Memo Reveals Military's View of Reporter Probing Atrocity

By: Greg Mitchell Six weeks ago, at the military hearings probing the killing of 24 civilians in Haditha in November 2005, a Marine officer testified about his view of the initial questions about the incident, and possible coverup, raised by the Time magazine reporter who broke the case.

The questions from Tim McGirk clearly provoked more rage than a determination to look into the evidence offered by eyewitnesses.

First Lt. Adam P. Mathes, then the executive officer of Company K, said he other officers had dismissed the reporter's queries, feeling they were ''sensational'' and politically inspired -- McGirk clearly had an "antiwar agenda," he alleged.

''The questions were questionable,'' Mathes said. ''It sounded like bad, negative spin. We tried to weed out the grievances that Mr. McGirk had against the Bush administration....This guy is looking for blood, because blood leads headlines.''

Troubling, and revealing, details on that view of McGirk ? and likely any probing by any reporter into a possible massacre ? surfaced this week when the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times published excerpts from a five-page memo produced by Mathes and three other officers in January 2006 in response to McGirk?s questions.

Stonewalling by the military contributed to the Haditha story remaining largely unexplored by the press for several weeks after the sketchy revelations by McGirk in Time. Extensive coverage only ensued after Rep. John Murtha raised the issue in interviews in May 2006.

But McGirk would accomplish what the memo writers most feared: that he would ?spurn a reaction from the command that will initiate an investigation.? Later that year, the Marine Corps would charge three enlisted men with murder, and four officers with dereliction of duty for failing to determine how and why the Iraqis were killed.

The memo surfaced in one of the military hearings, according to Times reporter Paul von Zielbauer. The Los Angeles Times quoted from part of it last week. Here are a few portions of the Times? excerpts published on Sunday.

McGirk: How many marines were killed and wounded in the I.E.D. attack that morning?

Memo: If it bleeds, it leads. This question is McGirk?s attempt to get good bloody gouge on the situation. He will most likely use the information he gains from this answer as an attention gainer.
McGirk: Were there any officers?

Memo: By asking if there was an officer on scene the reporter may be trying to identify a point of blame for lack of judgment. If there was an officer involved, then he may be able to have his My Lai massacre pinned on that officer?s shoulders. ...

In the reporter?s eyes, military officers may represent the U.S. government and enlisted marines may represent the American People. Given the current political climate in the U.S. at this time concerning the Iraq war and the current administration?s conduct of the war, the reporter would most likely seek to discredit the U.S. government (one of our officers) and expose victimization of the American people by the hand of the government (the enlisted marines under the haphazard command of our ?rogue officer.?) Unfortunately for McGirk, this is not the case.

One common tactic used by reporters is to spin a story in such a way that it is easily recognized and remembered by the general population through its association with an event that the general population is familiar with or can relate to. For example, McGirk?s story will sell if it can be spun as ?Iraq?s My Lai massacre.? Since there was not an officer involved, this attempt will not go very far.

We must be on guard, though, of the reporter?s attempt to spin the story to sound like incidents from well-known war movies, like ?Platoon.?
[Colonel Chessani later shortened this answer to ?No.?]

McGirk: How many marines were involved in the killings?

Memo: First off, we don?t know what you?re talking about when you say ?killings.? One of our squads reinforced by a squad of Iraqi Army soldiers were engaged by an enemy initiated ambush on the 19th that killed one American marine and seriously injured two others. We will not justify that question with a response. Theme: Legitimate engagement: we will not acknowledge this reporter?s attempt to stain the engagement with the misnomer ?killings.?

McGirk: Were there any weapons found during these house raids ? or terrorists ? where the killings occurred?

Memo: Again, you are showing yourself to be uneducated in the world of contemporary insurgent combat. The subject about which we are speaking was a legitimate engagement initiated by the enemy. ...

McGirk: Is there any investigation ongoing into these civilian deaths, and if so have any marines been formally charged?

Memo: No, the engagement was bona fide combat action. ... By asking this question, McGirk is assuming the engagement was a LOAC [Law of Armed Conflict] violation and that by asking about investigations, he may spurn a reaction from the command that will initiate an investigation.

McGirk: Are the marines in this unit still serving in Haditha?

Memo: Yes, we are still fighting terrorists of Al Qaida in Iraq in Haditha. (?Fighting terrorists associated with Al Qaida? is stronger language than ?serving.? The American people will side more with someone actively fighting a terrorist organization that is tied to 9/11 than with someone who is idly ?serving,? like in a way one ?serves? a casserole. It?s semantics, but in reporting and journalism, words spin the story.)


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