Setting the record straight on Haditha

Mary Katharine Ham

6/12/2006 12:05:00 AM - Mary Katharine Ham

When I worked at a newspaper, my fellow reporters and I made mistakes.
Sometimes those mistakes were on the front page of the paper; sometimes tucked away on B7 between the obits and the county's largest legume. Sometimes they were mispelled names and misplaced box scores; sometimes misused facts and mishandled reputations.

But no matter the nature of the mistake-- its size or its import-- the correction always went in the same place. Second page of the A section, bottom right-hand corner. It was policy, and the policy had the unfortunate consequence of usually making the correction of a mistake less prominent than the mistake itself.

Such is the nature of news coverage on all levels, and one of the most valuable contributions the new media and blogs can make to that news coverage is to highlight corrections that would otherwise be overlooked in their little corner of A2.

A couple of weeks ago, spurred by Congressman John Murtha's assertion that Marines in Haditha had killed civilians "in cold blood," the media promptly rushed to judgement, topping every story with Murtha's cold-blooded soundbite. When word leaked from Pentagon sources that there might be murder charges in the case, the media ran with the "maybe murder" story.

Because no one had yet been charged, and no one was leaking the Marines' side of the story, many became concerned that the slanted coverage might affect the fair treatment and presumption of innocence to which American servicemen are entitled. One of those people was Brig. Gen. David M. Brahms, a former Marine lawyer who the Washington Post quoted out of context in its eagerness to get an Abu Ghraib reference into the story.

This week, the media is backing off of its original tone, and it's time to highlight corrections so they don't end up being relegated to the back of the paper and the back of people's minds. So, I give you the Top 3 things to remember about Haditha that the press would like you to forget.

1. Oops, Time After Time

In the first media report on a "possible massacre" at Haditha, back in March, Time magazine reported that "a day after the incident, a Haditha journalism student videotaped the scene at the local morgue and at the homes where the killings had occurred. The video was obtained by the Hammurabi Human Rights Group, which cooperates with the internationally respected Human Rights Watch, and has been shared with TIME."

Because the incident was under investigation and no one could comment on it, Time used that videotape to bolster the accusations of civilian massacre. Now, buried at the bottom of page four of that article is this correction:

In the original version of this story, TIME reported that "a day after the incident, a Haditha journalism student videotaped the scene at the local morgue and at the homes where the killings had occurred. The video was obtained by the Hammurabi Human Rights Group, which cooperates with the internationally respected Human Rights Watch, and has been shared with TIME." In fact, Human Rights Watch has no ties or association with the Hammurabi Human Rights Group. TIME regrets the error.

Without the connection to "internationally respected Human Rights Watch," the origin of the video and the motives of the journalist involved become much more questionable.

But that's not the only piece of photographic evidence called into question by Time corrections.

In a subsequent Time story , we have this correction:

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.

Well, I would hope they regret that one. When a major national news magazine claims there is specific photographic evidence of American Marines killing civilians while they were praying and it ends up being wrong, that correction should be as prominent as possible, especially when those Marines have not yet been charged or faced trial.

Over at Sweetness and Light, a blogger takes a look at Time's young journalist source and finds that the journalist was not exactly the green go-getter Time had described.

Why start a human rights group if you want to remain anonymous? And why did Time pretend their source was young? Why did they pretend he had no involvement with Hammurabi? (When in fact he is its founder.)

But that is just the start of the many questionable aspects of Thabit's accounts.

Bear in mind that this "budding journalism student" waited until the next day to videotape this alleged atrocity, which supposedly happened on his very doorstep.

Note that this same "budding journalism student" and self-proclaimed human rights watcher did not bother to turn over his video to a media outlet or a real human rights group from November 2005 until March 2006. A four month delay.

That's how eager they were to make sure such a crime is never again
repeated.

2. Context Come Lately

There was more going on in Haditha that day than just the IED explosion that killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas and apparently sparked the fighting that left so many dead.

Capt. James Kimber offers his story:

But that day, at about the same time, Iraqi insurgents attacked all three Marine companies patrolling in the Haditha area--one of them commanded by Kimber. He said he could hear over his radio the shots being fired during a running gun battle in Haditha.

"They weren't just Marine weapons. You can tell from the sound," he said...

Kimber's recollections provide a valuable backdrop to the events last November, a period during which Marine units were encouraged to escalate their use of force in dealing with insurgents, according to a Marine colonel with knowledge of operations in that area.

A source I've talked to, who is involved in the potential defense cases for these Marines, said that the IED that took Terrazas' life was just the beginning of a coordinated insurgent attack on four Marine squads they knew would respond to the first IED attack. The cluster of attacks ended up hampering relief efforts and injuring about a dozen Marines.

As the situation developed, the Marines at the initial ambush site were isolated for a period of time in this hostile city and they had every right to fear for their lives.  A group of about 15-20 foreign fighters were believed to be in Haditha that day, supplemented by local insurgents.  Knowing that 6 Marines had been surrounded and killed in Haditha before help could reach them just three months before, the isolated Marines had to fear the worst as they responded to the first attack.

Haditha was a hotbed of insurgency in November of last year. It's important to remember the frequency and intensity of attacks these Marines were facing. There's also another side to the story, and the accused are beginning to tell it through their lawyers:

A sergeant who led a squad of Marines during the incident in Haditha, Iraq, that left as many as 24 civilians dead said his unit did not intentionally target any civilians, followed military rules of engagement and never tried to cover up the shootings, his attorney said.

Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, 26, told his attorney that several civilians were killed Nov. 19 when his squad went after insurgents who were firing at them from inside a house. The Marine said there was no vengeful massacre, but he described a house-to-house hunt that went tragically awry in the middle of a chaotic battlefield.

3. The Nature of the Enemy

Something terrible happened in Haditha. The day ended with one Marine and 15 Iraqi civilians dead. But we don't know how it happened or what the reasons were.

What we do know is that it is the exception to the rule to find American Marines wantonly murdering civilians. It is rather the rule, however, for insurgents to put those same civilians-- women and
children-- in harm's way.

That is what Terrazas' father says happened that day in Haditha:

Exactly what happened that day remains unclear. Miguel Terrazas' father, Martin, said the Marines his son fought with told him that after the car bomb exploded the Marines took a defensive position around his son's battered vehicle. Insurgents immediately started shooting from nearby buildings, and the insurgents were using women and children as human shields, Martin said he was told.

The Marines shot back because "it was going to be them or" the insurgents, Martin said of what his son's fellow Marines briefly described to him.

It wouldn't be the first time terrorists have shown such disgusting disregard for the lives of children.

We do not know what happened in Haditha on November 19, 2005. When two military investigations and any trials that result are complete, it will become more clear. If Marines are guilty of atrocities, they will be punished severely.

In the meantime, rely on alternative media and bloggers like Mudville Gazette , Sweetness and Light , California Conservative , and this bunch of informed milbloggers to keep level heads about the accusations.

The mainstream media spent a couple of weeks throwing around the "cold blood" and "maybe murder" stories. Now that they're backtracking, it's our job to make sure new corrections and less damning facts don't get lost in the corner of page two.