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Time’s Questionable Sources For Haditha

Time Magazine reveals its "painstaking" efforts to get the facts of the Haditha story:

How Haditha Came to Light

By JEFFREY KLUGER

Sunday, Jun 4, 2006

The Haditha killings occurred last November, but it wasn’t until January that TIME first heard whispers about them. The initial account of the incident was published in March in the magazine and on TIME.com The manner in which TIME got the story and the painstaking way the facts revealed themselves illustrate the challenges of trying to cover a dangerous, deadly conflict where the truth isn’t always what it appears to be.

If the Marines are indeed guilty of an atrocity, they had the ill fortune to have committed their crime in the worst possible place: outside the front door of a budding Iraqi journalist and human-rights activist. Taher Thabet, 43, was at home in Haditha on the morning of Nov. 19 when around 7:15 he heard the detonation of the roadside bomb that struck a Marine humvee, killing the driver, Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, 20. The blast shattered Thabet’s windows. He ran outside in time to see Marines from three other humvees springing from their vehicles and heading for four homes on either side of the road. "They went into one house. I heard gunfire, explosions and screams," he told TIME in an interview in Baghdad last month. "Then they came out and went into another. I could only stand and watch."

The next morning, Thabet–who last year co-founded a small outfit called the Hammurabi Organization for Human Rights and Democracy Monitoringwent into the houses where the killings had taken place and videotaped what he saw, as well as the wrenching scenes later at the local morgue, where friends and family collected the bodies of the victims. "I didn’t know what I was recording," he says. "I just felt I had to record everything I could see."

Thabet shared the VCD with the other members of the Hammurabi group, but for a time, news of the killings did not go further than that. Then, in mid-December, President George W. Bush announced the military’s estimate that 30,000 Iraqi civilians had died since the start of the war. TIME’s Tim McGirk, posted in Baghdad, began to investigate cases in which Iraqi civilians had been killed by U.S. troops. In the course of his reporting, he obtained a copy of Thabet’s VCD. There was plenty in the grisly images to raise suspicions, including the U.S.-issued body bags into which the victims were zipped and the scattering of shells that appeared to have come from Marine rifles.

McGirk contacted Marine headquarters in Ramadi to inquire about the incident. The Marines sent back an e-mail saying there were 15 civilian deaths in Haditha on Nov. 19 but that the victims were killed by the roadside bomb and by a firefight that erupted when insurgents fired on the Marines. But the videotape showed that many of the dead were pajama-clad women and children. The bodies had wounds from bullets, not shrapnel, and the scene suggested that they had been murdered inside their homes.

In the ensuing weeks, McGirk and TIME’s Baghdad staff members interviewed more than a dozen Haditha locals by e-mail (travel between Baghdad and Haditha is exceedingly dangerous for Iraqis, let alone foreign journalists), including the mayor, the morgue doctor and a local lawyer who negotiated a settlement between the Marines and the families under which the military agreed to pay $2,500 compensation apiece for some of the victims–mostly the women and children. Several survivors visited TIME’s Baghdad bureau, including a man in his 20s whose four brothers were killed and an orphaned girl who is now the sole caretaker of her 8-year-old brother. The bureau was also pursuing leads that a 12-year-old girl had survived the attack by playing dead. In interviews, Thabet filled in details about what he witnessed before he began shooting his VCD.

In early February, McGirk presented this evidence to, and asked for comment from, Lieut. Colonel Barry Johnson, U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. Johnson viewed the VCD, listened to the accounts and responded straightforwardly, "I think there’s enough here for a full and formal investigation." Army Colonel Gregory Watt was dispatched to Haditha to conduct a three-week probe in which he interviewed Marines, survivors and doctors at the morgue.

At that point, TIME’s Aparisim Ghosh joined the efforts in Baghdad, asking the U.S. military for more information even as the preliminary investigation was continuing. Lacking any official U.S. response to the allegations, TIME chose not to publish an article on the episode in Haditha based solely on the eyewitnesses’ accounts. On March 14, a U.S. military official in Baghdad familiar with the Watt probe finally responded to Ghosh. According to the official, the probe concluded that the civilians were in fact killed by Marines and not by an insurgent’s bomb–but that the deaths appeared to be the result of "collateral damage" rather than malicious intent. Nevertheless, the official told Ghosh, the matter had been handed over to a criminal investigation. Over the next five days, the reporting by McGirk and Ghosh continued to be reviewed by TIME editors and Pentagon correspondent Sally B. Donnelly. TIME’s story "One Morning in Haditha" was published on March 19 on TIME.com and appeared the next day in the print magazine (which carried a March 27 cover date). The Haditha episode began to receive wider coverage last month, when members of Congress revealed that Pentagon and military officials had disclosed that Marines may be charged in connection with the alleged massacre and that a cover-up might have taken place.

If there is any beneficiary at all of the tragedy, it is Hammurabi, the human-rights group, which is flooded with new volunteers and free to do its work more aggressively. Still, Thabet says his thoughts are mostly with the 24 who died. "Nobody cares about what happens to ordinary Iraqis," he says. They do now.

This article, "How Haditha Came To Light," started out by promising to tell us all about how this story came to be uncovered:

The manner in which TIME got the story and the painstaking way the facts revealed themselves illustrate the challenges of trying to cover a dangerous, deadly conflict where the truth isn’t always what it appears to be.

Notice how Time tries to downplay human agency behind the story. "Haditha came to light." "The facts revealed themselves." One can see why.

Times "sources" are quite suspect. And this article raises more questions about them than it answers.

Why did this "budding journalist" Taher Thabet and "human rights watcher" wait until the next day to videotape this alleged atrocity? One that happened on his very doorstep?

Then, after going to the trouble to videotape it, why didn’t Thabet turn over this video of such an obviously newsworthy event to a media outlet or a real human rights group?

And why can’t Time even can’t tell us whether Thabet gave it to them? Or who did? Is Time afraid it would tend to discredit their story?

And note that Time doesn’t tell us anything more about Taher Thabet himself.

But you can imagine the politics of a person who set up the (probably one man) "Hammurabi Organization for Human Rights and Democracy Monitoring Organization."

If there is any beneficiary at all of the tragedy, it is [Thabet’s newly founded] Hammurabi, the human-rights group, which is flooded with new volunteers and free to do its work more aggressively. Still, Thabet says his thoughts are mostly with the 24 who died. "Nobody cares about what happens to ordinary Iraqis," he says. They do now.

Clearly Mr. Thabet has a mission. One suspects he is blindly anti-American, in view of the US blood and money spent trying to help "ordinary Iraqis."

Ironically, Time claims it was too dangerous for Tim McGirk to go to Haditha, which they neglect to point out is the citadel of the Sunni "insurgency."

And yet, this is the same Tim McGirk who celebrated Thanksgiving with the Taliban just two months after 9.11.

Still, look at the sources Mr. McGirk courageously "interviewed" by email:

In the ensuing weeks, McGirk and TIME’s Baghdad staff members interviewed more than a dozen Haditha locals by e-mail (travel between Baghdad and Haditha is exceedingly dangerous for Iraqis, let alone foreign journalists), including the mayor, the morgue doctor and a local lawyer who negotiated a settlement between the Marines and the families…

The "mayor" is the mayor of the Sunni insurgent stronghold where only 150 people out of 90,000 dared to vote in the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum. The mayor holds his job solely at the pleasure of the terrorists who are in total control of Haditha.

The "morgue doctor," Dr. Walid Abdul-Khaleq al-Obeidi, claims to have been arrested, held prisoner for a week and brutally beaten by US troops. From his remarks in interviews it is clear he hates the US. And of course he too only holds his job as the head of the Haditha hospital at the sufferance of the Sunni "insurgents."

The "local lawyer," Khaled Salem Rsayef, claims to have had several relatives murdered by the Marines. He also wants further compensation for himself and his clients. Which he will surely get if the Marines are found guilty.

These are the kind of sources Time trusted for such an important story. But for some reason they didn’t tell us about their backgrounds.

I guess we don’t need to know.

This article was posted by Steve on Monday, June 5th, 2006. Comments are currently closed.

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