No Retreat, No Retraction, No Comment From Marines
There seemed to be a substantial risk that Marine Corps Commandant Michael Hagee would, at the beginning of his Pentagon press briefing yesterday, start crooning about the halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli.
He was giving the first briefing by a top Pentagon official since fresh allegations surfaced three weeks ago about Marines killing two dozen Iraqi civilians in Haditha. But, unable or unwilling to provide information about that dark episode, he chose to talk "about what it is to be a Marine."
"Our high standards, mission focus and selfless service are what enabled Marines to attack successfully in the Belleau Wood in June of 1918 after being told that the war was lost and their attack was futile," he proclaimed, four stars glistening on each shoulder and collar, and ribbons covering his left breast. "These same military virtues resulted in the successful assault on Iwo Jima in February of 1945. They're also what enabled the 1st Marine Division to conduct a successful withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir when surrounded by 10 Chinese divisions during the Korean War."
Stirring stuff, but not exactly what the Pentagon press corps was looking for.
"General," queried ABC News's Jonathan Karl, "all that we have, officially, on the record, from the military on the Haditha incident, is that 15 civilians were killed by a roadside bomb. Can you now correct for the record that statement and tell us if that statement was inaccurate?"
Hagee could not. "As I've said several times, I cannot comment on anything that has happened until the investigations are complete."
"So you're going to let stand the press release?" Karl demanded.
Hagee was. Without another word, he turned to the next questioner.
The Pentagon has already told members of Congress that their probes found that Marines killed about 24 Iraqi civilians, including women and children, on Nov. 19 and then lied about it by inventing a tale of a firefight. "There was no firefight, there was no IED [improvised explosive device] that killed these innocent people; our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood," Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) said last month.
But, for public consumption, the secretive Pentagon is still sticking to its six-month-old press release saying that 15 civilians were killed by the roadside bomb. And that left the commandant in a less-than-commanding position.
In his opening statement, he said that he was "gravely concerned," but it would be "inappropriate" to comment. "I refer all these questions to the operational chain of command for comment at the appropriate time," Hagee said, more lawyer than warrior.
Trying to weave around this blanket no-comment, Reuters's Will Dunham proffered a compare-and-contrast question for Hagee about Haditha and the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
"I really believe that it's inappropriate to make any sort of comparisons until the investigations are complete," Hagee responded.
Somebody else tried to reason with Hagee. "If you have information that these allegations are baseless, what benefit can there be to holding onto it for more weeks as opposed to getting the facts out now?"
"I hate to repeat myself here," Hagee repeated, "but as long as these investigations are ongoing, I am not going to comment on the investigations until I have seen the full investigations."
CNN's Jamie McIntyre got the next attempt. "At the risk of getting the same answer, we've been told that there was a set of photographs that were taken by a Marine . . . after the incident."
Hagee gave him the same answer: "I have seen the photographs, but they are part of the investigation, and I'm not going to talk about those photographs."
David Cloud of the New York Times tried a different tack. "General, have you considered relieving anyone in the chain of command before the investigation is completed?"
"I am waiting for those investigations to be complete," came the inevitable reply.
Things had deteriorated from the very first question, when Bob Burns of the Associated Press asked the commandant, "Why shouldn't you resign as an acknowledgment of failure of leadership?" Hagee informed Burns that "I have not submitted any resignation" but declined to say why.
Twelve questions later, the subject still had not changed from Haditha. "One last question!" called out a Pentagon aide. A surprised reporter turned to look at the clock. The briefing was only 13 minutes old.
One final question, also Haditha-related, and the commandant quickly left the room, questioners shouting after him. After Hagee disappeared, 18 reporters surrounded Col. David Lapan, a Marine Corps spokesman, demanding to know why the Pentagon wouldn't correct its original Haditha statement. "It doesn't make sense to correct it before we know all the facts," he said.
ABC's Karl suggested the military could, in Nixonian fashion, merely declare the statement "inoperative."
The spokesman seemed surprised that the Pentagon statement would be taken at face value. "Is everyone going by that press release?" Lapan asked.