and Arabic news
outlets obviously intended to inflame emotions and ignite smoldering
passions by using images of dead women and children to incite further
Elliott, a retired Judge Advocate General Corps lawyer, and protégée
of renowned war crimes expert W. Hays Park, said that taking
photographs of dead civilians for intelligence purposes was perfectly
legal, but using them for either propaganda or purely prurient
interests was a violation of the Geneva Convention and US military
customs and law.
Geneva Convention only applies to the living,” Elliott said during a
telephone interview. “The instant people are killed they are no longer
viewed as individuals. They are objects because they are dead and the
Geneva Convention no longer applies.
crime is committed only when pictures of the dead are used for
propaganda purposes. For example, using pictures of dead people to
incite violence or influence opinion such as what happened in Bosnia
or Somalia, or what is occurring in Iraq, is a war crime because it
affects people that are living.”
offered his opinions in a telephone interview last Friday regarding
Marine Corps First Lieutenant Andrew A. Grayson, charged with covering
up and lying about war crimes he allegedly perpetrated at Haditha.
Ironically, Grayson, 26, is charged with three criminal complaints for
ordering a subordinate to destroy digital images of dead Iraqi
civilians killed in the battle between Marines and insurgents at
Haditha so they couldn’t be exploited.
strange case against Lt Grayson
According to Elliott, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel who taught military attorneys the laws of armed conflict, keeping and
using photographs of the dead civilians for anything other than
intelligence purposes is a violation of both the Geneva Convention and
US military law.
government asserts Grayson gave the order to conceal evidence of a
crime although he had no way of knowing a criminal investigation would
ensue in the future, according to his civilian attorney Joseph Casas,
once a Navy JAG.
referred to an essay he originally wrote in Army Lawyer magazine called “Dead and Wounded” to clarify his perspective. The
condensed version of his paper was later incorporated into an Internet
Crimes of War: The Book.
are no hard and fast answers....If the dead are
left on the field solely so that they might be seen by journalists or
photographed, that is stronger evidence that the threshold of
mistreatment is near. If the dead are placed on display as propaganda
(dragging the bodies through the streets as occurred in Somalia is a
ready example), then the threshold has been crossed and a war crime
has been clearly committed,” he wrote.
Elliott’s analysis flies in the face of government allegations that
Grayson violated the law by ordering subordinate Staff Sergeant Justin
Laughner to destroy digital camera pictures he took after a battle
between an ambushed squad of Marine infantrymen and an al Qaeda-led
images showed the immediate aftermath of the battle in which the men,
women and children died. At the time, Laughlin was a
counter-intelligence specialist with 2nd Counter-Intelligence HUMINT
(Human Intelligence) Company. Both he and Grayson were tasked with gathering
information about the Haditha
ambush and subsequent battle.
is tentatively scheduled to stand before an Article 32 investigating
officer beginning November 12 at Camp Pendleton to determine whether
there is evidence to charge him with dereliction of duty, obstruction
of justice, and making a false statement for his role in the Haditha
battle. Each of those charges comes with the possibility of five
years' prison time and dismissal from the service.
is the last Marine among eight who were originally charged last
December 21 with war crimes who has not been examined in the Article
32 investigatory process. Four of the Marines charged have been
exonerated, two face courts-martial, and Grayson and an enlisted
Marine are still waiting to discover their fates.
the fighting at Haditha, 24 Iraqis were
killed. Seven of the dead Iraqis were identified as insurgent
fighters and at least one civilian women detained that day was
suspected of being an insurgent agent. Pictures and other physical
evidence pertaining to the suspected insurgents was obtained and
recorded. Some of it – including captured weapons and bogus Jordanian
passports crucial to the defense – later disappeared.
claims he ordered the pictures of the dead civilians destroyed after
he determined they were without any intelligence value. He claims he
had a responsibility to issue the order to Laughlin to remain in
accordance with standing orders not to take or keep casualty pictures
for personal reasons. Laughlin has already testified he thought
Grayson was ordering him to destroy evidence of a possible war crime.
Two months ago Grayson declined a government plea deal which required
him to admit that he covered up the killings in Haditha in exchange
for having all charges against him dismissed.
believes the politics of the controversial case have compromised
reason. The Haditha incident has polarized both military and political
figures and is a rallying point for opposition to the war in
think that there are a lot of politics involved in this case at a
much, much higher level than Andrew," Casas said last summer.
Testimony and physical evidence already introduced during the
summer-long inquiry revealed that Time magazine was duped by
insurgent counter-intelligence operatives into accepting and
publishing the videotaped images of Iraqi citizens killed at Haditha
for propaganda purposes. On March 6, 2006 Time magazine
published a story using images recovered from the insurgent-produced
video purportedly showing the aftermath of a murderous rampage by Marines.
month before Time published its report, insurgent
counter-intelligence operatives Thaer Thabit al-Hadithi and Abdul-Rahman
al-Mashhadani – sole members of the so-called Hammurabi Human Rights
Association – provided the inflammatory video tape to McGirk. For more
than a year the Marine Corps resisted revealing it knew of the Iraqis’
plot to prevent disclosing the Marine Corps highly classified signals
McGirk’s flawed report inspired world-wide condemnation of the Marine
Corps and the Coalition-led war effort. Remarkably, McGirk never
personally went to the scene of the alleged crimes to discover for
himself what happened. He relied solely on the Iraqis for evidence
that mass murder had been committed. McGirk’s intransigence was an
unusual development in an extraordinary case. Usually journals of
record and international reputation insist on close scrutiny and
multiple sources to verify the veracity of controversial news reports.
report almost completely ignored that the embattled Marines from Kilo
Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines were in a
crucible of deadly fire for an entire day after a squad of 12 Marines
from Third Platoon endured an IED ambush in which a fourth of their
number was killed or wounded in the opening seconds of the fight. Nor
did McGirk mention then or later that, in the days following the fight,
11 insurgents identified as part of the al Qaeda inspired plan to
attack the Marines to precipitate civilian casualties were either
killed or captured by Coalition forces. Had he met with the 3/1 staff
he would have been briefed, Marine Corps documents show.
Ultimately eight Marines from 3rd Battalion, 1st
Marines were charged with murder or cover up after Pennsylvania
Congressman John Murtha, himself a former Marine, used McGirk’s
specious evidence to accuse the Marines of unprovoked, cold-blooded
murder in the international press. Battalion commander Lt Col. Jeffrey
Chessani was relieved and later charged with masterminding a cover up
of the incident. Three of his officers were similarly charged and
three senior officers were censured, their careers destroyed. Four
Marine enlisted men were charged with multiple murder and aggravated
Like-minded reporters and pundits looking for a spectacular story –
New York Times reporter Paul von
Zeilbauer called Haditha the “defining atrocity” of the war – followed Murtha’s lead. For more than a year network wags and
uninformed newspaper reporters compared the civilian deaths at Haditha
to the massacre of hundreds on innocent civilians at My Lai, South
Vietnam four decades ago. The incident at Haditha remains a huge
propaganda victory for the insurgents.
of Time magazine and Tim McGirk’s reports claim his stories
were published to damage the credibility of the Marine Corps and
further Time’s unabashed anti-war agenda. Undoubtedly, dozens of
Marines already said, the news stories his reports inspired did
immeasurable harm to an organization in which honor and integrity are
fundamental building blocks.
Seasoned Marine officers with years of intense combat experience
routinely argue that the Haditha tribunal has impaired the combat
efficiency of the most assertive military force in the United States
arsenal. They say that the very fact Grayson’s investigation has gone
forward is itself evidence of the success of the Iraqi insurgency’s
brilliant counter-intelligence coup.
magazine officials and Tim McGirk have declined numerous requests to
answer the charges.
media influence investigators?
Criminal Investigation Service forensic consultant,
former defendant LCpl Justin Sharratt’s Article 32 hearing that the
investigative team read media
accounts of the incident before beginning their investigation. It is
obvious from their subsequent testimony it colored at least one
agent’s perception of events.
the Article 32 hearing of exonerated Marine Justin Sharratt on June
12, 2007, NCIS Special Agent Mark Platt
revealed his apparent bias
under questioning by Sharratt’s attorney, James Culp. At the time Culp was cross-examining
Platt about the solatia payments (money given to the families of
Iraqis killed by Marines) that a 3/1 officer paid to families of the
Q. And when you interrogated or
interviewed people, do you try to make yourself aware of what motives
they may have to fabricate?
A. Of course.
Q. Did you know whether or not the
people who lived in houses three and four had received any solatia
payments at this time?
A. At the time I conducted the
interviews of the two women in house four, I was not aware of any
solatia payments being made to them.
Q. My question is: Did you think that
they had not been paid at that point?
A. I was not aware of whether or not
they had been paid.
Q. Did you ask whether or not they had
A. No, I did not.
Q. Though it would be important as
regards to their motive to fabricate perhaps?
A. I wouldn't say that, no.
Q. You wouldn't say seeking solatia
payments may affect their credibility?
A. I think the pain and suffering of
their husbands being murdered literally right in front of them was
more severe than the $1,500 that the United States government --
Q. So now we get to the issue, Agent
Platt. Isn't it true that the reason you didn't go investigate why
Kahtan was working on the border is because you thought there had been
a murder? Isn't that true?
A. That is not true.
Q. You didn't think there had been a
murder when you investigated on 29 March?
A. I knew individuals had been killed.
I didn't know whether or not it was a murder.
Q. Well, on 6 April, when you decided
not to ask about solatia payments, you thought there was a murder
A. No, I did not.
Q. I thought you just said that the
reason you thought that solatia payments couldn't affect their
credibility is because they were upset about their family members
A. I misspoke. I should have stated
that they were upset with their family members being killed.
Q. Why did you use the word "murder?"
Did you think there was a murder?
A. I misspoke.
Evidence already submitted to Lt. Gen James N. Mattis, currently the
convening authority and final arbiter in Grayson’s case, shows that
Marine Corps signals intercept specialists heard the insurgents
planning to videotape the aftermath of the battle before the first
ambush was sprung.
would rather get shot...than kill the
enemy, face a court-martial, and spend the rest of my life in
Ironically, Grayson was a designated hero at Haditha for foiling two
other planned IED attacks included in the complex al Qaeda attack
plan. For his efforts Grayson was recommended for the Bronze Star. The
recommendation for his award was being processed the same time the
investigation into allegations of murder and cover up were being
conducted, Casas said.
the overwhelming evidence to the contrary that has already been
introduced, the government doggedly maintains that 17 men, women and
children were intentionally gunned down by Marines from 3rd
Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st
Marines in retaliation for the death of Marine LCpl Miguel Terrazas.
The young Marine rifleman was killed by an IED ambush at the beginning
of the battle. Laughlin, who arrived after the battle was over to take
pictures, was granted government immunity from prosecution to testify
Sharratt, a savvy combat Marine who performed meritoriously at
Fallujah the preceding year was later exonerated by Lt. Gen. Mattis.
In his decision the general warned that “our nation is fighting a
shadowy enemy who hides among the innocent people, does not comply
with any aspect of the law of war, and routinely targets and
intentionally draws fire toward civilians."
counter-intelligence specialists from the 2d Intelligence Battalion
Marines assigned to 3/1 during and after the battle determined that
the incident at Haditha was financed and led by al Qaeda foreign
fighters who led well paid local Wahabi fundamentalists to create
maximum mayhem and death among defenseless Iraqi families. The
counter-intelligence specialists findings, attached as an exhibit to
the “secret” investigation conducted by US Army Major General Eldon
Bargewell last year, was never disclosed by the Washington Post
or any other mainstream media organization that was privy to it last
April after it was leaked.
James Culp, a
Desert Storm veteran and former Army paratrooper who represents
several soldiers and Marines prosecuted for war crimes, said the impact of al Qaeda’s propaganda war on
the trigger-pullers in Iraq and Afghanistan is incalculable.
measure is a Marine who Culp spoke with recently. The Marine told him, “I
would rather get shot, get a Purple Heart and sent home, than kill the
enemy, face a court-martial, and spend the rest of my life in
Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
1 November 2007
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).