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  September 20, 2010

Did US Soldiers Create Afghan Killing Club?

US soldiers charged with targeting Afghan civilians; Army ignored pleas by soldier's father
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Hal Bernton has been a staff reporter at The Seattle Times for the past 10 years, and helped cover the military for most of that time. His overseas assignments have included a reporting trip to Iraq in late 2003 and nine weeks spent last summer and fall in Afghanistan. He spent two of those weeks reporting from Kandahar Province, where he was embedded with a battalion from the 5th (Stryker Combat Team) Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. Bernton previously worked for The Oregonian and The Anchorage Daily News.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington. In Afghanistan earlier this year, apparently, a number of American soldiers started to shoot civilians, some say for sport or for some other kind of reason that didn't have to do with any normal kind of fighting. Several of them have been charged now with murder and other crimes. And now joining us from Portland, Oregon, where he's covering this story, is Hal Bernton. Hal writes for The Seattle Times for the past ten years. He's covered military operations. He's reported from Iraq and the Kandahar province of Afghanistan, and he's also been embedded with a Stryker brigade, much like the one that the guys who are charged were part of. He was with the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. Thanks for joining us, Hal.


JAY: So start with the basic facts. What do we know so far?

BERNTON: Well, what we found so far is that the army has alleged that there were five soldiers involved in the murder of three Afghan civilians in January, February, and May of this year. There are other allegations, ranging from obstruction of justice to smoking hashish to actually harvesting human body parts for some sort of trophies, that encompass about 12 soldiers from this unit and involve more than 70 different alleged crimes.

JAY: It gives one visions of the movie Apocalypse Now. It's a kind of sociopathy. Apparently, they were collecting finger bones and even leg bones. It all sounds rather depraved, even in a war.

BERNTON: Oh, yes. We have to remember that at this point these are allegations. There's nothing proven. They haven't even had their Article 32 hearings, where they decide whether there is enough evidence to move ahead with court martial. And at this part, some of the families are relaying very strongly they feel some of their soldiers are not guilty of the crimes they were alleged to have been. So it's just something to keep in mind as we move forward. But certainly it's a very disturbing portrait. It's one that certainly has caused a lot of concern at higher levels of the army, because after all, the big message that the army and NATO forces are trying to convey in southern Afghanistan, which is the focal point of the US military campaign now, is that we can reach out and build a better life for the civilian population of that region and help join forces with the government to achieve that.

JAY: So describe one of the examples of what's alleged to have happened. I mean, why are they describing this as practically some kind of sport?

BERNTON: Well, basically the allegations are that back in the fall, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs arrived to take over from another injured soldier in this unit, and he allegedly started talking, almost boasting, about some of the things that he was able to do in Iraq—apparently, possible violations of military rules of engagement, possible crimes—and that he talked about what could happen in Afghanistan. So the allegations were that basically they formed what one soldier called a "kill team", and they talked about different scenarios where they could go ahead and execute Afghan civilians and then make it look like it was justified under the rules of engagement of the war, and that they then went and carried out such killings—three of them, over the period of January to May.

JAY: One of the situations described is they found a young Afghan, like, a teenager, not much older than a teenaged Afghan farmer, discussed amongst themselves, and they apparently shot him and then faked that he had thrown a grenade at them. What is that all about?

BERNTON: Well, it's hard to know what that is all about, or even we don't have a good idea what the motives might have been, because after all, war is tough enough when you don't go out looking for trouble. But basically we have one soldier saying that after they returned to the base after the execution, that another soldier who was involved in it told him that it was all staged and that if he ever talked about it he would be in big trouble. Many of these soldiers who were in the unit and who knew about some of these alleged killings were very afraid that they could come to physical harm or a very untimely end if they talked out of school or informed.

JAY: One of these soldiers wrote his parents back in February, I guess more or less near the beginning of this killing spree, and the father tried to alert the Armed Forces. What happened with that? Why wouldn't they listen to the father?

BERNTON: We're still trying to sort through that. It's a fairly extraordinary interchange. The father, Christopher Winfield from Florida, saved the actual Internet chat messages with his son, Staff Specialist Adam Winfield. And they portray the messages as a very sort of anguished plea about what other soldiers in his unit were doing, that they had already killed one civilian, that they were planning to kill more, that he had proof of that, that initially he asked his father to get the word out. This was on a Sunday—Sunday, February 14. So his dad, immediately after the conversation, although it's Sunday—and he provided these phone records to army investigators to prove what he did—he called an inspector general's hotline in Washington, DC. He called a senator, a Florida US senator's office. He says he left a message there with Bill Nelson, although they say they never got a message. He also called an army criminal investigative command office at Fort Lewis. These were all very brief conversations. But then the phone records show a 12 minute conversation with a sort of command center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which was formerly called Fort Lewis, at which point he says (the father, Christopher Winfield) in a sworn statement that he very much outlined what was going on, told about his son's situation, that the man on the other end, the duty officer of the day, expressed some shock and dismay, but said basically that unless Adam would come forward, there's nothing he could do about it, that anyone could do about it, till his son got back to the base. And, of course, he was quite frustrated by that, and he says so. The next day, his son was so fearful of possible repercussions from such reporting that he backed off and didn't continue to press the case.

JAY: Now, this killing club, if you want, went on for, like, almost six months. How did it finally come to light?

BERNTON: What finally happened was that in May there was quite a bit of hashish being smoked, and one soldier was quite upset about that, and he reported that, and he was beaten quite severely, the allegations are, by another group of soldiers for being an informant. He was kicked and choked and, apparently, roughed up pretty good. And after that, he then said that he had heard also that they were unjustifiably killing civilians. So that triggered this criminal investigation in May, and then it moved forward quite quickly. But one of the key people who's been charged with the crime and also has been a key source of information is a specialist, Jeremy Morlock, from Wasilla, Alaska. And he had four traumatic brain injuries. He was in the process of being medically evacuated and his attorney says was under the influence of some pretty serious prescription drugs at the time he was interrogated and questioned and made a lot of these comments. His testimony, although I haven't had access to his statements, appears to be kind of all over the map at times and quite contradictory, and his attorney says that he'll attempt to get it stricken and not be able to be submitted in to the court. So there will be some discussion about how much of this information is accurate and how much isn't, but he's not the only one alleging that there was these murders.

JAY: Okay. In the next segment of our interview, let's talk a little bit about what it means to have an army that apparently many of whom are not only smoking hashish and other things, but many are on prescription drugs, we hear, a tremendous amount of use of antianxiety drugs and such throughout the army in Afghanistan. Then also the whole question of what happens in boot camp, where training involves being prepared to kill civilians, and, you know, does that play a role in this kind of alleged sociopathy. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Hal Bernton on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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