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Murtha's Mistake

Slandering the Marine Corps.

11:00 PM, Nov 24, 2007 • By CHRISTIAN LOWE
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ON MAY 17, 2006, outspoken Bush critic and erstwhile Iraq war opponent John Murtha (D-Pa.) shocked the world with a dramatic revelation.

At a news conference he'd convened to talk about "the situation in Iraq," the formerly pro-military lawmaker dropped a bomb on the Marine Corps when he revealed in his 24 minute presser that troops with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment had mowed down innocent civilians in a previously unknown town in north western Iraq called Haditha.

In stark language he accused the Corps of a massive cover-up and made the case that the Marines ran amok in a war with no direction. More shockingly, and without any corroborating evidence, he called the Marines involved in the bloody ambush and ensuing firefight cold-blooded killers.

"We had an incident in Haditha where a Marine was killed by an IED. Time magazine reported it and it's kind of a puzzling report because they're investigating it right now. But let me tell you what the consequences of this have been. It's much worse than has been reported in Time magazine," Murtha said at the press conference. "There was no firefight. There was no IED that killed these innocent people. Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood."

Murtha was one of a reported handful of lawmakers briefed in confidence on the incident by then Marine Commandant Gen. Mike Hagee earlier that month.

"That's what the report is going to tell," Murtha added. "Now you can imagine the impact this is going to have on those troops for the rest of their lives and on the United States in our war, in our effort, trying to win the hearts and minds."

Not to mention the impact of Murtha's disclosure on the lives of those Marines and on U.S. foreign policy before any official findings or formal charges had been brought in the incident.

The accusation led to a firestorm of recriminations, prompting high-level investigations in Iraq, a Naval Criminal Investigative Service probe, and a trip to Capitol Hill by Hagee to brief more curious lawmakers caught off guard by the scandalous charge.

Rather than take Murtha's bait and reflexively admit guilt in the scandal, the Corps opted for a more deliberate approach by methodically investigating the incident, compiling both sides of the story--Iraqi and American--and finally arriving at criminal charges against eight key players in the incident.

For those of you who might need a refresher, here's the basic outline:

During a late night patrol in Haditha in November of 2005, a squad of Marines was ambushed by a roadside bomb that killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas. The Marines claimed they were then engaged by insurgents hiding in some houses adjacent to the bomb, so they stormed the buildings to clear them of enemy gunmen. When the dust settled, 24 Iraqis lay dead, including several women and children. An Iraq civil rights group, working with Time magazine, claimed the Marines overreacted and wantonly slaughtered the civilians.

From the outside, things didn't look good for the Corps.

But the subsequent investigation found the Marines acted within the rules of engagement--clearing the rooms "by fire" instead of waiting to be shot at when they entered. This is a controversial practice for sure--throwing a grenade in the room before you know who's in there can have tragic results, as this incident did. But it's important to recognize that Haditha was a perilous place in those days, and Marines had already learned the hard way in Fallujah that opening a door in a house from which you've received fire could mean an up close and personal encounter with the barrel of an AK-47. This time, they weren't taking any chances.

That's why over the last several months, a military court in California has dismissed charges against four of the seven Marines and one Navy corpsman charged in the incident. One officer, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani who commanded 3/1, was ordered to trial for dereliction of duty for not reporting the incident and violation of a lawful order. Another officer, a 1st lieutenant who commanded the intelligence cell that responded to the scene after the shootout, has just begun his Article 32 hearing--the military equivalent of a grand jury investigation.

Two other officers have had their charges thrown out.

So far, one enlisted Marine and the corpsman involved in the incident have had their charges erased, and a third, squad leader Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, is still awaiting a decision on whether his case merits a trial--though an officer involved in the Article 32 hearings has suggested he face seven charges of negligent manslaughter, rather than 17 murder charges.

One enlisted man has been ordered to trial on two counts of involuntary manslaughter.

So has John Murtha, a decorated former Marine himself, apologized for a very public display of contempt for the then uncharged Marines? When confronted with the current state of affairs and asked at a Nov. 20 press conference whether he stood by his May 2006 claim that these Marines were cold-blooded killers, he refused to comment, first hiding behind the excuse that the case was still in the courts. When pressed that four of the accused had been exonerated already, he continued his silence.

Of course, that didn't stop him back in May 2006, just months before the congressional elections that flipped the House and Senate on an anti-war platform, from making accusations that proved untrue.

One has to wonder whether the Vietnam veteran will be held to account for his earlier rhetoric. Certainly, at the very least, he owes the innocent Marines he accused of cold-blooded murder an apology.


Christian Lowe is managing editor of Military.com and is a contributing writer to THE DAILY STANDARD.