Military Barriers Impede a Newspaper's Investigation: When the Los Angeles Times Set out to Tell How Two Afghans Held in U.S. Military Custody Died, Its Efforts to Report the Story Met Resistance at Every Twist and Turn

Article excerpt

Last year, the Los Angeles Times decided to undertake something quite unusual: The newspaper would conduct a parallel investigation to the one being undertaken by the Army's Criminal Investigation Command (CID) into how a small U.S. Special Forces detachment in Afghanistan could be tied to two detainee deaths and two apparent cover-ups in less than two weeks.

The Army's investigations had been launched initially in September 2004 after the Times and the Crimes of War Project, (1) a Washington-based nonprofit educational organization, had revealed that a young Afghan soldier had died in the custody of the Special Forces team after allegations that he had been tortured. The Pentagon said it had no record of the death.

The Times's disclosures remain one of the rare instances since American troops went to Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 in which independent reporting has uncovered potential war crimes by U.S. servicemen that had apparently been covered up, not only from the public, but from the military itself. The Times's 2004 story was published just two months after the Army's inspector general had issued a detailed report on detainee abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its conclusion: that it had found "no incidents of abuse that had not been reported through command channels."

And while the Times's story led to the Army launching two criminal probes, human rights organizations at the same time were raising questions about the relatively low number of successful military prosecutions in criminal homicide and prisoner abuse cases and whether the military is capable of policing itself in times of war.

The CID spent more than two years investigating the allegations raised by the initial article that I reported and wrote with Mark Mazzetti, then with the Los Angeles Times. This January, military investigators concluded their probes--apparently having spent the better part of the time deconstructing the cases they'd initially assembled. CID's recommendations to prosecutors cascaded from the most serious charges that could be brought (murder, in one case) to the weakest possible sanctions: recommendations for assault and dereliction charges that brought administrative letters of reprimand, or what a Special Forces officer called a "high-level slap on the wrist," against two soldiers on the Special Forces team.

In previous investigations of prisoner abuse in Afghanistan, CID's investigations have been called into question and their findings revised. We, too, would discover that the military examiners had made some significant errors, including their initial failure to identify the victims. They also grossly misidentified dates of crucial events and persistently failed to interview key people and locate supporting documents. Public accountability was scarce.

Dean Baquet, then the Times's editor, was intrigued by the idea of conducting a parallel investigation. Though he knew the paper's reporting budget was tight and success was far from certain, he paired me with Times reporter Kevin Sack and told us to get to work on the story. While the September 2004 article uncovered the death and torture allegations, we knew next to nothing about the American soldiers involved, other than they were stationed in Gardez, a provincial capital south of Kabul. At the time of the incident, the 20th Special Forces Group, a National Guard outfit based in Birmingham, Alabama, was in charge of the Special Forces mission throughout Afghanistan.

Prior to CID getting involved, an agent remarked that Gardez had the reputation as "the worst facility" in the country. "The Special Forces guys there," he added, "were a bunch of fucking cowboys." He was uncertain about who was running the base because units are transferred in and out. "There are no records," this agent said. "The reporting system is broke across the board."

Obstacles to Reporting

Press investigations into detainee abuse have an inherent reporting problem. …