More Leaks

The New York Times reported yesterday on the military’s investigation into the killings at Haditha. The Times purports to describe the report that Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli has sent up the chain of command. No such information was officially available, as the investigation is not complete:

In a brief statement issued from Iraq on Friday, General Chiarelli’s headquarters said he had finished reviewing a lengthy investigation by Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell of the Army into the actions or absence of actions by Marine leaders in Haditha, as well as the training that marines had received and the command climate their superiors had fostered.

But the statement gave no details of General Chiarelli’s findings or recommendations, which will now be sent to his boss, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top commander in Iraq.

The Times story was based on leaks from two “defense officials”:

[T]wo defense officials, who have been briefed on General Chiarelli’s findings[,]… said they would discuss the report, after being promised anonymity, because it showed that the military takes these incidents seriously and fully investigates them.

That’s reassuring, I guess. But the Times’ spin on the leaks is entirely negative. Its article is titled “General Faults Marine Response to Iraq Killings.” The story begins:

The second-ranking American commander in Iraq has concluded that some senior Marine officers were negligent in failing to investigate more aggressively the killings of 24 Iraqi civilians by marines in Haditha last November, two Defense Department officials said Friday.

It quotes the unnamed leakers:

“He concludes that some officers were derelict in their duties,” said one of the officials, who declined to identify which or how many officers were singled out.

The Times gives examples of negligence allegedly cited by Gen. Chiarelli, and rehashes the Haditha story, with the helpful observation that the exculpatory accounts from the Marines involved and their lawyers that have appeared in the press “have conflicted in important details with descriptions of what investigators have found.”

What’s wrong with all of this? Several things. First, the investigation is not complete. Gen. Chiarelli does not have the last word. Gen. Casey or Secretary Rumsfeld may disagree with his recommendation that some officers be found “derelict” and may exonerate those officers. If so, they would then be subject to criticism, and likely would be accused of whitewashing the incident. Indeed, it seems likely that the leakers’ real motive was to put pressure on Casey and Rumsfeld to follow Chiarelli’s recommendations.

Second, both leaks and news stories based on leaks are highly selective. When the Army’s report is made public, albeit in redacted form, it will contain both good and bad findings. Subject to security and privacy concerns, there will be completeness and balance. With stories based on leaks, on the other hand, we never know what the leakers may have told the reporters that didn’t appear in the story. The possibilities for spin by both leakers and reporters are endless. This Times story is a good case in point. It is interesting to contrast the Times account with this UPI Story, which is titled “Report: No Coverup of Haditha”:

A Marine Corps general has reportedly found evidence of negligence, but no coverup, in the investigation of an alleged massacre of Iraqi civilians.

Citing two unnamed officers in the U.S. Defense Department, The New York Times reported Friday that Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli — the second-ranked commander in Iraq — found no evidence of a deliberate coverup by Marine officers who investigated the alleged massacre at Haditha in November 2005.

So the UPI reporter apparently read between the lines of the Times story and extracted the key point that the Times–speaking of “derelict”–neglected to mention: Gen. Chiarelli’s report rejects the oft-asserted claim that Haditha was covered up by the Marine brass.

This leak didn’t compromise national security, although, as noted above, it may have been intended to compromise the integrity of the military’s investigation. The leak may not have constituted a crime; I haven’t researched that issue. But it illustrates once more how a culture of leaks, and biased news stories based on leaks, has poisoned news coverage in the mainstream media.

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