September 24, 2007

Illegitimate Sniping

Imagine, for a moment, that you are an Iraqi returning from a fellow tribesman's home in the afternoon heat. To gain some shade, you step off the main road and decide to take a shortcut down a path through a grove of trees. Before you, on the path, is a spool of wire often used by insurgents in building IEDs. Seeing no one around, you pick it up with the intention of giving it you your brother, a soldier in the Iraqi Army...

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a member of the Islamic State of Iraq. You wear no uniform, no insignia that identifies you as anything other than a civilian. Late to a meeting with cell members at a nearby safehouse, you step off the main road to take a shortcut down a path through a grove of trees. Before you, on the path, is a spool of wire often used by your fellow insurgents in building IEDs. Seeing no one around, and wondering if one of your fellow cell members may have use for it, you warily pick it up with the intention of giving it to you cell's bomb builder...

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a U.S. Army sniper in a concealed position a hundred meters away, watching these scenarios play out. Can you cipher their intentions and determine which man is the insurgent, and which is the civilian, based merely upon the decision to pick up the spool of wire?

If a Washington Post story this morning is correct, that is precisely the determination that an elite sniper platoon was asked to make as part of a classified baiting program hoping to identify and eliminate insurgents in one area of Iraq.

"Baiting is putting an object out there that we know they will use, with the intention of destroying the enemy," Capt. Matthew P. Didier, the leader of an elite sniper scout platoon attached to the 1st Battalion of the 501st Infantry Regiment, said in a sworn statement. "Basically, we would put an item out there and watch it. If someone found the item, picked it up and attempted to leave with the item, we would engage the individual as I saw this as a sign they would use the item against U.S. Forces."

In documents obtained by The Washington Post from family members of the accused soldiers, Didier said members of the U.S. military's Asymmetric Warfare Group visited his unit in January and later passed along ammunition boxes filled with the "drop items" to be used "to disrupt the AIF [Anti-Iraq Forces] attempts at harming Coalition Forces and give us the upper hand in a fight."

Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said such a baiting program should be examined "quite meticulously" because it raises troubling possibilities, such as what happens when civilians pick up the items.

"In a country that is awash in armaments and magazines and implements of war, if every time somebody picked up something that was potentially useful as a weapon, you might as well ask every Iraqi to walk around with a target on his back," Fidell said.

In a country where every household is expected to have small arms for protection, using bait such as small arms, magazines, or ammunition for these small arms would be entirely and unquestioningly unacceptable. It would be far too tempting for civilians to pick up such found implements that they could legally own, use, or sell.

On the other hand, if the unit was using bait items that could only be use by insurgents and terrorists--say, artillery rounds or plastic explosives--then the baiting becomes more targeted and less likely to ensnare innocent civilians. But when the penalty for picking up such objects and attempting to carry them away is a marksmanís bullet, is it acceptable to take that gamble?

The story reported by Josh White and Joshua Partlow, unfortunately, immediately begins to purposefully conflate unlike things almost immediately after raising very legitimate questions about the baiting program.

Citing two soldiers who only revealed the program in revenge for pending disciplinary actions is problematic, as is conflating murder charges pending against soldiers for planting evidence after a shooting took place with the program of leaving bait to hopefully identify insurgents worth shooting.

It is one thing to shoot someone because they are holding a hand grenade as the approach your position, but quite another to shoot someone coming down the same path and then plant the grenade on their body after the fact. White and Partlow spend the majority of their article blurring the distinctions between the two, while admitting begrudgingly in one sentence on the second page of the article:

Though it does not appear that the three alleged shootings were specifically part of the classified program, defense attorneys argue that the program may have opened the door to the soldiers' actions because it blurred the legal lines of killing in a complex war zone.

The reporters present the defense team arguments of murder suspects as their "evidence" of a failed program, but it is nothing of the sort.

The men they speak with are on trial for planting weapons on men they've killed, after the fact, to justify a killing that they felt was questionable under their rules of engagement. The baiting program, while a legitimate topic for vigorous debate and legal review in itís own right, has nothing to do with planting evidence at all.

The "throwaway" gun is a staple of television shows and films going back decades based upon the dishonorable practice of a very few real-life law enforcement officers who planted guns on the bodies of criminals to justify a "bad" or questionable shooting. That this practice also occurs in war zones is unsurprising, if regrettable.

That White and Partlow would be so gullible as to immediately and uncritically swallow defense team arguments that the program is to blame for the alleged criminal acts of their clients planting evidence to justify a shooting is an unconscionable act of criminal advocacy to advance apparent personal biases against a program only tangentially related, if newsworthy in its own right. Put another way, they donít like the program, and are willing to use the club provided for them by the defense team, without any critical eye towards the merits of the defense, which are few.

The illegitimate sniping in this case clearly doesn't stop with the soldiers, and we deserve better from our professional journalists than this.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at September 24, 2007 09:30 AM

If the comment section is any indication then the writers are just pandering to their audience. Is it bad journalism? Yes. Does it move print? Yes.

Posted by: Dan Irving at September 24, 2007 10:20 AM

You mentioned The "throwaway" gun as a staple of television shows and films. The US Army is now famous for the "throwaway shovel" - that's all that's needed to be planted near the body of an Iraqi killed by US soldiers to justify the killing. (As in, he was obviously going to plant an IED after digging a hole with that shovel...)

Posted by: Max at September 24, 2007 10:22 AM

Good post, CY. I've developed some of the points in it for my own post.

Regards, C

Posted by: Cernig at September 24, 2007 10:30 AM

My biggest problem with this story is that it is not about the insurgent baiting program but instead is primarily focused on the murder trial of these two soldiers.

The baiting program does raise serious questions and would be the legitimate subject of a story but by making it the lead of a story about this trial the article clearly suggests - whether intentionally or not - that the baiting program has something to do with the murder trial.

This also follows the media stereotype and main story line that soldiers are simple kids who have somehow been tricked into war.

Posted by: Josh at September 24, 2007 12:25 PM

FYI: Curious and vague post at FishbowlDC (Mediabistro) about Elspeth Reeve (Mrs. Beauchamp) not working at TNR any more.

Posted by: jan at September 24, 2007 04:40 PM

CY, great article. I love how much insight you have noble and yet effective ROEs. The fact that you drew a line between baiting with AK magazines, and baiting with something like det cord shows that you actually are thinking carefully about this topic.

Max, although the scenario you described with the shovel is wrong, and I don't think that too many people would argue, I've had an American tell me to my face that it's a war crime for US Soldiers to engage anyone that isn't holding a rifle. (to include terrorists digging IED holes, planting IEDs or anti-tank mines, or even triggermen)

I believe that 40% of our population (hardcore liberals), actually want that to be an enforced ROE.

Posted by: brando at September 24, 2007 05:51 PM

I have a real problem with ordinary things with obvious scrap value like wire being used. With the price of copper what it is these days, everyone is going to pick up a roll of wire.

Posted by: Purple Avenger at September 24, 2007 06:02 PM

Ya know, the moment I heard about this story, and that the "revelations" came from two guys facing disciplinary charges, I wondered if the actual source wasn't their lawyers.

And it is.

Posted by: Rob Crawford at September 24, 2007 07:01 PM

I thought this story and the information it provided to be a Godsend. I have a 15 years old son and he is determined to join the military. Much of this is adolescent ideation. I may have developed the situation as I have always been a military historian and supporter. But with the Iraq war I have noted that we have had a change in the military. When faced with a aggressive task such as the initial occupation of Iraq, they did great. But just like in Vietnam, when the dust settles and the politicians get involved, they insert this concept of rules of engagement that if followed seems to hamper efforts, place soldiers in harms way and subject normally law-abiding individuals to the worst of our legal process. I am sure that there is more to this story about the trial of these soldiers than we are being told, but the fact that you put a gun in someones hand, put them in a very difficult situation, then subject them to the legal process if they make a mistake or cause an embarrassment to the politicians, that is not the military I want my son to be in. This episode has soured his ambitions.

Posted by: David Caskey at September 25, 2007 08:47 AM

The last time I checked this wasn't a friggen tea
party over there...You have a Captain give his
Sargent the green light,one shot one kill,now they are on trial for murder...They were cleared
by Army CID and an other investagation,that should have been case closed!!!!!Now along comes
the Perfumed Prince Lt.Gen Kerny and says wait one.He has to order some one to sign the papers
because no one in the field would...The one and
the same Gen who tossed a Marine Spec-ops unit
out of Afgahnistan for a supposed 10 mile running shoot out,the reason, Lack of training...They were
all combat vets,not green rookies and there was
no 10 mile running gun battle...Its to the point
where you have a military scared to pull the trigger and that has cost lives and will continue to do so...The only saving grace we have is one less Taliban bomb maker...Marcus Luttrell in
"Lone Survivor" lays it on the line as to how
bad political correctness has become...The point
now is Command doesn't have the troops' back's
and that sure as hell is not a good thing...

Posted by: Bobby.lane at September 25, 2007 09:25 AM

I just picked up on the "we bait targets"!!So WTF
over...A house in Falluja a brand new Russian
Sniper Rifle laying on the floor.Question do you
pick it up???You do there is a damn good chance
it will be the last thing you do... These SOB's
booby trap bodies, blow up kids and were supposed to be Mr clean...Give me a friggen brake...Those
folks need to die.No is no and's and no but's.But
that's just me,I still think there is a place for
Napalm,Flame throwers and Wille Pete.The way this
Country is headed in 30-50 years yall can buy your
little rug and face east 6 times a day as for me
I wont be around to give a S**t...

Posted by: BobbyLane at September 25, 2007 01:06 PM

The MOOOOOSLIMS are coming - who worse than the JOOOOS.

Posted by: r4d20 at September 26, 2007 01:52 PM


Is that a speech, spelling or typing defect you are expressing?

Posted by: davod at September 27, 2007 12:58 PM