Murtha Denies Libeling Marine

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 3, 2006

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) said he does not blame a Marine for "lashing out" against him by filing a defamation lawsuit yesterday, but the congressman said his comments about the questionable killings of two dozen civilians in Haditha, Iraq, were merely meant to attack the nation's strategy in the war.

Murtha was the object of a libel lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington in which Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich alleges that the lawmaker tarnished the Marine's reputation when he spoke publicly about the Haditha slayings after private Defense Department briefings on the case. Murtha characterized the incident by saying the Marines killed the civilians "in cold blood."

Wuterich, through his attorneys and in the lawsuit, argues that he and members of his unit were following rules of engagement when they used grenades and rifles to clear a group of homes near where a roadside bomb killed one member of his squad in November.

"When I spoke up about Haditha, my intention was to draw attention to the horrendous pressure put on our troops in Iraq and to the cover-up of the incident," Murtha said in a written statement, continuing his calls for removal of troops from Iraq. "Our troops are caught in the middle of a tragic dilemma. The military trains them to fight a conventional war and use overwhelming force to protect U.S. lives. I agree with that policy, but when we use force, we often kill civilians. What are the consequences?"

Wuterich's lawsuit alleges that Murtha made defamatory statements after receiving inaccurate and false information from Pentagon officials this spring, but Murtha's office yesterday pointed to reports that said Pentagon officials believe evidence collected in the Haditha investigation supports allegations that the Marines "deliberately shot" civilians.

Two Defense Department officials said yesterday that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service has wrapped up the initial phase of its investigation and will hand over evidence and interviews to prosecutors, who will continue to work with NCIS agents to gather more information over coming weeks. Marine Corps officials said the decision on whether to charge Wuterich and other members of his squad with crimes "is not imminent."

The two Pentagon officials said evidence collected in the case could lead to potential charges, in part because photographs taken at the scene of the shootings the day they occurred indicate possible wrongdoing. "It's an ugly, ugly scene," said one official, who spoke anonymously because he has not been authorized to discuss the investigation.

Gary Myers, a civilian attorney for one of the Marines, said yesterday that the Marines have never denied the shootings occurred.

"Of course the shootings were deliberate, that's what you do in war -- you kill people. The question is, were they justifiable?" Myers said. "This is exactly what I expected from this Pentagon, which is an effort to vilify and isolate these men before they ever have a chance to demonstrate their lack of guilt."

Mark S. Zaid and Neal A. Puckett, lawyers representing Wuterich, said the libel lawsuit has no political motivation and is instead an effort to clear Wuterich's name. Puckett said Wuterich claims "absolute innocence" and believes he did nothing wrong.

"We have never been contacted by any organization, political or otherwise, to suggest any action against Congressman Murtha," Zaid and Puckett said in a written statement. "This was solely our idea as a means by which to defend Staff Sgt. Wuterich from the baseless and irresponsible accusations levied by Mr. Murtha."

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