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Army Failed to Probe Its Attack on Palestine Hotel

Dead Messengers: How the U.S. Military Threatens Journalists (Part 2 Of 4)
Army Failed to Probe Its Attack on Palestine Hotel

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Investigation
Monday 28 February 2005

See also… PART 1: Hearing What Eason Jordan Said
Exhibit A | Reporters Without Borders: Two Murders and a Lie

"Journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict shall be considered as civilians within the meaning of Article 50, paragraph 1. . . . They shall be protected as such under the Conventions and this Protocol. . . ."
Additional Protocol I (1977) of the 1949 Geneva Conventions

"There's nothing sacrosanct about a hotel with a bunch of journalists in it."
Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired), The Washington Post, April 9, 2003.

As America's Third Infantry Division took control of Baghdad on the morning of April 8, 2003, an M1A1 Abrams tank stood in the middle of the Al-Jumhuriya Bridge, which spans the Tigris River. Over a mile away, on a balcony of the 17-story Palestine Hotel, a French TV crew filmed the tank as it slowly swung its turret and fired almost directly at where they were standing.

The 120mm incendiary shell hit between the 14th and 15th floors of the hotel, which served as headquarters for some 100 war reporters and other media workers. The blast and flying shrapnel killed two cameramen - Jose Couso of Spain's Telecinco and Taras Protsyuk, a Ukrainian working for Reuters. It also wounded Reuters' Gulf bureau chief Samia Nakhoul, photographer Faleh Kheiber, and satellite dish technician Paul Pasquale.

Sgt. Shawn Gibson, the tank gunner who fired the shell, and Captain Philip Wolford, who gave the command, had just become part of a very different war.

Four months after the attack, on August 12, the U.S. Central Command announced that the two soldiers were completely justified in what they did. The men believed they were shooting at an enemy spotter directing rocket-propelled grenades and other heavy fire against American forces, said the Army. Though highly regrettable, shelling the hotel was legitimate self-defense against an enemy "hunter-killer team," and fully complied with the Rules of Engagement.

No fault. No foul.

Significantly, the Army refused to release the records of its investigation, which led to an ongoing battle with the low profile, but highly prestigious Committee to Protect Journalists. From its offices in Manhattan, CPJ speaks for some of the top guns in American journalism. David Laventhol, former chief of Times-Mirror and now publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, chairs the group, while Walter Cronkite and former Lebanon hostage Terry Anderson serve as honorary co-chairs. The board includes, among others, Tom Brokaw (NBC), Dan Rather (CBS), David Marash (ABC), Gwen Ifill (PBS), Charlayne Hunter-Gault (CNN), Anne Garrels (NPR), Freedom Forum's John Seigenthaler, and New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis.

Created in 1981 by foreign correspondents to help protect their colleagues abroad against governments and others who have no use for free and independent media, CPJ has worked out front and behind the scenes to save numerous journalists overseas from prison, torture, and death. But, ever since President George W. Bush marched America to war in the name of democracy, the group has increasingly found its foes closer to home.

"The failure of the U.S. military to provide an honest and open accounting of what occurred keeps alive questions about whether U.S. forces are taking the necessary steps to avoid endangering journalists," said CPJ's executive director Ann Cooper, urging the Army to tell what happened at the Palestine Hotel.

"These questions are urgent because hundreds of journalists continue to work in Iraq, and their reporting is vital for the world's understanding of events in this post-war period."

'Don't Go There'

Sadly, the military brass had good reason to keep the record of their investigation under wraps. This became obvious in September 2004, when CPJ's Freedom of Information filing finally forced the Army to release what it called "a sanitized copy of the releasable results."

Even with its missing pages and blacked-out names, anyone could see that CentCom's much heralded "investigation" was nothing more than a limited Commander's Inquiry, which relied on interviews and sworn statements from Sgt. Gibson, Capt. Wolford, and a handful of their mates from the Third Infantry Division.

The inquiry did not consider testimony from journalists at the Palestine Hotel. It did not hear the embedded Associated Press reporter, Chris Tomlinson, who monitored some all-important radio communications. And, it ignored the issue that mattered most.

Pentagon officials in Washington knew that the Palestine Hotel was full of journalists, and had assured the Associated Press that the U.S. would not target the building. Other media companies similarly informed the military, and even provided the hotel's GPS coordinates.

For all that, Sgt. Gibson and Capt. Wolford did not know they were shooting at journalists. They seemed honestly upset when the French reporter Jean-Paul Mari spoke with them two days later, as he reported in his "Two Murders and a Lie." Mari also confirmed their story with the AP's Tomlinson, who heard Sgt. Gibson on the military radio describing a man with binoculars standing on the hotel balcony. Tomlinson also heard Capt. Wolford give the order to fire at what both soldiers clearly assumed to be an enemy spotter.

Tomlinson then heard the Third Infantry commander - Gen. Buford Blount III - complaining on the radio that someone had just fired at a hotel full of journalists. The Pentagon and CentCom headquarters in Doha, Qatar, had apparently passed the information down the chain of command, exactly as they were supposed to do. Gen. Blount also had access to international television broadcasts, which regularly carried reports directly from the Palestine Hotel.

So Gen. Blount knew the journalists were there. But, as Mari pieced the story together, the general's subordinates did not know until after Sgt. Gibson fired the fatal shot.

Did Gen. Blount fail to tell his troops? If so, why? And, in law, would such a failure constitute criminal negligence?

From the sanitized record of CentCom's inquiry, the investigating officer never asked. In fact, he had no authority to ask. Though the Army carefully blacked out his name, he appears to have been a colonel who - in a free and independent hearing - might well be a telling witness against Gen. Blount.

Next time, Part III: Targeting the Media the American Way.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.

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