The Army is refusing to release its investigation into the officers who commanded Staff Sgt. Robert Bales just before the former Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier slipped out of his combat outpost and murdered 16 Afghan civilians two years ago.
The Defense Department this week denied Freedom of Information Act requests from The News Tribune and KUOW seeking the investigation, which was announced by Gen. John Allen, the former top U.S. officer in Afghanistan, soon after the killings.
The denial says the document is not releasable because the Army has not taken “final action” on Bales’ court-martial. His trial concluded in August when he was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to murdering civilians in two solitary nighttime forays from his combat outpost in southern Afghanistan. Bales is in confinement at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
“In my capacity as the Initial Denial Authority, by withholding this information, I am fully denying your request,” wrote U.S. Central Command chief of staff Maj. Gen. Michael Garrett in a letter to The News Tribune.
The News Tribune is appealing the FOIA denial.
After Bales’ court-martial, The News Tribune and KUOW submitted FOIA requests to the Army seeking what is known as a command climate investigation. The Army carried out that inquiry to assess whether senior soldiers around Bales could have prevented the crimes.
“I will be satisfied when I get the report that we have looked closely at the potential contributing factors that might have permitted this event to have unfolded tragically,” Allen told reporters in March 2012, two weeks after the killings.
Similar inquiries for other war crimes have led to discipline, such as a 2011 investigation into Lewis-McChord Stryker soldiers who murdered three Afghan civilians during their deployment. Their platoon and company-level officers received reprimands in a report that was also critical of their brigade commander.
The News Tribune obtained the command climate report on the so-called “kill team” through a source. It was released to reporters who submitted FOIA requests for it about six months after the conviction of “kill team” ringleader former Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs.
In September, The News Tribune received a response indicating its request for the Bales report was moving forward. In November, the newspaper received another letter indicating the request would be processed through U.S. Central Command instead of the Army office that initially accepted it. Central Command oversees military operations in the Middle East.
The I Corps at Lewis-McChord remains responsible for Bales’ court-martial. I Corps spokesman Col. Dave Johnson said court-martial convening authority Lt. Gen. Robert Brown has not taken “final action” on the case in considering the sentence, supporting evidence and any appeals for clemency.
Because of the complexity of the case, it could take another two months for the corps to complete the paperwork.
The other major Army inquiry into the Bales massacre is a 2,800-page criminal investigation that The News Tribune is also pursuing through the Freedom of Information Act.
It is unclear who was reviewed in the command climate report, which was not discussed much at Bales’ court-martial or at his pre-trial hearings.
The highest-ranking soldiers from the deployment who testified in open court were Bales’ first sergeant from his Lewis-McChord Stryker battalion, the Special Forces captain who commanded the combat outpost where Bales last served and the Special Forces chief warrant officer who was the outpost’s No. 2 commander.
An Alaska-based former brigade commander also testified generally about the security threats soldiers faced in the area where Bales was serving.
Bales, formerly of Lake Tapps, was on his fourth deployment with Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division at the time of the killings. In 2012, his unit was splintered into small groups across southern Afghanistan supporting Special Forces teams.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646