Military struggles to regulate information on Afghanistan suspect

By HAL BERNTON | Seattle Times | Published: March 19, 2012

For nearly a week, the military kept a lid of secrecy over the Army soldier from Joint Base Lewis-McChord suspected of killing 16 Afghan villagers.

At the base south of Tacoma, officials cautioned Army families in his unit to stay quiet and admonished the press to respect their privacy.

At the Pentagon, senior officials leaked out selected details of the soldier’s background even as they removed links to public-affairs articles that detailed some of his experiences in Iraq and his involvement in a training exercise in Afghanistan.

But as the week wore on, the Defense Department began to lose control of the flow of information about the suspect, and the portrait that emerged was of a soldier who earlier had performed with honor on the battlefield, yet struggled on the homefront. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly left his small base in Kandahar province a week ago Sunday and, in the predawn hours, murdered 16 people in two villages.

Defense Department officials and military commanders have described the shooter’s actions as an aberration, in stark contrast to the conduct of the vast majority of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

“This deeply appalling incident in no way represents the values of coalition troops or the abiding respect we feel for the Afghan people,” Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said in a written statement. “Nor does it impugn or diminish the spirit of cooperation and partnership we have worked so hard to foster with the Afghan National Security Forces.”

Allen’s comments echo remarks made by other U.S. officials after photos became public of earlier war crimes involving five Lewis-McChord soldiers charged in the killings of three unarmed civilians in January, February and May of 2010. Four of the five were eventually convicted.

But so far, the case against Bales is unfolding in markedly different fashion than that earlier case, in which the Army was able to keep control of the information flow for a much longer period.

While Bales was able to contact a civilian attorney within days after his detention in Afghanistan, the five soldiers in the 2010 case were held for most of May that year for questioning at Kandahar Air Field.

Only in June, as they were charged, did the Army release their names, and only in August – months after the killings occurred – did civilian attorneys begin speaking to the media.

“In these cases, we have seen again and again, the Defense Department had moved to isolate and vilify the people accused of crimes,” said Daniel Conway, a civilian military attorney who represented one of the five charged in the 2010 killings. “It’s important for the (defense) attorneys to get out front, and change the dynamic.”

As the prosecution of the 2010 war crimes unfolded, the soldiers’ family members made sympathetic statements. But officers in the soldiers’ brigade did not make public statements. Press reports brought out repugnant details of their conduct – that the soldiers had plotted to make murder look like legitimate combat deaths, took body parts as trophies and posed for photos next to corpses in crimes committed over a five-month period.

Bales is alleged to have murdered all his victims in a single unauthorized foray outside his base.