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Targeting Journalists in Iraq

For the third time, Judge Santiago Pedraz of the Spanish National Court has indicted the three soldiers responsible for the killing of Spanish cameraman José Couso in Baghdad in 2003. With evidence to suggest that the attack on Couso’s hotel, which also took the life of Ukranian cameraman Taras Protsuk, was part of a coordinated effort to rid Baghdad of un-embedded journalists during the early days of the U.S. invasion, Lieutenant Colonel Philip De Camp, Captain Philip Wolford and Sergeant Thomas Gibson have been indicted with crimes against the international community and ordered to post bail of 1 million Euros within 24 hours, after which the court will order their assets frozen.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Government under the Obama administration has stuck with the “official” U.S. Military investigation of the two journalists’ deaths conducted in 2003. Military investigators found that the tank that fired against the Palestine Hotel – media hub to over 300 journalists at the time – had responded in kind to hostile enemy fire. They claimed that the hostile fire ceased immediately after the anti-personnel shell blew up Taras Protsyuk along with the entire 15th-floor balcony from where he was filming. That balcony then collapsed on top of José Couse who was filming from the balcony below.

But the official story has from the beginning been riddled with holes. Every eyewitness to the crime agreed that no shots were fired from the hotel. The investigators making their report must not have gotten that news, because even Pentagon officials changed their story within days of the attack, saying instead that an enemy spotter with binoculars was giving information on the tank’s location from a lookout point in the hotel. Just why enemy fighters would need to plant a spotter in the same place that Protsyuk’s Reuters camera was broadcasting live via satellite to spot a tank that was in the middle of one of Baghdad’s major bridges was never explained. Indeed, witnesses and video footage contest the fact that the tank was under fire at all.

Nevertheless, the U.S. has been successful in selling these contradictory, counter-intuitive statements to the public. For one, as revealed in December 2010 by Wikileaks cables, the U.S. Embassy in Madrid was able to strong-arm the Spanish government into having the case closed twice. And for the last eight years, U.S. media has obediently ignored key facts of the case in its coverage. The typical line of the corporate media takes U.S. claims at face value, omitting key contravening facts (just see Wednesday’s CNN piece on the subject). Moreover, it is almost never mentioned in the U.S. media that two other media outlets – Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV – were attacked on the very same morning by the same infantry division. Along with Reuters, those two Arab media stations were the only cameras emitting live video from the Iraqi capital that day. Of course, the best way for the media to comply with the U.S. military is to keep quiet on the issue: a quick search through the web archives of any major U.S. outlet will prove that that has been the preferred strategy. Still other U.S. news stories turn the killers into the victims, like this “human interest” piece from the LA Times.

This time it may be more difficult for the media to keep quiet. Before filing this most recent indictment, Judge Pedraz traveled to Baghdad with a team of experts in optical physics and military science, who concluded that the hotel balcony was perfectly visible in great detail from the tank’s scope, and that the tank would never have taken position in the middle of the bridge had it not been safe from enemy fire.

Perhaps most importantly, the indictments issued Wednesday open official investigations into two superior officers directly up the chain of command from the accused. One is erstwhile Colonel David Perkins, now a General, who admitted to having known about the media presence at the Palestine Hotel, but did not filter that information down to the soldiers in the tank. The other is General Buford Blount, former program manager for the Saudi National Guard – “the shock troops of the Saudi royals.” Extending the official investigation higher up the chain of command marks an extremely important development in the case and sets a key precedent in the global struggle for justice against U.S. war crimes.

But what consequences could this case possibly have? If the U.S. refuses to extradite the accused to Spain, the only consequence of their conviction would be a travel ban within most of the European community, other states sympathetic to the doctrine of Universal Jurisdiction and countries with extradition treaties with Spain. Since Spanish law doesn’t allow the trial of suspects in absentia, the case will likely remain open until one or more of the accused soldiers attempts to travel outside the U.S. In the Spanish case against Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for torture, Pinochet was arrested in the UK (against the wishes of Prime Minister Thatcher). There he was held under house arrest for almost two years while appealing his extradition to Spain before finally being released for his deteriorating health conditions.

Still, the precedent of indicting U.S. soldiers on war crimes for the deliberate targeting of journalists in Iraq would open several doors to the families of the more than 140 journalists killed during the U.S.-led war and occupation, many of whom have been blocked from learning the truth about their slain loved ones. Just look to the case of Mazen Dana to glimpse the horrific war against independent journalists waged by the Bush administration.

If enough people come forward with their stories – like former Army Intelligence officer Adrienne Kinne, who told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman that she had seen the Palestine Hotel on a list of potential targets after it was known to house journalists – the details will continue to accumulate and the big picture of U.S. war crimes will subject the most powerful war-planners to justice.

For a detailed review of the Couso case, from the day of the crime to the present, please see my recent piece in Foreign Policy in Focus.

V. Noah Gimbel is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus, writing from Spain. He can be reached at noah.gimbel@gmail.com 

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