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What really happened at Haditha, part 2

Friday, April 6, 2007
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HH: But first, I want to finish the business. We were deep into an interview with my guest, Brian Rooney, of the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, www.thomasmore.org, it’s linked at Hughhewitt.com, about Lt. Col. Jeff Chessani. He’s a Marine, he’s facing an Article 32 proceeding in a couple of months for the events that occurred in Haditha, Iraq on November 19th, 2005, when the 3-1, that’s the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marines, went into Haditha, encountered an IED that killed a Marine, and then a daylong battle in which fifteen Marines were injured, as well as bad guys killed and civilians killed. Brian Rooney, welcome back. Thanks for your patience yesterday. That was kind of an abrupt end to our conversation.

BR: Well, I appreciate your having me back, and I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, but I was wondering if John Murtha was on some oversight committee and had some strings pulled.

HH: Yeah, I think the FCC pulled our license because John Murtha called. But Brian, it’s important stuff, and I want to finish it, because when you began to paint a portrait of Lt. Col. Chessani, it’s of a 19 year veteran of Panama, the first Gulf War, three tours in this war in Iraq, father of five children, great Christian man, a Marine’s Marine, and he’s facing an Article 32 proceeding. On what day is that going to happen?

BR: May 30th.

HH: And the Thomas More Center is defending him. And by the way, if you want to contribute to the defense fund of Lt. Col. Chessani, you go to www.thomasmore.org, and you go to their contributions page, and make a note in the comments section. So Brian, what is an Article 32 proceeding?

BR: An Article 32 proceeding is, a civilian version of it would be a Grand Jury hearing, although in Article 32, you have the defense attorney, and the defense client has a lot more rights than what a Grand Jury has. The defense has the right to put on a case, there’s an investigating officer that looks at this case impartially. And in this case, General Mattis appointed an infantry officer, a full bird colonel, and we’re very buoyed by that, because that’s unusual. Normally, they appoint a lawyer. And since we have an infantry officer looking at an infantry officer, we believe that he will judge this thing in the way where he sees the common sense in it, and will give a good recommendation to General Mattis.

HH: Now the Article 32 proceeding then results in a recommendation to General Mattis, and he can either then send it on to a full court martial, or dismiss the proceedings against the Lt. Col?

BR: He can. He can either take it to a general court martial, or he can dismiss the charges against him and not go forward. And by the way, he doesn’t have to file the recommendation, but we believe General Mattis is the kind of Marine that would have the courage of his convictions, and to follow a full bird colonel and three officers’ recommendation after he looks at a full and fair hearing in an Article 32, that we want to put forward.

HH: Now Brian Rooney, until recently, you were Captain Rooney, I believe, in the United States Marine Corps. You were a JAG officer, and you’ve been leading a compilation of the documents and investigation into the facts around this. What has your investigation, and the investigations of your colleagues at the Thomas More Center revealed about Lt. Col. Chessani’s actions on that day in the aftermath of the Haditha incident?

BR: Well, we found out that Col. Chessani did everything that you expect an infantry officer of a battalion to do. He went to the scene after the battle occurred that evening. He went back the next morning. He spoke to his intelligence officers and the various commanding officers of the companies, and gathered all the information up he could from all of his subordinates, which is what you’re supposed to do, and took that and forwarded it up to his regimental CO, Col. Davis, and even spoke to the division CG at that point as well, Maj. Gen. Huck, and all the way up and down the chain of command of the different staff positions to include the CO and CG of the regiment and division. All said this is troops in contact, the civilians that were killed, it’s a terrible tragedy, but that’s what happens in war. It’s horrible, it’s…war is hell, the same as it was with William Tecumseh Sherman. So there was not an investigation, because at that time, there was never investigations when you had a legitimate firefight, and civilians got caught in this crossfire. And that’s what happened in this case.

HH: Now of course, John Murtha and Time Magazine turned this into a national watch word for the brutality of American soldiers and Marines operating in Iraq, using the politicization of the incident to advance their anti-war agenda. The question, though, on many people’s minds is, was anything untoward done there? I don’t expect you as defense counsel to say as much, but is your case very different from the case of the Marines who were actually in the city that day?

BR: Well, in one respect, it is, because Col. Chessani wasn’t there. However, he has to rely upon the Marines that were there to determine whether or not there was a law of war violation, whether or not he should report as such, or if he should investigate it, or if he should move forward, and keep pursuing the mission that he had, which he did for the rest of the time he was in Haditha and Iraq. So you know, every story that I’ve read from the Marines and their various investigations doesn’t lead me to think that anything untoward happened. I taught the rules of engagement to these types of Marines, and I always taught them to go into homes aggressively, because if you don’t, you get killed. And I’ve known Marines who got killed when they try to go in and be nice about it, so to speak. And the only way to go into a hostile home is to go in hard. Your training takes over, and you have to pursue it in a very aggressive manner.

HH: Now the Colonel himself is charged with failure to report an incident of war. Is there a cover-up allegation that’s been made by anyone as well?

BR: Well, originally there was. That was the whole hullabaloo brought up by Murtha and Time Magazine. And incidentally, Time Magazine’s written by this reporter McGirk, who took one source, an insurgent source, did not even ask the Marines what happened. He said he was going to, but when Woodruff and ABC News got hurt, he decided not to come, because he was afraid for his own safety, so he printed a one-sided story, and that got everybody in the press saying there’s a cover-up amongst these officers, and Lt. Col. Chessani, all the way up the chain of command, they’re all scratching their head saying what kind of cover-up are you talking about? We reported everything up, and everybody…if Lt. Col. Chessani’s charged, which he is and we have to face that, everybody else in the chain of command should have been charged as well, because they’re as culpable if there is any culpability, and we believe there’s not.

HH: And how expensive has this process been, and what does the defense fund cost? What do contributions to the defense fund go to? And what costs do they defray?

BR: They go towards our travel out to California, to our various expert witnesses, to the 20 odd witnesses that we have to interview, and we have to go back and forth with that, since we’re based in Ann Arbor. It goes to every cost that we could incur, whether it’s hotel, whether it’s bringing our client out here, talking to our client face to face, those kind of things. And we’ve already racked up probably well over 600 hours of attorney’s time, and travels. And so in a civilian firm, where they’re charging, that would be hundreds of thousands of dollars already.

HH: Let me ask you, Brian Rooney. What is going on with Col. Chessani now? Where is he? What’s he doing?

BR: They put him behind a desk on base at Camp Pendleton, and he’s basically doing a desk job on base. So that’s what he’s doing right now. But you know, probably most important thing, and what I wanted to talk about yesterday, was the fact that it’s not just the fact that we want to defend an innocent man. We want to make sure that Marines over there, Marines that are going there, Marines that are deciding to re-up or not, don’t have to look over their shoulder when they’re pursuing combat. Usually, there’s this thing called combatant immunity. And if they have to start thinking twice about whether or not they’re going to shoot, or whether they’re going to be prosecuted criminally back home if they do shoot, then that’s going to end up causing them to get killed, and we don’t want that to happen. We don’t want Marines to get killed because they’re afraid that their country won’t back them up, that they’re chain of command won’t back them up. And that’s one of the main, important things that we want to do. In fact, the unit that replaced Col. Chessani’s unit started wearing helmet cameras so that they would protect themselves in case any allegations were brought up against them, and that’s absurd.

HH: Now…I’m talking with Brian Rooney of the Thomas More Center, www.thomasmore.org. You’re not one of those people who say that violations of war can never happen, Brian Rooney. Obviously, you know, and as a JAG officer, you’ve taught those laws.

BR: Exactly, and you know, I’ve told people in the past when you look a case where there’s an allegation of a law of war, and I’ve taught it this way, you’ll know it right away. It’s obvious. This is the case where it’s the fog of war, where it’s a judgment call of whether or not you respond to the fire, and how you respond to it. It’s a judgment call on whether or not you decide to investigation or something or not. And that’s all the prerogative of the people that are in the field, and you have to trust them to do what they’ve been trained to do. And to second guess them back in the rear a year later is not only unfortunate, but criminal in and of itself.

HH: Brian Rooney, we wish you good luck in your defense of Col. Chessani. We’ll continue to follow this. I urge people, the links are at Hughhewitt.com, and thanks for spending part of your Good Friday with us to bring light to this very, very important case, Brian, and a Happy Easter to you.

BR: Happy Easter and thank you. God bless.

End of interview.

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