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Marines Face Charges for Deaths of Iraqi Civilians

December 21, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s the largest criminal case to come out of the Iraq war, from the November 2005 killing of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha in western Iraq. They died after a roadside bomb attack killed a Marine on patrol.

Four Marine enlisted men were charged today with unpremeditated murder, and four officers with dereliction of duty. For the latest developments, we’re joined by Washington Post reporter Josh White.

Josh, give us first a brief reminder of what’s now thought to have happened that day in Haditha.

JOSH WHITE, Washington Post: Sure. What the Marine Corps has alleged at this point is that a squad of Marines that were traveling in a convoy of Humvees through the town of Haditha was hit by a roadside bomb, one of these very now common improvised explosive devices in a road.

One Marine was killed in that attack, and then the rest of the Marines in the squad believed they were taking fire from nearby homes, and then went into those homes house to house, and ended up killing as many as 24 civilians.

JEFFREY BROWN: So today four Marines were charged with unpremeditated murder. Now, what does that mean in military law?

JOSH WHITE: Yes, that’s actually a very important distinction to make. If they had been charged with premeditated murder, it would have shown that the Marine Corps believed that they had planned this attack, that they meant to go out and kill Iraqi civilians, that it was a rampage.

By charging unpremeditated murder, what they’ve done is they’ve charged the highest level just below that.

They’ve left open the ability to charge, for example, involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide, which means that they should have known that the consequences of their actions would lead to innocent civilians being killed and that they acted with wanton disregard for the law. They’re essentially alleging that the Marines should have known better, should have taken more care with what they did that day.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what’s their defense? What are their attorneys saying?

JOSH WHITE: The defense attorneys are saying that, essentially, these Marines are doing what they were trained to do: They were fighting in combat in Iraq.

They had taken fire. They were responding to an ambush. They went into these houses because they believed they were threatening, and they essentially went and tried to take out an enemy, and that unfortunately, in this case, they took out a number of innocent civilians, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the potential penalties that these enlisted men face?

JOSH WHITE: Sure, if they’re convicted of unpremeditated murder, each one of these enlisted Marines faces as much as life in prison. The death penalty is not on the table here.

A cover-up or just negligence?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Then there's the four others that were charged. Now, these were officers.

JOSH WHITE: Yes. There were four Marine officers who were charged, ranging from a first lieutenant up to a lieutenant colonel. And this is part of another investigation that was looking into whether or not Haditha was covered up, whether or not this alleged massacre was basically kept under wraps in order to avoid the embarrassment that it might cause.

What they've done here is they've taken a lieutenant colonel, who was a battalion commander, and said that that lieutenant colonel should have been more diligent in investigating the case and should have passed along better information up to higher command.

They're also saying that a captain, his staff judge advocate, essentially the lawyer for the battalion, also should have done the same thing and did not. There's also the captain involved, who is the company commander, who was not on the ground at the time of the attack, but was there shortly thereafter, should have also been more diligent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, now, are they saying -- do we know if they're saying that there was an active cover-up, or is it more negligence in not following up what they should have followed up?

JOSH WHITE: Well, I think, until we hear more evidence in the case, we're not going to be exactly sure. At this point, what they're saying is that these officers should have been essentially more careful in looking at this case.

They should have recognized it for what it was, at least a very questionable situation, that they should have contacted higher command and said immediately, "Look, we've got a lot of civilians killed here. We need to investigate it."

Instead, what they're alleging is, is that these officers essentially brushed it aside, didn't feel that it was really all that significant, and moved on. And I think, as time goes on, we're going to hear more evidence about what exactly they did or didn't do that led to these charges.

The investigation

JEFFREY BROWN: So we don't really know yet whether they took some active steps to try to put it into a drawer or not talk, not actively talk about it?

JOSH WHITE: That's true. And, actually, if you look at the charges against the enlisted soldiers, what's interesting is there are a couple of soldiers who are -- I'm sorry, Marines -- who are accused of either eliciting false statements from other Marines or giving false statements themselves.

Now, it's unclear if that's actually part of a cover-up or if those Marines were essentially just trying to cover themselves for actions that were questionable at the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Might this still go higher up in the chain of command?

JOSH WHITE: It's certainly a possibility. When these investigations take place, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service keeps the investigations open until the end of a court martial. In this case, they're going to continue, I imagine, to investigate this as high up as it goes.

In charging people, especially in charging a group of officers, it's very possible that we could have some of those officers then point to higher-ups and say, "Look, I reported this, and nothing was done once I told them what had happened."

I know the investigation in Iraq that looked at these chain-of-command issues did go to the highest levels of the Marine Corps in Iraq. It's possible we could see charges against higher-ups in the future that haven't come yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have a sense, Josh, of how unusual this is to charge the officers in this case, I mean, who were not at the scene for the aftermath?

JOSH WHITE: Well, in Iraq, it's actually quite unusual. So far, we've had 64 U.S. troops charged in connection with the deaths of Iraqi civilians. Of those 64, 18 have been convicted and are serving sentences.

With today's charges against four officers, that brings to 10 the total number of officers who've been charged in all the cases combined. So this is a fairly unusual step and actually quite interesting that they looked at the cover-up issue right from the beginning.

And I think that stems from the fact that there are a number of criminal cases that arose in a short period of time. General Chiarelli, who was in charge of the field command in Iraq at the time, was very concerned about these types of cases and these investigations and wanted to get to the bottom of this very quickly.

I think as soon as this was alleged to have been a massacre and also alleged to have been covered up, everyone wanted to make sure that they attacked this from an investigative standpoint as carefully as they could.

Penalties facing those charged

JEFFREY BROWN: And what are the potential penalties facing these officers?

JOSH WHITE: Well, in the cases of, for example, the lieutenant colonel who is charged, he faces one charge of violating an order and two charges of dereliction of duty. That violating an order charge carries with it a maximum of two years, and the dereliction of duty charges carry with them a maximum of six months in jail.

So relatively, compared to the people who are on the ground firing the shots, it's a much lesser potential maximum, but still could carry with it confinement.

JEFFREY BROWN: What's next, Josh? What's next in this process?

JOSH WHITE: Well, this is actually the very, very beginning of the criminal process. In the criminal system, this is essentially announcing that they've been accused of the crimes.

They then go to an Article 32 hearing, which is essentially the equivalent of a civilian grand jury, where an investigating officer will sit down, hear evidence from both sides. Both the defense and the prosecution will have an opportunity to present witnesses and evidence, and then that investigating officer will decide whether or not to recommend charges to commanders.

So we're very early on in the process. There's a lot that still has to happen. Discovery, evidence will be presented to defense attorneys. And this will be argued publicly before we know whether or not it will go to a court martial.

So there's still a possibility that some of these Marines, some of the officers, could be completely exonerated before it even goes to trial. There's also a possibility that we're going to see some jockeying for plea agreements and deals as time goes forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Josh White of the Washington Post, thanks very much.

JOSH WHITE: You're very welcome.