U.S., Italy Issue Reports on Checkpoint Death
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KWAME HOLMAN: Some facts are not in dispute. Nicola Calpari, an Italian secret agent, was killed in March by U.S. troops at a highway checkpoint on the notoriously dangerous road to the Baghdad Airport.
Calipari was escorting an Italian hostage he had just helped free, journalist Giuliana Sgrena. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi presented the news to a country that just was beginning to celebrate Sgrena’s release.
SILVIO BERLUSCONI (Translated): The car came to an American checkpoint. A crossfire started. Several shots hit the car. The chief police officer, Nicola Calpari, covered Ms. Sgrena with his body, and was unfortunately hit by a mortal bullet. A piece of shrapnel hit Ms. Sgrena on her left shoulder.
KWAME HOLMAN: Italians were outraged at Calipari’s death, and mourned openly at vigils around the country.
MAN (Translated): This person who died had a deep sense of duty, and we need people like that. He was not a hero. He just was a hard worker who had a deep sense of duty. And that’s very important.
KWAME HOLMAN: His funeral became a state occasion, and drew the nation’s leaders and massive crowds to Rome. The national reaction put added pressure on Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi to withdraw Italy’s 3,000 troops from Iraq. Two weeks later, he suggested some phased withdrawals might begin later in the year.
Initially, the U.S. and Italy launched a joint investigation into the shooting, as both Americans and Italians took turns searching the bullet-ridden car for answers. But they could not agree on conclusions, and issued separate reports. The American report was issued Saturday, with many portions blacked out for security reasons. Because of a computer glitch, the entire document was soon available on numerous Web sites.
It exonerated seven U.S. soldiers at the checkpoint, and said Calipari’s car was speeding and its driver ignored a warning shot. But Giuliana Sgrena, who was a passenger in the car, disputed that.
GIULIANA SGRENA (Translated): The Pentagon says that the American soldiers have no responsibility since they respected all the rules. They also affirm that they used every possible means to stop us and we didn’t, so they shot us. This is absolutely untrue. There was no alert.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Italian government report issued late last night dominated the Italian press today. It blamed American troops, describing them as stressed and inexperienced. And it criticized the American roadblock procedures.
JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: For more on the competing versions of this event we turn to two reporters covering the U.S. and Italian investigations. Ann Scott Tyson covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post and Maurizio Molinari is a columnist for the Italian newspaper La Stampa. Welcome to you both.
Ann Tyson, should we read the U.S. report as a complete exoneration of what the American soldiers did that night?
ANN SCOTT TYSON: I don’t think you can say it’s complete. I mean, it did not recommend any kind of punishment of the soldiers. That wasn’t really its intent. It did, though, say that there should be a thorough review of checkpoint procedures to ensure that there were clear warning signs.
And as well as the procedures for setting up what they call blocking positions to stop vehicles at an adequate distance and give them appropriate warning. So, certainly, that was a major conclusion of the U.S. investigation.
MARGARET WARNER: And Maurizio Molinari, the Italian report went further and really faults the soldiers themselves?
MAURIZIO MOLINARI: Yes, this is correct. According to the Italian report, the responsibility of the soldiers was, in fact, that they lacked the essential experience to manage this kind of checkpoint.
MARGARET WARNER: Meaning what? That they overreacted?
MAURIZIO MOLINARI: No, that they were not able to deal with an emergency situation. According to the text, to the Italian text, we are speaking about a group of soldiers that almost just arrived in that position and they had no experience to deal with a surprise situation.
And more than these, the other thing that the Italians are pointing out is that in the proximity of the checkpoint there were not enough clear signs showing that the soldiers were there. So, meaning that the car that was coming with Nicola Calpari and Giuliana Sgrena and the other “007″ had no way to know that the soldiers were there.
MARGARET WARNER: And Ann Tyson, how does the American report deal with this question of whether these soldiers were too young or inexperienced in that field?
ANN SCOTT TYSON: Well, it doesn’t indicate that they were young or inexperienced. I mean, the U.S. report presents a context. It does describe in great detail the dangers that U.S. troops have faced on that road, the number of times — and some of this is in the classified section that was inadvertently released — the number of attacks that this unit and others had experienced on the road.
It also provides some interesting detail in saying that the unit was to establish a blocking position for the passage of the U.S. ambassador. And they were also in that position for much longer than they expected to be. Now, that did contribute to a sense of nervousness because the commander of those U.S. forces felt that if his troops were in a static position for longer than 15 minutes, that they could be at risk. And they were there for well over an hour.
So, I think that the report does reflect that there’s a clear sense of danger and that the troops may have been somewhat nervous, but they had been there for a while. They had stopped already dozens of vehicles. So, it’s sort of a mixed picture providing a lot of context.
MARGARET WARNER: Maurizio, one big point of contention when this thing happened in March was the degree of communication. And the Italians initially were insisting that they had kept the American military authorities fully informed of Mr. Calipari’s movements, what he was up to, that they were on the way to the airport. I think Berlusconi even says that to the Italian parliament. But I gather the report does not confirm that.
MAURIZIO MOLINARI: This is a key point. According to the Italian report, the Italian authorities on the field, they did inform the Americans about the presence of Calipari and the other “007,” but they did not give to the Americans the details of their missions, meaning that the Americans knew that two “007″ Italians were there, were doing something, but they didn’t know what was going on, I mean, the liberation of Giuliana Sgrena itself.
MARGARET WARNER: And why not? Why didn’t the Italians keep the Americans fully informed, particularly given how dangerous the situation was and how they wanted to get to the airport quickly?
MAURIZIO MOLINARI: The report doesn’t explain why the Italian authorities did not give the details of the mission. What we can speculate is that because the Italian policy has been to pay ransom, meaning to do agreements with the insurgency and the kidnappers. They didn’t want to tell it to the Americans because they were fearing that maybe the Americans could intervene and so break down the agreement, making the agreement collapse, and risking the life of Giuliana Sgrena herself.
MARGARET WARNER: Ann Tyson, going back then to the events at the scene as they’re unfolding, I gather there is some difference in the two versions or two reports on the speed of the car. But other than that, you’re saying not a big difference on things like whether the checkpoint was adequately marked or the nature of the checkpoint or how about the warning shots? Was there a difference on that?
ANN SCOTT TYSON: Well, I would say, in terms of the speed, yes, there has been a difference in reports. I mean, the U.S. soldiers at the scene estimated about 50 miles per hour, and I think the — some Italian reports at least indicated there was a slower speed.
In terms of warnings, the U.S. report indicates the soldiers flashed lights, shouted, and then shot shots off to the side and then at the aiming for the engine block of the vehicle. I believe that is at odds also with the Italian account, saying that there was essentially little to no warning.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Molinari, do you find — are there big differences between the two reports on what actually happened at the scene?
MAURIZIO MOLINARI: No, I believe that the three main differences are about the experience of the soldiers, the presence of signs in the proximity of the checkpoint, and the question of the communication, while in reality, in the communication, the two sides are saying almost the same thing.
I mean, because the Americans are saying “we didn’t know anything about Sgrena,” and the Italians are saying “we didn’t give them the details,” so essentially here, at this point, there’s no difference at all.
MARGARET WARNER: And yet, the Italian government has made a major point of having this separate report, not joining the U.S. report. Why?
MAURIZIO MOLINARI: Well, the official reason and the declared reason is that they didn’t find a common agreement on who was responsible for what. But the impression of many observers here is that actually there is an interest of the Italian government, could be an interest, to have a clash with the U.S. administration.
The Berlusconi government has been weakened a lot over the last local elections and he’s facing a new political legislative election in the spring of 2006. And maybe some tensions, some friction with the U.S. administration could help Berlusconi’s government in this phase.
MARGARET WARNER: And are Italian authorities also saying that this incident or the competing reports will hasten in any way the timetable for this phased withdrawal that at least Berlusconi has said he might consider doing, I think, by the end of the year?
MAURIZIO MOLINARI: The Italian authorities are not making any linkage between the Calipari event, that tragic death, and the withdrawal of the troops from Iraq, as they are not making any link between what happened to Mr. Calipari and the strong alliance with the U.S.
And these also show they’re willing to keep a stronger relationship with the U.S. and the Bush administration while having a fight on a single issue that is the Calipari death.
MARGARET WARNER: And Ann Tyson, do American authorities at the Pentagon think that this incident, this tragedy, is going to affect the relationship between Italy and the U.S., in particular, the willingness of Italy to remain in Iraq?
ANN SCOTT TYSON: Well, I think they certainly hope that it won’t. I mean, there has been somewhat of a decline in the coalition participation in Iraq, certainly from the standpoint of coalition forces and, you know, they like to try to hold on to any they can.
MARGARET WARNER: Ann Tyson, Maurizio Molinari, thank you both.