With charges expected to be filed Thursday against five to eight Marines accused of killing 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha, Iraq on Nov. 19, 2005, it now appears that at least one senior officer will also be charged in the case.
The attorney for Capt. Lucas McConnell, who was not present at the alleged massacre but was the commander of the Marines under investigation, said Tuesday that his client had been informed that he will be charged with dereliction of duty.
The others facing imminent charges ranging from negligent homicide to murder were all in the third platoon of Company K, Third Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment. They are currently restricted to the grounds of the Marine base in Camp Pendleton, California..
Eugene Fidell, founder and president of the National Institute of Military Justice, told IPS that "such high-ranking military officers in these types of cases rarely face charges. They tend to get hammered in other ways. They tend to lose a rank or lose their pensions or drop a pay grade."
According to the group Human Rights First, no civilian official or officer above the rank of major responsible for interrogation and detention practices has ever been charged in connection with the torture or abuse-related death of a detainee in U.S. custody.
The Haditha case is somewhat different as it involves an alleged massacre of families in their own homes, but experts say it shares similar themes of accountability.
"It’s clear that the military has a long track record of not holding responsible military officers who either knew of the types of crimes that may have been committed at Haditha, or actually participated in the crimes themselves, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, since the ‘war on terror’ began," said John Sifton, a researcher and attorney with Human Rights Watch in New York.
"If you look at the overall record, at the total number of officers who have been found guilty in courts-martial on charges in these types of cases, the number is very minimal," he told IPS.
"When officers fail to stop their soldiers from committing abuses of civilians, or know that such crimes are going to be committed before they actually occur, they should stop them. That’s called command responsibility."
Gary Solis of the Georgetown Law Center, who has contacts with the myriad attorneys involved in the Haditha case, told IPS last week that, "The filing of the charges, which could happen any day now, indicate that the NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) investigation is over."
A retired Marine who served two tours in Vietnam and wrote the official Marine Corps history of involvement in that war, Solis also taught law at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York for 10 years.
"I personally know three of the attorneys (that are working on the Haditha case) and can vouch that all three are outstanding attorneys," Solis said.
The tragic chain of events began in the local morning hours of Nov. 19, 2005, when a roadside bomb in Haditha killed Marine Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, a 20-year-old from El Paso, Texas, along with 19 Iraqi civilians.
What may have followed is something many press reports have dubbed "Iraq’s My Lai," a reference to the March 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. soldiers that generated worldwide outrage and led to even greater public disenchantment with the U.S.. involvement in Vietnam.
Following the death of Terrazas, a squad of Company K Marines, led by 26-year-old Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, allegedly went on a rampage, methodically shooting 24 Iraqi civilians who lived not far from the scene of the explosion. Fifteen of those shot were women and children, and another was a wheelchair-bound elderly man.
Since the widely-publicized Army court-martial in 1969 of Lt. William Calley, the officer in charge of the soldiers who murdered the Vietnamese men, women and children, and who was found guilty of premeditated murder for the killings on Mar. 29, 1971, an issue in such cases has been the role of senior military officers.
"I think that the basic idea of accountability for we as Americans is that if you’re part of a conspiracy, then you can be held legally accountable for your actions. That applies to both the civilian courts and the military justice system," said Mike Marchand, who was an assistant judge advocate for the U.S. Army at the Pentagon for three years.
"It appears that (the accused Marines in Haditha incident) may have acted without direct orders from their higher-ranking officers, at least from everything that I’ve read and heard about the Haditha case," he said.
"What I see emerging in the (American) military justice system," noted Jeffrey Addicott, a law professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, "particularly at Abu Ghraib, is that if you know a crime is occurring, or if you know that it’s going to happen, then you are going to face charges, and that may also apply with the Haditha case, depending on the results of the NCIS investigation."
Addicott was an Army officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps for 20 years. His reference to Abu Ghraib deals with the 2004 revelations of torture of Iraqi detainees by U.S. civilian and military personnel at the Iraqi prison complex.
Both the My Lai and Abu Ghraib stories came to light through the diligence of reporter Seymour Hersh. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for his work on the My Lai case, and wrote a long piece exposing the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib for the New Yorker magazine.
In his coverage of My Lai, Hersh detailed how the Army tried to conceal Lt. Calley’s crimes. Hersh wrote two books about the case, My Lai 4 (1970) and Cover-Up (1972).
Addicott told IPS that the U.S. military justice system uses the "Medina Standard," named after Army Captain Ernest Medina, Lt. Calley’s commanding officer who was also present at the time of the shooting massacre. Both Medina and his commanding officer, Col. Oran Henderson, were ultimately acquitted of all charges.
"’The Medina Standard’ is the direct proving by prosecutors in court of an officer, or officers, directly ordering soldiers under their command to do something that they know is illegal," explained Addicott. "I don’t see possible cover-up charges arising for the officers who were in charge of the Marines who may be accused of shooting the Iraqi civilians in Haditha."
The Pentagon has been conducting its own inquiry into whether there was a cover-up by officers higher up in the chain of command. Until the accusations by witnesses and human rights groups were revealed by Time magazine in March this year, military officials had claimed that 15 civilians were killed by a roadside bomb planted by insurgents.
They later acknowledged that the death toll was higher and that none of the civilians were killed by the roadside bomb. It is not known when the report will be publicly released.
Sifton doubts that what happened at Haditha is an isolated incident.
"You can’t stop abuse on a systematic scale with soldiers," he said. "Abuse is going to happen in wartime. What you can do is to go after officers who should stop such abuses and know better."
"We think that the problem is that the American military doesn’t have an independent prosecutor. Commanders, who may very well end up facing charges themselves in some instances, end up making deals with attorneys so as not to face charges. With an independent prosecutor, that wouldn’t happen."