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Time Re-Invents Its Haditha Video Source

Is the man who first brought our attention to Haditha, Time’s Tim McGirk. repositioning himself because of these remarks from the Marines’ attorneys?

Here is what was reported on June 15 by Reuters:

Secretary-General of the Hammurabi Organization for Human Rights and Democracy Monitoring, and also a Haditha resident who witnessed parts of the incident, Thaer al-Hadithi, gives a detailed account of the alleged massacre of 24 Iraqis by U.S. Marines last year, to an Associated Press reporter at the offices of the group in Baghdad, Iraq Tuesday, June 6, 2006.

Haditha defense questions key videotape

Thu Jun 15, 2006

By Dan Whitcomb

…A lawyer for one of the Marines under investigation, who also declined to be identified, said that Hammurabi was not a known or registered human rights organization and had no track record of reporting any other abuses.

"And it turns out these two [Hammurabi] employees have family members spending time in local prisons for insurgent activity," the attorney said. "I think the origins of the tape would have been better suited if it came from somebody who really did have altruistic motives in their heart."…

Perhaps these amazing claims by the Marines’ attorney help explain some of the new and different answers Tim McGirk gave the very next day in this interview for the Columbia Journalism Review site, the CJR Daily:

Tim McGirk.

Tim McGirk on Haditha

Paul McLeary

June 16, 2006

Time magazine’s veteran foreign correspondent Tim McGirk has reported from postings such as Islamabad, Afghanistan, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Baghdad and New Delhi, and is currently in the process of moving to Jerusalem to become the magazine’s bureau chief there. This past March, while in Baghdad, he was the first reporter to break the story of the alleged slaughter of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines in the town of Haditha in November 2005.

Paul McLeary: In March, Time magazine broke the story of the alleged massacre of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines in Haditha. How did you find the story, and how did you go about reporting it?

Tim McGirk: Well, we wanted to do a story that looked at civilian casualties, because in December, President Bush mentioned for the first time that there were around 30,000 civilian casualties. So we contacted the Hammurabi human rights monitoring group, since we did stuff with them before, and we knew that they had very good contacts in the Sunni triangle and could get places that we couldn’t get to. So, they came one day and they brought this horrendous video, and they didn’t know that much about it, they just knew that it came from Haditha, and there were two segments of it. The first showed relatives claiming the bodies in a morgue in Haditha, and the second showed interiors of a house where something awful had happened.

Then they said, "the Marines did this," and I found it very hard to believe, you know? But what piqued my curiosity was that I went back and I saw that [in November, at the time the Iraqis claimed the massacre happened] there had been a communiqué that had been put out by camp Blue Diamond, [an American base near Ramadi] that said that one Marine had been killed and two wounded and 15 Iraqis were killed in the same roadside bombing, and it said that eight insurgents were killed in an ensuing gunfight. Then I looked at the video again, and thought "well, these bodies are women and children, and some were wearing their pajamas," and you just wouldn’t find Iraqi women going out in the streets at 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning in their pajamas. The second thing is that all the damage was on the inside of the houses, so it was obvious that something had happened inside the houses. There were a few exterior shots of the houses, and there was nothing on the exterior. If it was a roadside bomb that killed these people, you know, the outside of the building would have been pockmarked, and it wouldn’t have accounted for the bullet holes on the inside of these rooms, too.

PM: How did you follow up with it, did you send Iraqi stringers out to investigate?

TM: We did it through the Hammurabi group, we got the local journalist who had shot the video and he came from Haditha, and through him… Well, first of all, we couldn’t send our stringers out there because even our stringers who had really good contacts with the insurgents, who wanted to go, were told by the insurgents, "Don’t even try it, because the guys out there are all crazy foreign fighters, and they’ll kill you as a CIA spy." So the only way we could really get information was by making contact with people in Haditha, and getting them to come to Baghdad.

The thing that convinced me that I had to do the story was when we got this 8 year-old girl who came and just told this absolutely horrifying story, and what convinced me about her story was that she only talked about what she knew. She wasn’t being coached to talk about things she hadn’t seen or witnessed directly. She only talked about what she saw, and she saw two Marines in the doorway of the living room, who opened fire first on her 78 year-old grandfather – shot him twice, once in the chest, once in the head. They shot the grandmother, then opened fire at the group [of Iraqis] who were huddled at the far end of the room, and she was one of them, along with her younger brother, who also survived.

PM: And how long did it take you to put the story together after you saw the video and spoke with the townspeople?

TM We saw the video around the third week of January, and then we knew that there were other witnesses, a 13 year-old girl from a different house, the 8 year-old’s aunt who went out the back door with a baby, and her husband tried to follow her and he was shot and lay bleeding for six hours in the garden before he died. In the meantime, we also made contact with the mayor, we made contact with a lawyer in Haditha who was a go-between representing the families when the Americans came and gave them compensation, which was another strange thing, because the Americans never give compensation to civilians who are killed by insurgent activity. They only do it if they’re directly involved, and this was a case where they were paying off families.

PM: And had you heard anything from the military by this point?

TM: Yeah, we did. In the beginning after we saw the video and heard accounts from the military and the girls, we approached the military and said, "This is what we’ve got," and the Marines’ first reaction was "Well, we think this is all al Qeada propaganda." We told them that we’d like to go up and see the place for ourselves, but it was too dangerous for us to go up there alone, can [they] arrange an embed? So, they did, but the problem was that the ABC anchor [Bob Woodruff] had just been wounded the day before we were supposed to go out, and [Time managing editor] Jim Kelly, I think wisely, said that it probably wasn’t a good idea for us to go out to Haditha, and put our safety in the hands of the men that we were then going to turn around and accuse of having gone on a rampage and killed civilians.

PM: During your stint in country, how often did Time reporters go out on embeds?

TM: [Michael] Ware went out a lot. I think when I was there, I went out on three different embeds around Baghdad.

PM: How long were you in Iraq?

TM: Five weeks, but I was also there last summer, in June and July.

PM: And how would you compare last summer to your most recent trip this past winter?

TM: It was much worse this past time. When I came back in January there were entire sections of the city where we had been able to go six months before, and suddenly they were just too dangerous. Also the strains on the staff were much, much greater because we had a mix of Sunni and Shia, and all the reverberations of what was happening outside of the office were naturally affecting the people inside, too.

PM: How would you respond to the criticism coming from some on the Right [that] the press is trying to push the Haditha story because it makes the military look bad, and hurts the war effort?

TM: I just know in my case that we deliberately got all of our facts together, and then and only then did we go to the military. We gave what we had to the military and they said that they would launch an investigation into it. We held off on reporting it until we could get their side of the story. So, I don’t think we were in any great rush to accuse them of a massacre.

Once again, these answers just beg for even more questions.

For instance, Time Magazine, a giant in the media world, had done stories with the (two man) Hammurabi group before:

So we contacted the Hammurabi human rights monitoring group, since we did stuff with them before…

And yet Hammurabi didn’t think to take them this video when they made it? They waited for Time to contact them? They let eight weeks go by?

What is the purpose of being a "human rights watch" monitor if you aren’t going to tell the media about what you’ve seen and taped?

Also, if McGirk went to Hammurabi because he had worked with them before, why did he first identify the source of the tape as Human Rights Watch ? And then later, in their correction of that error, falsely claim that Hammurabi worked closely with Human Rights Watch?

How could McGirk make such a mistake about a group he knew and worked with before?

To return to his new narrative:

So, they came one day and they brought this horrendous video, and they didn’t know that much about it, they just knew that it came from Haditha…

What? The "Secretary General" of Hammurabi, Thaer al-Hadithi, claims to have witnessed the event as it happened. He claims to have videotaped the scene and the victims the next day. (See below for Time’s own account of this.)

But now McGirk tells us they didn’t know much about the tape, except that it came from Haditha?

He continues:

We [followed up] through the Hammurabi group, we got the local journalist who had shot the video and he came from Haditha, and through him…

So now McGirk is claiming that there is another person who was not part of Hammurabi, who shot the tape.

This is nothing like what Time claims in their very detailed description of how McGirk came to get the tape and the 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

Despite this elaborate exegesis, we’re now told by McGirk that Taher Thabet, the founder (and co-member) of Hammurabi doesn’t know anything about this all important video, except that it came from Haditha.

Near the end of the interview McGirk tosses in another gross misrepresentation:

I don’t think we were in any great rush to accuse them of a massacre.

This is clearly untrue. For by his own admission McGirk fought with his editors at Time to use the word "massacre" in his first report. He claims he was overruled, but in fact in several versions the word does appear.

But let’s return to what the Marines’ lawyer said about Taher Thabet and his co-partner at Hammurabi the day before McGirk’s interview:

"And it turns out these two [Hammurabi] employees have family members spending time in local prisons for insurgent activity," the attorney said. "I think the origins of the tape would have been better suited if it came from somebody who really did have altruistic motives in their heart."

Could it be McGirk has been forced to re-reinvent the source of this all-important video because of this deadly blow to Thabet’s credibility?

After all, McGirk and Time now have a considerable stake in their "Haditha Massacre" story being true.

As mentioned, the source of the video has been so crucial to its credibility that when McGirk’s story first appeared he falsely proclaimed it was the "internationally respected" Human Rights Watch who provided him with the VCD.

Who knows who McGirk will claim next as his source, now that Thabet’s suspect motives have been exposed?

This article was posted by Steve Gilbert on Sunday, June 18th, 2006. Comments are currently closed.

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