The first story was shaky from the start, that Sgt. Robert Bales "sneaked" off a combat outpost into hostile, landmined territory in the middle of the night, walked north a little over a half mile to a village, engaged in bloody murder, then walked back that half mile, past the base, and another mile south, killed more people, then turned himself in at the gate, all within an hour. Sharp-eyed bloggers did the math and recalled from other reports that Bales has part of a foot missing from a wound in Iraq, making the feat all the more remarkable.
Among the dead were a number of children, including a two-year-old.
Two weeks later the Pentagon's story changed, and Bales had managed to sneak off the base twice over a longer timeline:
"Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who is suspected in the shooting deaths this month of 17 Afghans, sneaked off his remote outpost twice during his alleged 90-minute rampage in two Afghan villages, two senior U.S. officials told CNN on Monday.
The officials said that, after the March 11 shootings in one village in Kandahar province, Bales sneaked back onto his base. They said Bales was seen at that point by fellow troops.
One official said investigators believe Bales told other soldiers he had just killed military-aged Afghan men. The officials said they did not know whether those troops told anyone else.
Then Bales sneaked out again and headed to the second village; he was apprehended by a search party as he attempted to re-enter the combat outpost the second time, the officials said.
Before this account, an Afghan guard was believed to have been the sole person who saw Bales that night. The guard alerted U.S. troops on base."
The UK Guardian noted around the same time:
"Members of the Afghan delegation investigating the killings said one Afghan guard working from midnight to 2am saw a US soldier return to the base around 1.30am. Another Afghan soldier who replaced the first and worked until 4am said he saw a US soldier leaving the base at 2.30am. It's unknown whether the Afghan guards saw the same US soldier. If the gunman acted alone, information from the Afghan guards would suggest that he returned to base in between the shooting sprees."
Never mind that this leaves open the question of whether security at a "hot" outpost is routinely left, in this era of attacks coming from inside the wire, to purely indigenous guard, while US troops sleep. Ho Chi Minh would have dreamed of this situation. CNN reported that a US official told them that Bales had returned to the base "unnoticed."
"One U.S. official with knowledge of the investigation said an Afghan guard allegedly spotted Bales leaving his outpost around 1 a.m. It is not clear why Bales' superiors weren’t alerted, and the official said Bales was not noticed when he allegedly returned to the compound an hour later."
The NY Times report quoting one Afghan General Hameed seemed aimed at putting a bit of spin on how Bales could have sashayed on and off the base so easily, saying:
"In recent interviews, American and Afghan officials said that the outpost in the rural Panjwai district was guarded by Afghan soldiers that night, as it probably was on most nights, because there were relatively few American soldiers based there, possibly only a platoon. Platoons typically have between 25 and 40 soldiers. -"Details Offered on How Suspect Could Have Left Afghan Base""
So let me get this straight. A base in one of the most hostile parts of a war zone is under indigenous guard at night because, out of 25 - 40 tough US soldiers, they all need to be get their beauty sleep? This isn't the 21st Century Army. This is "F Troop." If the Pentagon really wants to fool people, they should learn when to shut up.
Jefferson Morley of Salon.com was the first reliable American outlet to report President Karzai's, and the members of an Afghan Parliament investigative team's, insistence that there was more than one shooter:
"A group of Afghan parliamentary investigators has concluded that Bales was part of a group of 15-20 soldiers. As Outlook Afghanistan reported Monday, “The team spent two days in the province, interviewing the bereaved families, tribal elders, survivors and collecting evidences at the site in Panjwai district.” One of the parliamentarians told Pajhwok Afghan News that investigators believed 15 to 20 American soldiers carried out the killings."
“After our investigations, we came to know that the killings were not carried out by one single soldier. More than a dozen soldiers went, killed the villagers and then burnt the bodies,” lawmaker Naheem Lalai Hameedzai claimed.....
“All the villagers that we talked to said there were 15 to 20 men (who) had conducted a night raid operation in several areas in the village,” said Hameedzai."
Disputing this is the governor of the province and the local police chief. The provincial governor who upholds the one gunman scenario says:
"It is time for Afghanistan to calm down and not let the insurgents take advantage of this case. They want foreign troops to leave such areas like this so they can hold those areas. We should be aware of their intentions and try to help the government, not the insurgents."
The governor does not say where in "try to help the government" the truth figures in.
Interestingly, the initial Reuters report on the scene immediately after the killings made numerous references to multiple shooters, in addition to reporting that one staff sergeant was in custody, and that US officials were insisting on one shooter
"Neighbors and relatives of the dead said they had seen a group of U.S. soldiers arrive at their village in Kandahar's Panjwayi district at about 2 a.m., enter homes and open fire.
An Afghan man who said his children were killed in the shooting spree accused soldiers of later burning the bodies.
"They (Americans) poured chemicals over their dead bodies and burned them," Samad told Reuters at the scene.
Neighbors said they had awoken to crackling gunfire from American soldiers, who they described as laughing and drunk.
"They were all drunk and shooting all over the place," said neighbor Agha Lala, who visited one of the homes where killings took place.""
Now the first western reporter to gain access to child witnesses in the shooting, which she says the military tried to block, gives accounts of many men with "flashlights" on the ends of their rifles and on their helmets. As carried by MSNBC:
""the children told Hakim [Yalda Hakim, a journalist for SBS Dateline in Australia] that other Americans were present during the rampage, holding flashlights in the yard.
Noorbinak, 8, told Hakim that the shooter first shot her father’s dog. Then, Noorbinak said in the video, he shot her father in the foot and dragged her mother by the hair. When her father started screaming, he shot her father, the child says. Then he turned the gun on Noorbinak and shot her in the leg.
“One man entered the room and the others were standing in the yard, holding lights,” Noorbinak said in the video.
A brother of one victim told Hakim that his brother’s children mentioned more than one soldier wearing a headlamp. They also had lights at the end of their guns, he said.
“They don’t know whether there were 15 or 20, however many there were,” he said in the video.
Army officials have repeatedly denied that others were involved in the massacre, emphasizing that Bales acted alone."
The interesting thing here is that Afghan children don't have videogames. They don't have TV. In most parts of the country they don't even have electricity. So night-raid equipment like weapons lights are not likely to arise from their imaginations.
VIDEO: The SureFire Story
Hakim told MSNBC that the reason American investigators gave for trying to prevent her from interviewing the children was that her questions could "traumatize them."
Stop the presses. In this war of nightly drone attacks on compounds known to have children present, in which hundreds if not thousands of children have been killed, and night raids on such compounds, the interviews might "traumatize" them. I am rarely at a loss for words. This is one of those times.
One story floated about a week after the killings puts down the sighting of more than one soldier to possible confusion with the search party looking for Bales.
"It is unclear whether the soldiers the villagers saw were part of a search party that left the base to look for Bales, who was reported missing."
But numerous reports make clear that the search party never left the area of the base.
"About 3:30 a.m., the official said, a surveillance camera spotted Bales returning to the base, and the search team found him just outside the compound."
The NY Times quoting Afghan Gen. Abdul Hameed, the corps commander for the Afghan National Army in Kandahar, reported:
"When American commanders became aware that a soldier was missing, they first checked sleeping quarters, toilets and the kitchen area before organizing a patrol to look outside the compound, General Hameed said. But before the patrol left, a high-powered infrared camera on a small blimp spotted Sergeant Bales nearby."
Salon.com's Morley reports an "unnamed senior U.S. official' telling the New York Times: “When it all comes out, it will be a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues,” leaving aside the question of how the senior official already knows how it will all "come out."
"The passing admission that two other soldiers face disciplinary action for drinking with Bales on the night of the massacre might cast doubt on the notion that no one else knew what Bales was going to do. Army spokeswoman Lt. Col Amy Hannah said in telephone interview that she could not confirm the Times’ account. “I am not aware of any releases of information” about other soldiers facing disciplinary action, Hannah said. If the U.S. official’s remarks to the Times were accurate, then the Army is refraining from disclosing how many soldiers are under investigation.
Then there is conflicting eyewitness testimony. In this CNN video, one man describes the actions of a group in carrying out the killings. “They took him my uncle out of the room and shot him,” he says. “They came to this room and martyred all the children.” But one boy seen on the tape says there was only a single gunman. Still other witnesses pointed out a place outside the home, where they said they found footprints of more than one U.S. soldier.
Journalists seeking to clarify the question have been thwarted. In Afghanistan, Pajhaowk Afghan News reports that Lewis Boone, the public affairs director for coalition forces, declined to answer questions about the massacre, saying that a joint Afghan-ISAF team was investigating the killings. As the Seattle Times noted yesterday, the Army has been struggling “to regulate information on the Afghanistan suspect.”
The laugh for the day in Morley's report comes when Ryan Evans, who worked with ISAF in Afghanistan and is now a research fellow at the Center for National Policy in Washington, said he thought “a cover up is very unlikely.” Now why would anyone think that, after Lt. Col. Daniel Davis just told us in a major report on Afghanistan that:
"We seem significantly challenged to tell the truth in almost any situation."
And in a fascinating McClatchy report, Karzai's lead investigator seems to differ with the president's conclusion of more than one shooter, but then contradicts himself.
"KABUL, Afghanistan — The chief Afghan investigator in last month's slayings of 17 civilians says there's strong evidence that only one killer was involved, a view that puts him at odds with Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai.
Afghan army chief Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, whom Karzai sent to Kandahar to investigate the massacre, told McClatchy that two survivors he interviewed offered credible accounts that the killings were the act of a lone person.
"They told me the same thing," Karimi said. "They both said there was (only) one individual who came to their house."
At a meeting at the presidential palace with relatives of the victims days after the massacre, Karzai openly questioned the U.S. account of a lone gunman. The president pointed to one relative and said: "In his family, in four rooms people were killed — children and women were killed — and then they were all brought together in one room and then set on fire. That, one man cannot do."
Karimi said he returned to Kabul to deliver his interim report but the villagers had spoken to Karzai before he did.
"And everybody said (to the president), 'Sir, it was not one person. ... How can one guy shoot people in four rooms, kill them, then lift them, bring them to one room and set them on fire?'"
Underscoring how the incident has become a political football, Karimi himself appeared to parrot Karzai's line in an interview with an Australian television program broadcast last week, in which he said, "I'm guessing — assumption — that (the killer was) helped by somebody. One person or two persons.""
Karimi does not help his objectivity when he tells McClatchy: "I hope it is proved that it is one guy."
Other soldiers who have been stationed at the same base paint a different picture of how hard it would be to sneak off the base. The NY Times tells us:
"A Green Beret who has spent time in Panjwai in the past year said the combat outpost would have been relatively small, protected by dirt-filled containers known as Hesco barriers, with guard towers and perhaps a blimp with a high-powered camera capable of capturing images more than a mile away. It would have been difficult, but not impossible, for Sergeant Bales to slip away at night unnoticed, as the Army says he did."
Okay. Not impossible. But now it's twice.
As if this brew needs anymore spice, Bales' attorney claims the government is withholding evidence:
"UPDATE: The attorney representing the American soldier accused of slaughtering 17 Afghan civilians accused the U.S. government on Friday of withholding evidence that would be crucial to his defense.
Speaking to the Associated Press, lawyer John Henry Browne detailed what he said were numerous examples of the government going out of their way to "hide evidence," including denying his team access to video allegedly taken from a surveillance blimp showing Staff Sgt. Robert Bales on the night of the killings."
Perhaps most damning of all, one might ask, isn't this a simple matter of interviewing the many wounded witnesses? After all, we know beyond doubt that they saw what happened first hand. But Bales' attorney Brown issued the following statement at the end of March:
"We are facing an almost complete information blackout from the government, which is having a devastating effect on our ability to investigate the charges preferred against our client," the defense team statement said.
"When we tried to interview the injured civilians being treated at Kandahar Hospital we were denied access and told to coordinate with the prosecution team. The next day the prosecution team interviewed the civilian injured. We found out shortly after the prosecution interviews of the injured civilians that the civilians were all released from the hospital and there was no contact information for them," the statement said."
The LA Times reports attorney Browne saying:
“People on our staff in Afghanistan went to the hospital where there supposedly were eyewitnesses to this … and we were told by the prosecutors to come back the next day, which is fine. We went back the next day, and they’d all been released from the hospital and they’d all been scattered throughout Afghanistan. That was a violation of the trust we had in the prosecutors,”...
“We’ve been misled greatly…. They were promised to be there, and they were not,” he said, adding that there isn't much hope of finding the witnesses now. “People just disappear into the Afghan countryside.”
Finally the Global Post, a project of long-time Boston Globe journalist Charles Sennott, turns in a report which seems to attempt to discount the value of Afghan witness testimony, but in the end relates detail from a witness which corroborates the behavior of soldiers intent on committing war crimes:
"Baran’s brother was killed in the shooting spree, but he didn’t see the shooting happen. Baran said he told Karzai what his sister-in-law, who was at the scene, had told him.
When GlobalPost asked Baran to speak directly with his sister-in-law, he initially refused.
“You don’t need to talk her,” Baran said. “I did, and I can tell you the story.”
Eventually Baran relented, allowing GlobalPost to interview her by phone.
Massouma, who lives in the neighboring village of Najiban, where 12 people were killed, said she heard helicopters fly overhead as a uniformed soldier entered her home. She said he flashed a “big, white light,” and yelled, “Taliban! Taliban! Taliban!”
Massouma said the soldier shouted “walkie-talkie, walkie-talkie.” The rules of engagement in hostile areas in Afghanistan permit US soldiers to shoot Afghans holding walkie-talkies because they could be Taliban spotters.
“He had a radio antenna on his shoulder. He had a walkie-talkie himself, and he was speaking into it,” she said."
BBC says villagers say they heard helicopters in the night, explained by "correspondents" in the same report by the fact that helicopters are heard often in that part of the country. However helicopters in support of an operation would be distinctly closer and louder than those passing by at altitude.
"A woman in one of the targeted villages told the BBC she first heard helicopters at 02:00 and then gunfire. Others said helicopters and gunfire could be heard from midnight....Some villagers say that helicopters were flying overhead as the killings took place. Many locals appear to believe that they were in fact supporting the operation rather than trying to stop the gunman.
But correspondents say helicopters are frequently heard overhead in parts of the country."
Reports of Bales' testimony and behavior seem an intriguing mix of admissions to guilt and confusion. Reuters:
"Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales initially asserted that he had shot several Afghan men outside a U.S. combat outpost in southern Afghanistan on March 11 and did not mention that a dozen women and children were among the dead, according to a senior U.S. official briefed on the case.
"He indicated to his buddies that he had taken out some military-aged males," the senior official said. Soldiers normally use that term to denote insurgents.
But Bales' story soon broke down when commanders on the base learned details of the pre-dawn shooting spree in which 16 Afghan civilians were killed in their homes. At that point, the 38-year-old Army veteran was taken into custody. He refused to talk further and soon asked for a lawyer, two officials said."
Bales' wife has stood steadfastly by her husband, saying that whatever he had done, he loved children and could never harm them.
In 2007 after a battle in Iraq, Bales told the Fort Lewis Northwest Guardian:
“I’ve never been more proud to be a part of this unit … for the simple fact that we discriminated between the bad guys and the noncombatants,” he told the after a battle in Iraq in 2007. “Afterward we ended up helping the people that three or four hours before were trying to kill us.”
The Christian Science Monitor reports words from Bales which are startlingly contrary to the charges:
"The charges run contrary to Bales’ own words in the 2007 interview with his local newspaper as well, when he expressed disdain for any insurgent would could put “his family in harm’s way like that,” he said. “I think that’s the real difference between being an American as opposed to being a bad guy.”"
Publicintellligence.net notes the irony of the current lack of evidence against Bales when forensics against insurgents in Afghanistan are highly developed:
"A presentation from the U.S. Army’s Office of the Provost Marshal General indicates that as of August 2011 there were three Joint Expeditionary Forensics Facilities (JEFFs) throughout Afghanistan including one in Kandahar, the same province where Staff Sgt. Bales reportedly committed the massacre. These forensics facilities are capable of DNA analysis, latent print identification, photographic forensics, as well as chemical and ballistic analysis.
...it remains to be seen whether the U.S. military will present the same level of forensic evidence that it routinely collects and analyzes when attempting to prosecute suspected insurgents."
The families of the dead have been paid $50,000 for each victim, an extraordinary sum for most Afghans who often take work, when it is available, which pays one dollar a day. The country is the fifth poorest in the world and suffers a 60% rate of child malnutrition, according to Save the Children. Typical victim compensation in cases of civilian deaths is on the order of $2,000.
Dateline SBC interviews with child witnesses: