By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 7, 2007
Capturing images of war on their digital cameras, as many troops in Iraq have done, Marines took dozens of gruesome photographs of the 24 civilians who were killed in Haditha, Iraq, in November 2005.
The images -- which investigators tracked down on several laptop computers and digital media drives, some in the United States -- provide visual evidence of a series of shootings outside a taxi and inside three homes that military criminal investigators have alleged were murders.
Much like the photographs that emerged in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse cases, the Haditha images have provided investigators powerful and visceral evidence of what happened. But unlike the detainee photographs, which were turned over to officials who then investigated the case, the Haditha images were discovered months after the shootings as more than 60 Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents scoured the globe for them.
Investigators found photographs on laptop computers that were shipped back to the United States and recovered images that had supposedly been deleted from a Sony PlayStation Portable memory drive, according to investigative documents.
Marines were found to have downloaded the images from each other's devices, traded them and loaded them onto personal Web sites; one Marine told investigators he saw some of the photographs set to music on another Marine's computer. Some were e-mailed from Iraq to a civilian in the United States, but none surfaced publicly until now.
Among the images, there is a young boy with a picture of a helicopter on his pajamas, slumped over, his face and head covered in blood. There is a mother lying on a bed, arms splayed, the bodies of three young children huddled against her right side. There are men with gaping head wounds, and a woman and a child hunkered down on their knees, their hands frozen around their faces as if permanently bracing for an attack.
Several Marines took photographs on Nov. 19, 2005, some of them as part of an intelligence-gathering operation and some in order to record what had happened to a Humvee that was destroyed by a massive roadside bomb, killing Lance Cpl. Miguel "T.J." Terrazas. The photographs of the bomb crater and the shredded vehicle show the power of the explosion that set the Haditha incident in motion.
The images are contained in thousands of pages of NCIS investigative documents obtained by The Washington Post. Post editors decided that most of the images are too graphic to publish.
Ed Buice, an NCIS spokesman, said he could not comment on an open investigation: "NCIS strives to ensure the integrity of every investigation and finds the idea that someone might leak any of its investigative products to be deeply troubling."
One Marine who decided to hold onto the photographs made it certain that officials would have a clearer view of what happened that day. Lance Cpl. Andrew A. Wright, who arrived on the scene after the violence to care for the bodies, took photographs of the dead and kept a full set.
"I decided that it was in my best interest to obtain the photos I had taken that night," Wright told investigators. "Even though there was no investigation at the time, I felt that the photographs would be evidence if anything came up in the future. In my opinion, the people that I photographed had been murdered."
Because the killings in Haditha were not investigated until four months afterward -- initially, Marine officers decided the shootings did not appear out of the norm -- the photographs are in some cases the only hard evidence. Officials are hoping to use them to reconstruct the events because they have not been able to exhume the Iraqi victims' bodies.
NCIS officials are comparing the images with the Marines' statements about what happened.
Investigators have found 44 photographs that a civil affairs officer took in the days after the incident as part of an effort to make condolence payments to the families of the dead. The pictures show pockmarked walls and bloodstained floors.
Investigators also found video from an unmanned aircraft that was aloft in the region that day, but it began recording after the first reports of a roadside bomb and the initial shootings, according to the documents. The video shows Marines conducting door-to-door searches, according to an intelligence officer's statement.
Defense lawyers for four Marines who have been charged with murder in the killings said they believe it will be hard to prove anything based on the photographs alone, other than that the Marines killed the people while hunting for insurgents. The Marines have told investigators that they were following their rules of engagement.
Marine Corps officials believe that many of the photographs -- which show the results of grenade explosions inside civilian homes and close-range rifle shots -- are inflammatory by their nature, no matter whether a crime was committed. Investigators have gone to great lengths to keep them private. It is possible that even the most grim images will surface publicly in military court proceedings.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.