Haditha: When a Picture Cannot Tell the Whole Story

I have no inside knowledge of what happened in Haditha, of course, but I can examine media stories for sourcing and quality of reporting. When the reports in Time Magazine and others are subjected to close scrutiny, there is much less solid evidence than one would expect a major media enterprise would require before making sensational charges against our military in wartime. All the more reason to presume the Marines' innocence until proven guilty, and to read with suspicion reports that condemn Kilo Company's actions in Haditha.

Although Time has already had to issue 3 corrections, I have more questions about other sources for the original story about a 'massacre' in Haditha.

One of the most damning reports about Haditha was Time's report on Haditha which, as noted earlier, the magazine has now corrected:

The Haditha Scandal's Other Casualty

With the Pentagon completing its probe into whether U.S. forces massacred civilians one November morning in Western Iraq, the damage to America's image abroad could take a further hit

By MATTHEW COOPER/WASHINGTON

Posted Friday, May. 26, 2006

In the original version of this story, TIME reported that "one of the most damning pieces of evidence investigators have in their possession, John Sifton of Human Rights Watch told Time's Tim McGirk, is a photo, taken by a Marine with his cell phone that shows Iraqis kneeling — and thus posing no threat — before they were shot." While Sifton did tell TIME that there was photographic evidence, taken by Marines, he had only heard about the specific content of the photos from reports done by NBC, and had no firsthand knowledge. TIME regrets the error. 

I e—mailed John Sifton and asked him to tell me in his own words what he had reported to Time. He promptly answered.

Here is the substance of his reply on the 'photo, taken by a Marine with his cell phone that shows Iraqis kneeling—and thus posing no threat—before they were shot':

I told Time magazine in May the same thing I told a whole set of journalists: that multiple sources in the military told Human Rights Watch in [M]ay that Navy NCIS investigators have photographic evidence supporting their conclusion that some of the Iraqi civilians killed on November 19 in Haditha were intentionally murdered, and not accidentally shot.  [Emphasis added]

I also mentioned to Time magazine (as well as several other journalists) a fact which they didn't know: that NBC Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski and NPR's Tom Bowman had been told by NCIS investigators about one photograph in particular, and had described it in reports about the Haditha allegations. As Miklaszewski reported on May 17:

'But military officials say Marine Corps photos taken immediately after the incident show many of the victims were shot at close range in the head and chest, execution style. One photo shows a mother and young child bent over on the floor as if in prayer, shot dead. One military official familiar with the investigation says it appears the civilians were deliberately killed by the Marines who were outraged at the death of their fellow Marine.'

It now appears that Time Magazine mixed up their reporting, possibly conflating and then confusing what I said with what others had reported.  I wouldn't know: you would need to ask Time for a further explanation of how they misquoted me.

Absent photographs of our troops actually shooting the Haditha residents, I don't see how what he says 'multiple sources in the military told Human Rights Watch.'—that they had photographic evidence that the civilians had been 'intentionally murdered'—can be true.  Clearing operations would certainly kill civilians who might be in various postures when they died by shrapnel or arms fire.Equally problematic, not only are the sources kept anonymous, but so are the recipients of those 'reports' so I cannot comment further on the truth of the assertion that military sources told anything to Human Rights Watch.

But the MSNBC and NPR articles Sifton refers to in the second paragraph are online and can be checked. (I have also asked Jim Miklaszewski for more details but have not yet heard from him.)

Here is the NPR report's the sole reference to photos or videos:

The government official says the investigative file includes photos and videotape of the dead taken inside the four houses. Some of the photos and video were taken by Marines, others by Iraqis. The pictures, says the official, "are about as bad as I've ever seen."

There is no clue in this report who 'the government official' cited is. The term is, of course, a broad one, which could cover many people in and outside the military.

The MSNBC reporting on the photos in the original story was interwoven with the charges leveled against the troops by Congressman Murtha:

"Military officials say Marine Corp photos taken immediately after the incident show many of the victims were shot at close range, in the head and chest, execution—style. One photo shows a mother and young child bent over on the floor as if in prayer, shot dead, said the officials, who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity because the investigation hasn't been completed.
One military official says it appears the civilians were deliberately killed by the Marines, who were outraged at the death of their fellow Marine.

'This one is ugly," one official told NBC News" 

Such photographs might be 'ugly', but they do not prove a deliberate massacre occurred nor, of course, the motive of whoever shot these people. The phrase 'at close range' implies execution, but is almost meaningless, given that the shooting occurred inside a house or apartment, unless there are powder burns or stippling evident in the photographs.

If the Washington Post report that the Marines entered these houses because they were taking fire from them is true, and their report that they followed the standard procedure of tossing in grenades and shooting to clear the houses is also true, I do not see how these still photos, without more than this description, could disprove that account. It would certainly be an unfortunate incident of collateral casualties, but it hardly establishes that the deaths were the result of a deliberate act of revenge rather than the normal consequence of an attack on the troops from these homes and a close quarter military response to protect the troops from further harm.

Did NCIS investigators leak selectively from reports of an ongoing investigation as Sifton indicates they did? (Sifton says the NPR and MSNBC reports indicate that, but they do not in fact mention NCIS.)

I find the claim of NCIS leaks unlikely and asked an online JOM friend, vnjagvet, with JAG experience. He agrees with me and says it is unlikely.

Here is NCIS's mission statement from its website:

In support of its mission—to prevent and solve crimes that threaten the warfighting capability of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps—NCIS pursues three strategic priorities: Prevent Terrorism, Protect Secrets, and Reduce Crime. NCIS' entire mission is supported by the Multiple Threat Alert Center and Infrastructure Protection/Computer Investigations.

It may be that a Navy SJA , on behalf of or with instructions from the C/O charged with overseeing the Iraq theatre, requested NCIS to investigate the incident.  If so, that officer would have reviewed the report, recommended action to his/her commanding officer, and awaited instructions.  Perhaps the C/O sent all the way it to the Pentagon for advice and counsel because of its political sensitivity.  At any rate, it is highly unlikely that the individual authorizing the investigation authorized selective leaking.  It is equally unlikely that the NCIS team leaked a portion of its report.

So, if the MSNBC and NPR reports were not from NCIS, where did these early 'inside' reports come from?

Did they come from Congressman John Murtha, citing confidential material he'd received, and were they then sourced by the reporters as though they'd received the information directly?

Were these reporters, like Time, given that information from Sifton and then reported as if they'd received it directly from military sources.
 
Or, did someone or some people in the Pentagon who saw the report for one reason or another, selectively leak information from it to those who made use of it for political purposes?

Now, it is obvious to me that many on the left seem to think the military are brutes who may be attacked at will, as they are merely tools of the administration with no individual rights worth preserving. But if the leaks did in fact come from Pentagon officials, I want to know. Don't you? Shouldn't the Secretary of Defense also want to know?

And if the reports did not come directly from military officials, I'd like to know why MSNBC and NPR reported them in a way which suggested they had come from such sources.

Clarice Feldman is an attorney in Washington, DC and a frequent contributor.

I have no inside knowledge of what happened in Haditha, of course, but I can examine media stories for sourcing and quality of reporting. When the reports in Time Magazine and others are subjected to close scrutiny, there is much less solid evidence than one would expect a major media enterprise would require before making sensational charges against our military in wartime. All the more reason to presume the Marines' innocence until proven guilty, and to read with suspicion reports that condemn Kilo Company's actions in Haditha.

Although Time has already had to issue 3 corrections, I have more questions about other sources for the original story about a 'massacre' in Haditha.

One of the most damning reports about Haditha was Time's report on Haditha which, as noted earlier, the magazine has now corrected:

The Haditha Scandal's Other Casualty

With the Pentagon completing its probe into whether U.S. forces massacred civilians one November morning in Western Iraq, the damage to America's image abroad could take a further hit

By MATTHEW COOPER/WASHINGTON

Posted Friday, May. 26, 2006

In the original version of this story, TIME reported that "one of the most damning pieces of evidence investigators have in their possession, John Sifton of Human Rights Watch told Time's Tim McGirk, is a photo, taken by a Marine with his cell phone that shows Iraqis kneeling — and thus posing no threat — before they were shot." While Sifton did tell TIME that there was photographic evidence, taken by Marines, he had only heard about the specific content of the photos from reports done by NBC, and had no firsthand knowledge. TIME regrets the error. 

I e—mailed John Sifton and asked him to tell me in his own words what he had reported to Time. He promptly answered.

Here is the substance of his reply on the 'photo, taken by a Marine with his cell phone that shows Iraqis kneeling—and thus posing no threat—before they were shot':

I told Time magazine in May the same thing I told a whole set of journalists: that multiple sources in the military told Human Rights Watch in [M]ay that Navy NCIS investigators have photographic evidence supporting their conclusion that some of the Iraqi civilians killed on November 19 in Haditha were intentionally murdered, and not accidentally shot.  [Emphasis added]

I also mentioned to Time magazine (as well as several other journalists) a fact which they didn't know: that NBC Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski and NPR's Tom Bowman had been told by NCIS investigators about one photograph in particular, and had described it in reports about the Haditha allegations. As Miklaszewski reported on May 17:

'But military officials say Marine Corps photos taken immediately after the incident show many of the victims were shot at close range in the head and chest, execution style. One photo shows a mother and young child bent over on the floor as if in prayer, shot dead. One military official familiar with the investigation says it appears the civilians were deliberately killed by the Marines who were outraged at the death of their fellow Marine.'

It now appears that Time Magazine mixed up their reporting, possibly conflating and then confusing what I said with what others had reported.  I wouldn't know: you would need to ask Time for a further explanation of how they misquoted me.

Absent photographs of our troops actually shooting the Haditha residents, I don't see how what he says 'multiple sources in the military told Human Rights Watch.'—that they had photographic evidence that the civilians had been 'intentionally murdered'—can be true.  Clearing operations would certainly kill civilians who might be in various postures when they died by shrapnel or arms fire.Equally problematic, not only are the sources kept anonymous, but so are the recipients of those 'reports' so I cannot comment further on the truth of the assertion that military sources told anything to Human Rights Watch.

But the MSNBC and NPR articles Sifton refers to in the second paragraph are online and can be checked. (I have also asked Jim Miklaszewski for more details but have not yet heard from him.)

Here is the NPR report's the sole reference to photos or videos:

The government official says the investigative file includes photos and videotape of the dead taken inside the four houses. Some of the photos and video were taken by Marines, others by Iraqis. The pictures, says the official, "are about as bad as I've ever seen."

There is no clue in this report who 'the government official' cited is. The term is, of course, a broad one, which could cover many people in and outside the military.

The MSNBC reporting on the photos in the original story was interwoven with the charges leveled against the troops by Congressman Murtha:

"Military officials say Marine Corp photos taken immediately after the incident show many of the victims were shot at close range, in the head and chest, execution—style. One photo shows a mother and young child bent over on the floor as if in prayer, shot dead, said the officials, who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity because the investigation hasn't been completed.
One military official says it appears the civilians were deliberately killed by the Marines, who were outraged at the death of their fellow Marine.

'This one is ugly," one official told NBC News" 

Such photographs might be 'ugly', but they do not prove a deliberate massacre occurred nor, of course, the motive of whoever shot these people. The phrase 'at close range' implies execution, but is almost meaningless, given that the shooting occurred inside a house or apartment, unless there are powder burns or stippling evident in the photographs.

If the Washington Post report that the Marines entered these houses because they were taking fire from them is true, and their report that they followed the standard procedure of tossing in grenades and shooting to clear the houses is also true, I do not see how these still photos, without more than this description, could disprove that account. It would certainly be an unfortunate incident of collateral casualties, but it hardly establishes that the deaths were the result of a deliberate act of revenge rather than the normal consequence of an attack on the troops from these homes and a close quarter military response to protect the troops from further harm.

Did NCIS investigators leak selectively from reports of an ongoing investigation as Sifton indicates they did? (Sifton says the NPR and MSNBC reports indicate that, but they do not in fact mention NCIS.)

I find the claim of NCIS leaks unlikely and asked an online JOM friend, vnjagvet, with JAG experience. He agrees with me and says it is unlikely.

Here is NCIS's mission statement from its website:

In support of its mission—to prevent and solve crimes that threaten the warfighting capability of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps—NCIS pursues three strategic priorities: Prevent Terrorism, Protect Secrets, and Reduce Crime. NCIS' entire mission is supported by the Multiple Threat Alert Center and Infrastructure Protection/Computer Investigations.

It may be that a Navy SJA , on behalf of or with instructions from the C/O charged with overseeing the Iraq theatre, requested NCIS to investigate the incident.  If so, that officer would have reviewed the report, recommended action to his/her commanding officer, and awaited instructions.  Perhaps the C/O sent all the way it to the Pentagon for advice and counsel because of its political sensitivity.  At any rate, it is highly unlikely that the individual authorizing the investigation authorized selective leaking.  It is equally unlikely that the NCIS team leaked a portion of its report.

So, if the MSNBC and NPR reports were not from NCIS, where did these early 'inside' reports come from?

Did they come from Congressman John Murtha, citing confidential material he'd received, and were they then sourced by the reporters as though they'd received the information directly?

Were these reporters, like Time, given that information from Sifton and then reported as if they'd received it directly from military sources.
 
Or, did someone or some people in the Pentagon who saw the report for one reason or another, selectively leak information from it to those who made use of it for political purposes?

Now, it is obvious to me that many on the left seem to think the military are brutes who may be attacked at will, as they are merely tools of the administration with no individual rights worth preserving. But if the leaks did in fact come from Pentagon officials, I want to know. Don't you? Shouldn't the Secretary of Defense also want to know?

And if the reports did not come directly from military officials, I'd like to know why MSNBC and NPR reported them in a way which suggested they had come from such sources.

Clarice Feldman is an attorney in Washington, DC and a frequent contributor.