Timing and Tragedy

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 6, 2006 8:21 AM

The Haditha story has become so big--cover of Time and Newsweek and all that--that I've been wondering what took the media so long.

Time broke the story back in March, and the major newspapers and networks all did initial pieces about whether a group of Marines had killed two dozen innocent civilians. The issue flared up again when Jack Murtha said that military investigators would find that what happened at Haditha was worse than Time had reported.

And then, fueled by leaks from the investigation and strong intimations of a cover-up, Haditha exploded into the news last week. Suddenly it was being portrayed as the next My Lai.

Why the long fuse? Obviously, it's hard for reporters to find out what's going on with a secret military investigation, and just as obviously it's not easy to go out and interview Iraqis who might have information about the deaths. But you all know the drumbeat when journalists collectively decide that an issue tops their hit parade, the constant barrage of questions at briefings, the steady flood of analysis pieces gauging the political impact and listing the questions that remain unanswered. We saw none of that until last week.

Now, like everything else in Washington, Haditha has become a political football, kicked one way by pro-war pundits and the other way by anti-war commentators. Passions are high on both sides, as you might expect, but this is basically the latest permutation over the morality of the Iraq war.

Andrew Sullivan indirectly blames Bush:

"From the moment George W. Bush exempted U.S. military forces from the Geneva Conventions if 'military necessity' demanded it, he sent a message. From the moment George W. Bush refused to accept Donald Rumsfeld's repeated offers to resign after Abu Ghraib, he sent a message. From the moment, George W. Bush appended a signing statement to the McCain Amendment, arguing that as commander-in-chief, he was not subject to the ban on torture and abuse of military prisoners, the president sent a message.

"Those messages -- in a tense and dangerous war, where bad things will always happen -- made a difficult situation one where abuse and war crimes were almost bound to take place. And command responsibility in the military goes upward. The president cannot fill the role of being commander-in-chief in order to declare 'Mission Accomplished' and then choose not to fill the role when his troops commit war-crimes and torture and atrocities. In what George W. Bush himself calls a 'responsibility society,' he has ultimate responsibility for the forces he commands. And there is a direct and obvious line between his decisions to break decades' long adherence to the Geneva Conventions and the pandemic of torture, and now incidents of war crimes, that have plagued this war and stained the honor of this country.

"To say this is not to be, as Glenn Reynolds argues, 'pathetic and poisonous.' It is to face the fact that this president has formally lowered the moral standards for American warfare -- in writing, and by his actions." (Instapundit, for the record, was referring to "the clearly evident Bush-bashing glee over this stuff.")

The Nation has reached its verdict:

"Enough details have emerged from survivors and military personnel to conclude that in the town of Haditha last November, members of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment perpetrated a massacre. The killings may have been in retaliation for the death of a Marine lance corporal, but this was not the work of soldiers gone berserk. The targets (children from 3 to 14, an old man in a wheelchair, taxi passengers), the hours-long duration of killings, the number of Marines involved, the careful mop-up--all amount to willful, targeted brutality designed to send a message to Iraqis. As Representative John Murtha has pointed out, the patently false story floated afterward, blaming the killings on roadside bombs, and Marine payoffs to survivors imply a cover-up that may extend far up the chain of command . . .

"Whatever the responsibility of the unit commanders in Haditha, it is George W. Bush as Commander in Chief who has sent the clear message that human rights abuses and violations of international law are justified in the 'war on terror.' "

That editorial brought a fairly strong blast from Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol :

"U.S. Marines are under investigation for alleged misconduct in the deaths of Iraqi civilians. The inquiry into the events at Haditha last November 19 is ongoing--but the Nation's editors already know what happened: A U.S. 'war crime'! A military 'massacre'! A 'cover-up'! (And also a 'willful, targeted brutality designed to send a message to Iraqis'--something a cover-up would seem to make more difficult.) The anti-American left can barely be bothered to conceal its glee."

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Steyn says atrocities are, unfortunately, predictable:

"I don't know any more than you do about the precise nature of events triggered in Haditha by Cpl. Terrazas' death. But assume every dark rumor you've heard is true, that this was the murder of civilians by American service personnel. In the run-up to March 2003, there were respectable cases to be made for and against the Iraq war. Nothing that happened at Haditha alters either argument. And, if you're one of the ever swelling numbers of molting hawks among the media, the political class and the American people for whom Haditha is the final straw, that's not a sign of your belated moral integrity but of your fundamental unseriousness.

"Anyone who supports the launching of a war should be clear-sighted enough to know that, when the troops go in, a few of them will kill civilians, bomb schools, torture prisoners. It happens in every war in human history, even the good ones. Individual Americans, Britons, Canadians, Australians did bad things in World War II and World War I. These aren't stunning surprises, they're inevitable: It might be a bombed mosque or a gunned-down pregnant woman or a slaughtered wedding party, but it will certainly be something. And, in the scales of history, it makes no difference to the justice of the cause and the need for victory."

That column really sets off Salon's Peter Daou :

"Steyn's flippancy when it comes to the slaughter of innocents should give anyone pause, but rightwing bloggers will eat up his every word. After all, he is engaging in their favorite tactic: whenever the facts undermine their specious logic, turn around and attack principled Americans for defending America's values...

"In the end, it's not about ethics for these people - however righteous they may feel - it's about refusing to admit that those who marched in the streets in opposition to the war were right."

Should the Marines, if charged, be tried in an American court? That's what everyone would assume. But Slate's John Dickerson and Dahlia Lithwick have an alternate suggestion:

"As the story spreads, outrage at American double standards is once again building around the world and in Iraq. So, here's an idea: Let's let the Iraqis put the Americans alleged to have committed these crimes on trial. The United States wants to encourage the fledgling Iraqi institution of democracy, right? That's why we wanted Saddam tried in Iraq, and through the Iraqi judicial system--both to build up its legitimacy and to give Iraqis the sense of ownership that comes with having control over the legal process. Why, then, shouldn't we also turn over our own soldiers who were involved in either the Haditha massacre or any of the other possible massacres for trial under the Iraqi justice system?

"Doing this would probably be politically idiotic, and maybe even legally impossible. But it isn't without legal precedent. And given the fragility of the new Iraqi government, and the American government's claims about its legitimacy, this vote of confidence would make a powerful political and diplomatic statement. President Bush claimed a week ago that, despite Abu Ghraib, the United States and Iraq 'have now reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror.' Wouldn't permitting Iraqis to try the offenders in their own courts this time go a long way to backing up that claim?"

Why did the story take so long to percolate? Editor & Publisher's Greg Mitchell looks at the record:

"Did the press also drop the ball in probing the killings? Or was the usual roadblock -- the danger of spending a lot of time in hellish Anbar province -- just too difficult to overcome?...

"The New York Times, for example, covered the Time revelations on March 17. On April 6, Haditha briefly appeared in a story, without any reference to the Time probe, and a week later another story mentioned the possible massacre in one sentence. Nothing else appeared in the paper until May 19--after Murtha's talk. Nothing appeared in any opinion columns either.

"The Washington Post carried two stories just after the Time scoop -- then nothing else until Murtha's remarks. The Los Angele Times, after covering the Time revelations, returned for an April 8 story on three commanders at Haditha being relieved of duty, and that's it. A search of AP archives mirrors the L.A. Times' spotty record."

All right, some coverage now of Bush and The Amendment:

"President Bush's push for the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage that is being debated in the Senate this week comes as many Republicans and religious conservatives are beginning a campaign to help lawmakers who support it during this year's elections -- and to punish those who do not," says the New York Times .

"Though people on both sides of the debate say they do not expect the amendment to come anywhere near winning approval this week, both sides say they expect it, and an anticipated version in the House, to be used as a conservative litmus test in elections this fall.

"'It is true what this vote will do will be to help the voters identify who is and is not supportive of the family,' Dr. James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, said in an interview on Monday. 'And I think those that are not are going to have to answer for it.'

"Dr. Dobson's group is already running advertisements against senators who do not plan to support the amendment, including one against Senator Ken Salazar, Democrat of Colorado, that says, 'Why doesn't Senator Salazar believe every child needs a mother and a father?'"

I suddenly understand it a whole lot better.

USA Today : "With five months to go before Republicans try to hold on to their majority in congressional elections this November, however, the goal may not be so much to win as to raise this and other issues that energize conservative Republicans.

"The Senate is also scheduled to take up a bill to repeal the estate tax and a constitutional amendment to ban desecration of the American flag. Like the gay-marriage ban, both have been debated and rejected before."

Chicago Tribune : "With his renewed call Monday for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, President Bush reasserted his allegiance to a conservative constituency whose support for him has eroded significantly in the face of soaring government spending and a controversial immigration proposal."

On the political front, the Wall Street Journal reports that expectations have changed:

"As a bad year for Republicans keeps getting worse, expectations are growing that Democrats could capture at least one house of Congress, ending one-party dominance of the nation's capital and crippling President Bush for his final years."

Whose expectations would those be?

A Kennedy is out of rehab:

"Representative Patrick J. Kennedy, in his first public remarks after a month of treatment for addiction, said yesterday that he will have to battle substance abuse for the rest of his life under extraordinary scrutiny because of his famous name and position," says the Boston Globe .

"But Kennedy -- who has acknowledged struggling with bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and addiction to painkillers -- said that he was confident that he can remain an effective congressman and that he expected to face the consequences of his early morning accident in Washington last month without special treatment from the police and courts."

My favorite paragraph in Elisabeth Bumiller 's swan song for her White House assignment:

"Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, got so mad about an article that he told me he was putting my e-mail address in his spam filter."

Sometimes when newspapers correct stories, they try to fudge or justify what they did. Not so Dave Zweifel, editor of the Madison Capital Times :

"Dear Readers:

"We've been snookered.

"The front-page story on Memorial Day about the Marine veteran who claimed he served seven years on active duty, was seriously injured in Bosnia and now can't get a job in Madison was fabricated by the veteran. Jeremy Cofer, 31, actually served less than two years on active duty and was never sent overseas, where he claimed he saw his best friend die in Bosnia.

"When confronted with suspicions about the story Wednesday, Cofer authorized the release of his military records, where his lies became painfully apparent. He had told the same story in great detail to several people, one of whom contacted The Capital Times and urged us to do a story over the Memorial Day weekend.

"Nevertheless, we at the newspaper must take the blame. Both our reporting and editing processes broke down on this story, holiday weekend or not. There were enough red flags that should have caused us to check further. For that, we apologize and will take steps to prevent something like this from happening again."

It's like Reagan said: Trust but verify.

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