The Defense Department is again denying a Freedom of Information Act request from The News Tribune seeking the release of an investigation into commanders who oversaw Staff Sgt. Robert Bales before he snapped and killed 16 Afghan civilians in March 2012.
A FOIA officer from U.S. Central Command on Tuesday told the newspaper that its latest request for the document would be declined under an exemption that allows the government to withhold information that could influence an ongoing law enforcement investigation.
The News Tribune has been seeking the report since August 2013, when Bales was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Army in March also rejected a clemency request Bales submitted to Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s I Corps.
The Central Command officer declined to describe the ongoing investigation. Public affairs officials from the Army and Central Command in recent months have called the case open because it’s expected to be considered by military appeal judges one day.
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Bales was a JBLM Stryker soldier serving at a small Special Operations outpost in Kandahar Province with a team from the 7th Special Forces Group when he twice sneaked out of the base to murder civilians sleeping in separate nearby villages.
Maj. Alison Aguilar, spokeswoman for Army Special Operations Command, said Wednesday that all disciplinary proceedings for that group of Green Berets have been completed.
As The News Tribune previously reported, one Green Beret was discharged from the military because he provided steroids to Bales. Another soldier from the Special Forces team received a reprimand for drinking alcohol on the deployment. One more was discharged from the Army because of a separate civilian criminal investigation that began before he arrived in Afghanistan.
The Army did not discipline the senior-ranking soldiers at the combat outpost. They were a Special Forces captain, a chief warrant officer and a senior noncommissioned officer. The Army concluded that none was aware of misconduct at their base.
Several open government and free press organizations since May have been calling attention to the Defense Department’s refusal to release the command investigation.
In the past month, Military Reporters and Editors sent a letter to Secretary of the Army John McHugh urging him to speed the declassification of the report. It was signed by MRE’s board of directors as well as editors of the two largest newspapers in Washington, The Seattle Times and The News Tribune.
“Bales pleaded guilty to his crimes and will spend the rest of his life in prison. His clemency request has been denied and U.S. forces are no longer operating at the combat outposts where he committed his crimes. We see no reason why the investigation should remain classified,” said the letter signed by MRE President Amy McCullough.
The Army declined to release the report to MRE, steering the group’s request to U.S. Central Command.
In May, another journalism organization drew attention to the Defense Department’s FOIA denials by nominating the agency for a “golden padlock” award. The Bales report was one of four finalists. Investigative Reporters and Editors bestows the award every year to “government officials working tirelessly to keep vital information hidden from the public.”
On Wednesday, the Project on Government Oversight also stepped in to urge the Defense Department to release the report.
“Bales has already had his day in court. Withholding this report, which could shed valuable light on the leadership and professional climate that might have contributed to heinous acts by someone in our military, is irresponsible and only serves to hinder accountability and any changes that may be needed. We urge Secretary McHugh to release the leadership report as soon as possible,” wrote POGO defense analyst Jacob Marx.