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.

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“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.

RIAT’s role

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 documents revealed.

The concept was eventually adopted Marine Corps wide.

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.

Nightmare set 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 two others.

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 RIAT component.

Pool 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 happened.

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 Colonel Davis.

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.”

Colonel Ewers to be questioned by the defense

Two 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 incident.

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 conclusions.

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 23-year career.

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 team.

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.”

Gibson declined to answer further inquiries.


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).