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PBS Frontline: 'Rules of Engagement'

Arun Rath
Arun Rath
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Arun Rath
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Wednesday, February 20, 2008; 11:00 AM

Frontline producer Arun Rath was online Wednesday, Feb. 20 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his film "Rules of Engagement," which examines U.S. soldiers' guidelines for fighting in Iraq, as viewed through the prism of a 2005 roadside bombing in Haditha, and the aftermath in which 24 Iraqi civilians were killed.

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"Rules of Engagement" airs Tuesday, Feb. 19, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Rath has worked in public broadcasting for nearly 15 years, including teaming up with Lowell Bergman and Raney Aronson to produce "Secrets, Sources and Spin," the first two parts of Frontline's "News War" series. He was the director of NPR's daily news show "Talk of the Nation" before moving to New York in 2000 to successfully relaunch NPR's "On the Media."

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mrdn: Where is the full timeline of events, the original video from the bot and head/sight cams, and map/graphics?

Arun Rath: There's a link to a timeline on the readings and links page for the show on the Frontline Web site. You can view the clips from the Scan Eagle drone in the show if you go to the home page and go to "watch the full program"; most of the video from the drone is in part two.

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Anonymous: So what came of the air cam that did show threat or was it a threat?

Arun Rath: The drone footage showed what appeared to be insurgents fleeing from behind the house that was stormed by Wuterich and his squad, and various other insurgent activities that day. There were also multiple other attacks and firefights across the town that can be seen in the footage

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Sacramento, Calif.: If possible, could you comment on what you believe might have happened differently in Haditha if the soldiers who had entered Haditha had been an international peacekeeping force, and not U.S. troops? If they had instead been Iraqi soldiers or police? If they had instead been unarmed U.N. or international peacekeepers? If they had instead been international aid or development workers? Would the potential or actual violence that could have occurred that day have probably been less, more or about the same? Of a different kind? Or is this impossible to speculate? Thank you for a very thought-provoking and soul-searching report!

Arun Rath: It's an interesting question. I can't talk responsibly about the rules of engagement followed by U.N. or Iraqi forces, but I don't think an unarmed mission would have worked in Haditha at that time -- Haditha was run completely by insurgents, and those who had been seen as collaborating with Westerners routinely had been executed. So it's hard to imagine that such groups could have functioned effectively there at that time.

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Orange, Calif.: What are the odd that every Iraqi from infant to elder was considered less than human, and that the sentiment was conveyed from the commander-in-chief down to the men pulling the triggers?

Arun Rath: The Bargewell report, mentioned in the hour, does claim there was a tendency in the Marines to not value Iraqi lives as much as the lives of the Marines.

Many Marines of course take issue with that conclusion -- one of the defense lawyers I interviewed wrote this off to some extent as a cultural difference between the Army (Bargewell was an Army general) and the Marine Corps, saying that the Army generally considers the Marines to be more "aggressive." You can check out the report yourself and come to your own conclusions -- we link to the full report on our Web site.

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Anonymous: I am severely disappointed with the misrepresentation by PBS of the various combat images. Under no condition was there an aerial vehicle "dispatched after the explosion" that could have shown the side of a building blowing up prior to a commercial break. More so, PBS has severely mangled the integrity of the program by falsely mixing unrelated images, video, and photographs which are irrelevant to the situation supposedly being documented.

Primarily, though, why was there no mention of the timeframe between when the explosion occurred, the white car's introduction, and the purported arrival of superior officers who commanded the houses be cleared as there was weapons fire from them? There must be some latency between when the initial blast, communications, travel, and arrival of a third party plus the time required to fly the aircraft, and given those factors, PBS has failed miserably to indicate if the entire series of events happened within a few minutes time or if the houses were targeted many hours after they were standing around waiting for the senior command, who appears to be the primary cause for concern and documentation irregularities.

PBS should be held accountable for the disinformation they claim to denounce while fabricating false stories and glamorous media that is completely unrelated to the purported documentary. Facts and timelines and physical reality are easily documented and problems with documents are easily analyzed, but PBS's representation is littered with fallacy while attempting to present a factual documentary. I am severely disappointed with PBS.

Arun Rath: I'm not sure I understand the "commercial break" reference, given that this is PBS. In any case, we took great pains to make sure we did not misrepresent anything in this documentary. The drone was already in the air at the time of the attack, and was redirected after the attack on Sgt. Wuterich's squad. The Quick Reaction Force, headed by the lieutenant who ordered Wuterich to "clear south" was on the scene pretty quickly.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: Why do you media people put our soldiers in danger when your decide to report on the War in Iraq? I personally know that you fly with our soldiers and they provide your personal protection. You never report on the good we do. It is a tough job and now because of this and other stories our soldiers are second-guessing themselves. I am a retired officer and completed a tour of duty in Tikrit, Iraq, in 2005 where we lost a 19-year-soldier at our front gate (IED) at FOB Speicher. This soldier had two or three months left on his tour of duty and was coming back from just completing the process of becoming U.S. citizen. Why don't you get that story out?

Arun Rath: I don't think we did anything here to put anyone in danger -- we vet these programs thoroughly to make sure we don't. What happened in Haditha was horrible, but we hoped this documentary could help our audience understand somewhat better how it happened and what we might learn from it.

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Chicago: I fought in Vietnam in '67-'68 (2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division -- Da Nang Area) and I'm a retired Chicago Police Officer (31-plus years). I had to laugh when Rep. Murtha had the nerve to say that he knew exactly what happened in Haditha. (Did he ever fight in a war? Real combat, not paper cuts!) Well, Mr. Knowitall, let me tell you something we use to say in the CPD -- if you weren't there, you don't know that for a fact! Once again' a big-mouth, blowhard politician opening his mouth before engaging his peebrain. No wonder our country is in trouble. Let me just end by saying, Unless you walk in their shoes,you've got no room to criticize. I've walked in those shoes, and thank God for our Marines.

Arun Rath: We requested an interview from Rep. Murtha, and he turned us down.

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Cambridge, Mass.: Whatever happened at Haditha (and we may never know), comparisons with My Lai are far off-base. There was no hostile action that precipitated the slaughter at My Lai. The slaughter continued for several hours. It was obvious (as it was not in Haditha) that the victims had no hostile intent. And while the initial press release may have been misleading (probably inadvertently), there was no coverup, and in fact a determined investigation once Time magazine publicized the day's events.

The real question at Haditha is: who does one believe? Apart from Dela Cruz, whose story of slaughter at the white car is inconsistent with the forensic evidence, there is remarkable consistency among the accounts given by the Marines involved. As a former Marine, Marine lawyer and prosecutor, I would not be confident about the strength of this case, even considering the reduced charges.

Arun Rath: I agree with you about the My Lai comparison -- it is hard to sustain. Both in terms of scale and what actually happened, the two events are very, very different.

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Ontario, Canada: Arun: Are you discouraged that response from some to your documentary seems to be anger about the story being told, as opposed to the story itself?

Arun Rath: I actually was expecting it to be a little worse -- this incident has been kicked around as a political football by both sides, and people are very passionate about this topic on both sides of the divide. So far we've been attacked by folks who think we weren't hard enough on the Marines as well as those who think we weren't fair to them and have an inherent anti-military bias (we don't).

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Broomall, Pa.: Will there be a more detailed follow-up once all of the courts-martial are concluded? Is there any chance of a Frontline investigation into the actions of CID, NCIS, and the JAG offices for their prosecutorial excesses?

Arun Rath: I think it's likely an update of some sort will run after the courts-martial have concluded. The accusations of prosecutorial excesses as you call them was another very interesting topic that we just couldn't fit in. Suffice to say that the supporters of the Marines are very unhappy with how the NCIS conducted their investigation. You can read more about these allegations on a Web site devoted to defending the Marines, linked to from our site. The NCIS told us that there was no misconduct, and that their investigators acted appropriately.

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San Clemente, Calif.: Mr Rath, I thought your documentary was very fair to the young Marines. As one who has followed this case closely for several years I wish I could say the same of NCIS. Their methodology of investigations seems archaic, problematic and sloppy. They seemed in this case to have worked from a presumption of guilt backward. You did not touch on any of this in your film.

So far the cases have produced mostly dropped charges and acquittals. The charges against Tatum seem no stronger than the ones against Sharratt. In fact, the presiding officer at their article 32 hearings recommended dismissing the charges for both. I wonder on what basis Gen. Mattis came up with such different decisions, especially given that he exonerated Sharratt in no uncertain terms. Also, do you think that a desire to protect the reputation of Rep. Murtha may have played any role in having the Haditha investigation go off half-cocked? Where do you think Murtha was getting his information -- Gen. Hagee, Secretary Winter?

Arun Rath: See my earlier note about the NCIS. In our interview, Justin Sharratt described his NCIS interrogation as a multi-hour ordeal in the dank depths of the Haditha dam, during which he was not allowed to go to the bathroom and had to relieve himself in bottles. The NCIS director, Thomas Betro, told me that this was not the case, and that the marines were allowed to take breaks etc.

Anyway, there were a number of allegations of misconduct that came up, denied by the NCIS, that would have taken a lot of time, and a lot of back and forth. In the end, it made the most sense to focus on the evidence that held the most weight in the hearings.

I can't speculate why Gen. Mattis did not follow the recommendation to dismiss charges in Tatum's case-- only that it was a big surprise to a lot of people. The commanding general almost always goes along with the recommendation of the investigating officer.

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Princeton, N.J.: What are the rules of engagement in a city like Kirkuk? When the U.S. army comes across Kurdish militia evicting an Arab family from their home to install a Kurdish one, what are they supposed to do? A similar question for Baghdad.

Arun Rath: While the essential principles of the ROE remain the same in all situations (i.e. the right to self-defense), there are variations in degree from situation to situation. So while I couldn't tell you what the ROE are in Kirkuk, it's possible or even likely there is some variation. Also, certain parts of the ROE for a particular region or conflict can be classified, since it could be bad for the enemy to know the specific conditions under which our forces are permitted to fire.

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Austin, Texas: Thank you for your careful reporting of the reality of Iraq. I found the situation horrifying, but I couldn't find myself condemning our troops. They are in a nasty situation with their lives always on the line. Toward the end I listened to the soldiers talk about the different attitude about "hearts and minds" this time around. Unfortunately the counterinsurgency tactics taught Gen. Petraeus will force our troops to hesitate and will result in more American casualties and deaths. It may also allow us to win the military battle by winning over the local population. Did you see signs that the Iraqis were willing to change their attitudes about our troops and work for us instead of against us, in places like Haditha?

Arun Rath: I can't reach any conclusions, since I'm speaking outside of my own reporting here, but it certainly seems like there are signs, the Anbar Awakening being the most obvious example. There was also a fascinating piece in the LA Times this weekend about the recent handover of Haditha from Marines to Iraqi troops, which seems like a positive sign as well.

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Los Angeles: It has been reported that pictures were taken of the Iraqis killed at Haditha, but 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson, a battalion intelligence officer, ordered a subordinate to destroy the pictures, and that that subordinate recently came forward to testify accordingly. Why was the alleged destruction of the pictures not included in the documentary?

Arun Rath: There were a lot of details we couldn't fit into the hour, which is why we chose to focus on the enlisted men who were accused of doing the actual killing, rather than the officers.

Arun Rath: There were a lot of details we couldn't fit into the hour, which is why we chose to focus on the enlisted men who were accused of doing the actual killing, rather than the officers, like Lt. Grayson.

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Toronto: Up here in Canada the CBC's National News did a report on Gen. Petraeus's doctrine. It said one aspect of it was to try to retrain soldiers out of thinking that their first priority should be self-defense -- and retrain them that preserving civilian life should be their top priority. Did the CBC get that right? If so, I applaud him, and wonder why the U.S. news isn't picking this up.

Arun Rath: I actually asked General Petraeus that very question. Because, as I mentioned in another post, we chose to focus on the enlisted men, we weren't able to include the interview in the show, the transcript is on the Web site, and the question you raise is actually right at the top.

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Ottawa, Canada: The testimony by the soldiers is "unsworn." Is this normal practice for a military hearing? I must say that it seems strange that the soldiers were not sworn in during this process.

Arun Rath: I believe unsworn statements are delivered to the court in order to prevent the prosecution from cross-examining the defendant- that way, they can get out their version of the story but still retain their right not to be questioned by the prosecution. But I won't swear to that statement without my fact-checker present.

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Woodbridge, Va.: All of the urban warfare training I received in the National Guard infantry emphasized the need to shoot first, fast and without hesitation. The preferred method of entering a building was to throw in as many hand grenades as possible and then "spray" each room as you entered. When was this revised to require soldiers to risk their own lives (how many Marines died in Haditha?) in order to protect the enemy!? Bottom line, villagers who shelter enemy fighters are by extension part of the enemy combatant force and have no cause for complaint when they are treated as such.

Arun Rath: There's a segment about changes to training in the Marine Corps on our site -- another interesting topic that couldn't fit in to the hour:

See also my other post regarding my interview with General Petraeus- according to the counterinsurgency doctrine, more risk to our forces is required in order to protect the civilian population and win their support.

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Toronto: One aspect of your documentary that disturbed me was the intelligence officer and press officers amazing willingness to believe the worst of the Hammurabi human rights group. Just to be clear -- you found zero evidence this group had any ties to the resistance, correct?

Arun Rath: It's a very difficult question. Marine intelligence officers have told us they have actual intercepts of communications between this group and insurgents. But of course we have no way to check out these assertions. Whether or not the group has insurgent ties however, the basic facts of the video -- that there are dead women and children, who were apparently not killed by insurgents -- are undeniable.

The Marines had seen a lot of propaganda videos however, and the Bargewell investigators found that this was the context in which they tended to see the Hammurabi tape -- as just another Information Operation from the insurgents.

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