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Marine Corps Head Urges Patience in Haditha Investigations

June 7, 2006 at 6:05 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: For the first time since allegations surfaced of Marine atrocities in Iraq, the commandant of the Marine Corps today publicly addressed the controversy.

General Michael Hagee told reporters that, until the investigations are complete, he couldn’t comment directly on allegations that Marines murdered Iraqi civilians in two towns and then covered up what happened.

But during a 14-minute Pentagon news conference, General Hagee did stress the importance of Marines living up to certain basic values.

GEN. MICHAEL HAGEE, Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps: Our recruits are taught and it is constantly reinforced that an important part of being a Marine is accomplishing a mission while adhering to our core values of honor, courage and commitment.

While Marines are proud of our high standards, they also know that, if they violate these tenets, they will be held accountable. Without accountability, standards would be nothing more than goals.

Where compliance with our standards is in question, we use well-established processes to determine as accurately and expeditiously as possible what happened and why. But make no mistake: A Marine who has been found to have violated our standards will be held accountable.

It is an important part of who we are, and all Marines expect it. High standards and accountability define Marines.

As commandant, I am gravely concerned about the serious allegations concerning actions of some Marines at Haditha and Hamandiyah. I can assure you that the Marine Corps takes them seriously.

We are committed to fully supporting the investigations of both incidents. We want to ensure the investigations are complete, with respect to what actually happened on the ground and actions taken or not taken by the chain of command.

PRESS CORPS MEMBER: I’m wondering, given the gravity of what’s come to light thus far in the two cases that you cited, why shouldn’t you resign as an acknowledgment of failure of leadership?

GEN. MICHAEL HAGEE: I serve at the pleasure of the president, and I have not submitted any resignation — Jim?

PRESS CORPS MEMBER: General, Congressman Murtha said that the allegations of these reported incidents are a sign, a further sign that the Marines and soldiers in Iraq are under tremendous combat stress. Is that the case? If these allegations prove to be true, is that a contributing factor?

GEN. MICHAEL HAGEE: I visit Iraq about once every two months, and I can only report on what I have seen in my interaction with the Marines and with the soldiers over there.

And I can tell that their morale is really quite high. The operational tempo is also high. They are very proud in what they’re doing. They know they’re well-equipped; they know they’re well-trained; and they know that they are making a difference.

PRESS CORPS MEMBER: And they know right from wrong, General?

GEN. MICHAEL HAGEE: They absolutely know right from wrong.

PRESS CORPS MEMBER: General, as far as I know, all that we have, officially, on the record, from the military on the Haditha incident is that 15 civilians were killed by a roadside bomb. Can you now correct for the record that statement and tell us if that statement was inaccurate?

GEN. MICHAEL HAGEE: Jonathan, as I’ve said several times, I cannot comment on anything that has happened in either one of those two incidences until the investigations are complete.

PRESS CORPS MEMBER: I know when you were in Iraq, besides talking to the Marines, you were listening, as well. What did they tell you about their thoughts on these allegations, what they’re thinking about them, and how it may be impacting their ability to do their jobs?

GEN. MICHAEL HAGEE: First off, I would tell you that they are focused on what they’re doing and focused on their mission. But I think the best way that I can capture the feeling over there is, in Al Assad (ph), I believe it was, I had — an NCO stood up and said, “Sir, that’s not what we do. That’s not what we’re about.”

And he said, “I want to know what senior leadership is doing, and I want to know what we can do about that.” And I told him what he can — what they could do about that is continue to do what they are doing right now, and they are doing really a magnificent job.

Staying out of the investigation

General Joseph Hoar
Retired Marine Corps General
The result of all of this investigation will probably lead to disciplinary action of some type... It will come in due course, and I think we're all anxious to see the results of this.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more now, we're joined by two retired Marine Corps generals with extensive experience dealing with Iraq and the wider Middle East.

General Joseph Hoar was commander in chief of Central Command from 1991 to '94 in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War. Centcom serves as headquarters for U.S. forces in Iraq. He's now a consultant for America and European companies doing business in the Middle East.

And Lt. General Michael Delong was deputy commander of Central Command from 2000 to 2003 during the first phase of the current Iraq war, working directly for General Tommy Franks. He's now with the Shaw Group, an engineering and construction company with extensive contracts in the Middle East. He's also the author of the book "Inside Centcom."

Welcome to you both, Generals.

General Hoar, first, help us understand what we just saw with General Hagee. Why could he not -- I mean, he kept saying he couldn't comment on the incidents. Why is he unable to, for instance, correct the record at the very least -- some in Congress have asked him to -- of the official Marine account right after the Haditha incident, which was that 15 had died in a roadside bomb.

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR, Former Central Command Marine Corps General: Margaret, the longstanding rule in dealing with investigations is the investigating officer is given the requirement to come up with all of the facts, derive opinions from that, and make a recommendation.

And in the system, which is very hierarchical, the top person and then really any senior person should refrain from either making judgments or suggestions until all of that is done because, for example, if someone were found guilty of a crime and afterward punished, someone might say, "Well, the commandant of the Marine Corps exercised undue interest in this. He suggested that the number was x rather than y, or the timing was different."

It's just unfortunate, because the result of all of this investigation will probably lead to disciplinary action of some type. And it would be inappropriate for senior people to speculate on any of it. It will come in due course, and I think we're all anxious to see the results of this.

MARGARET WARNER: And General Delong, does General Hagee have any direct role or authority in the investigation?

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DELONG, Former Central Command Marine Corps General: Well, the way investigations work is there's the general over there that's running this, whether it's General Abizaid or General Casey, they either will assign an investigation officer, as General Hoar said, or they will allow the specific service to run this themselves.

And I don't know how they're doing this, but what happens is normally they'll hold, if these people are found guilty -- if that's the case -- they'll have an Article 32 investigation, which will, in fact, determine whether they should go to court martial. And if that, in fact, happens, then they usually give it to the service to run the court martial.

And then General Hagee would be responsible for the people who would be running the court martial for these individuals, if that's the case.

A damaged Marine Corps

Lt. General Michael DeLong
Retired Marine Corps General
And I've done many of these investigations myself....They're not pleasant. They're especially not pleasant when you're looking at things that your fellow Marines may or may not have done.

MARGARET WARNER: I see. So even though the Navy is doing one of these investigations and the Army another, that it could ultimately end up with General Hagee.

Let me stay with you, General Delong. The Marines that I know are a very tight group and talk to each other a lot, even after retirement. What was the reaction, what is the reaction to Marines and former Marines you know about this whole Haditha controversy?

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DELONG: Well, I think General Hagee said it best. Marines are held to a high standard. And if they violate those high standards -- if they did -- there's accountability.

And I've done many of these investigations myself. In fact, I did the Aviano investigation. They're not pleasant. They're especially not pleasant when you're looking at things that your fellow Marines may or may not have done.

MARGARET WARNER: And, General Hoar, is there concern of you -- are you concerned, have you heard concern that, even though these allegations are unproven and untested, that it is damaging, it has damaged the Marine Corps and its reputation?

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR: Margaret, we're engaged in a war of ideas. And so, when something like this is first uncovered, and appears in the press, and is discussed, and then pictures show up -- I believe probably on Arab television, but I'm not sure -- there's already been enormous damage done, regardless of the outcome of the investigations, because many people around the world will go away with the idea that this has been another terrible catastrophe visited on the Iraqi people.

MARGARET WARNER: Even before there's an official outcome?


Diplomacy vs. military

Lt. General Michael DeLong
Retired Marine Corps General
These young men over there, they may have done something, but let's wait to find out what did happen before we indict them or pat them on the back.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let me ask you now -- let's turn to Iraq, the subject of the evening. What is your assessment of how things are going militarily in Iraq?

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR: Well, I would say, first of all, that there's no military solution to this problem; this is essentially a political problem.

And to the degree that the Iraqis can work through with our help and find political means, vehicles, methods of doing business, some of this discomfort is going to go away. But until that happens, the amount of violence, in my judgment, is going to increase.

MARGARET WARNER: General Delong, do you think the U.S. is on a path here that the Iraqis will pretty soon be able to take care of their own security and the U.S. can withdraw its forces?

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DELONG: Well, I agree with General Hoar: There's not a military solution to this.

There's 18 provinces in Iraq; 14 of them are doing pretty well with our help and the coalition's help. There's four provinces -- which, by the way, are the four largest -- that are having these issues. And it is a political solution.

I say, given where we are today, whether it's the right way that we got to where we are, that there's been free elections, that there's a parliament, there's a president and prime minister, is a great thing. The issue is: Will these three groups get together and work? I hope so.

MARGARET WARNER: But let me just interrupt you. If you were Centcom commander today and the secretary of defense or the president were to say, "What could we do differently now?" What would you say? What would you advise? Is there anything you'd correct, in the way the U.S. and particularly the U.S. military is going about this?

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DELONG: No, it's a political solution. And I just -- given where we are today, the hope is that this current government and parliament will get these three groups together and come up with some sort of a political solution and security for the country that will make this work.

MARGARET WARNER: General Hoar, would you advise either beefing up American troops at this point or, as Congressman Murtha suggested, get ready for fairly rapid withdrawal?

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR: I think that we must stay. I think that the gravity of this situation, should we pull out prematurely, will further disrupt all of the Middle East.

The end result could mean an Iraqi government that is dominated by Shia political entities and closely aligned with Iran. And I know from my own experience and my travels in that part of the country all of the neighbors, many of which have large Shia populations, are very concerned about this.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think that the current effort is essentially winnable, in American terms?

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR: I think we are at a tipping point right now. We are, what, five months since the last elections? We still don't have a unity government formed. We are unable to come up with a minister of defense and a minister of interior.

And this continued assassinations in the large cities, Basra, which was thought to be very much under control and pretty much pro-American or, at least, I should say, pro-coalition, to give the United Kingdom forces their due, but that seems to be slipping into chaos. I think it's a very serious situation.

MARGARET WARNER: General Delong, let me go back to this troop-level issue: Either increase the number of troops, because they're overstretched and overstressed, or start getting ready for a withdrawal. Would you advocate either of those?

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DELONG: No. But whatever the -- the generals there know what the right number is. And to say that they're overstressed or overstretched, I haven't been there in the last eight or nine months, but I've been there nine times in the previous 18 months, and I've talked to the troops. I've never seen morale like they've had before.

So, hell, I'm stressed. I'm sure General Hoar is stressed. You're stressed talking to us.

MARGARET WARNER: We're all stressed.

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DELONG: But I don't think -- I just don't think it's as bad that people are making it out. The media is a concern to me. These young men over there, they may have done something, but let's wait to find out what did happen before we indict them or pat them on the back.

Nearing the tipping point

General Joseph Hoar
Retired Marine Corps General
I don't think we can stay indefinitely. I think the effort that has been made to train up Iraqi forces has not moved as quickly as it should. And I'm told that it's understaffed and underfunded again.

MARGARET WARNER: General Hoar, do you think the situation though now is already in a state of civil war? You talked about a tipping point. Do you think it's incipient civil war unless something is done? How would you characterize it?

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR: I think we're very close to civil war. And as Mike suggests, this is not widespread throughout the country, but it is very much concentrated in those provinces where you have a large Sunni population. And this is really -- the nexus of this fight is between Sunnis and Shia.

MARGARET WARNER: So are you both saying -- and I'll start with you, General Hoar -- that the U.S. should be prepared to stay indefinitely?

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR: No, I don't think we can stay indefinitely. I think the effort that has been made to train up Iraqi forces has not moved as quickly as it should. And I'm told that it's understaffed and underfunded again. I don't know that, but I've read that recently.

But that's the key. And there has to be so much more done than just training battalions: We need to build combat support structures so they have logistics support, medical support. They need to have appropriate equipment, all of those things.

MARGARET WARNER: And, General Delong, if that day never comes, I mean, we've been talking about training the Iraqi troops now for three years, what does the United States do? I mean, do we stay indefinitely or is there a point at which the U.S. should ever say, "Well, the Iraqis may not be ready, but it's time to go"?

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DELONG: Well, I don't think the U.S. public or the U.S. political system will allow us to stay indefinitely, but we need to stay until, as General Hoar said, that the country is secure both internally and externally.

And I've brought this up before. The countries surrounding Iraq, it's not to their benefit that there be a large democratic country in their midst.

You've got probably 50,000 -- and that's the number I've heard -- Iranians in the south that are trying to keep this government from forming. And you have probably 20,000 Syrians trying to do the same thing.

So we need to get help from the surrounding countries if we want the inside political system to work, in my view.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. General Michael Delong, General Joseph Hoar, thank you.

GEN. JOSEPH HOAR: Thank you, Margaret.