It has been three years since Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s Staff Sgt. Robert Bales committed the worst atrocities of the Afghanistan War. It has been almost two years since he pleaded guilty to singlehandedly murdering 16 civilians.
Since the day the trial ended, we have been asking the Department of Defense to release the only investigation into whether anyone in Bales’ chain of command could have prevented his massacre in Kandahar province.
Last week, the Defense Department’s Central Command for the second time rejected The News Tribune’s Freedom of Information Act request for that report.
“We want this document because Bales’ guilty plea in June 2013 did not address whether systemic lapses in oversight allowed this troubled soldier to deploy for his fourth and fateful combat mission,” writes TNT military reporter Adam Ashton, “or whether any soldiers at his combat outpost exacerbated stresses on him.”
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Marine Gen. John Allen commissioned the report just after the massacre. He discussed it in press interviews from Kabul, assuring the public the military would do everything it could to learn from Bales’ killings.
“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. Allen has since retired.
Ashton helped compile this chronology of events and believes the public deserves answers.
Lawyers at Central Command say releasing the report could affect Bales’ filing to the Army Court of Criminal Appeal.
By that reasoning, Central Command considers the case open, even though Bales was sentenced to life in prison without parole and JBLM’s Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza in February denied Bales’ clemency bid.
An Army spokesman says Bales hasn’t appealed his case yet. Waiting for Bales to exhaust his appeals could lock up the report for the next 20 years.
In fact, the military has released similar documents in similar circumstances.
JBLM’s Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs was convicted in November 2011 of staging the murders of three Afghan civilians 18 months earlier.
The Army dropped its case against one of Gibbs’ platoon mates two months later and soon after released a report that investigated Gibbs’ brigade commander.
The report found Gibbs’ brigade commander was not responsible for war crimes, but it provided insight into how Gibbs’ killings were able to unfold over a period of months without leaders noticing.
We understand the investigation now is an important teaching tool at military colleges.
The public deserves the same kind of transparency surrounding Bales’ crimes.
He was serving in an infantry battalion with an unusual mission. It was splintered into small teams all over Afghanistan to support Special Operations units. As a result, Bales was working alongside unfamiliar soldiers, far from anyone who knew him well.
Did something about the assignment contribute to his breakdown? Should the Army allow combining conventional and Special Operations troops in the future?
Or how about these questions from the TNT editorial board more than a year ago:
• How could Bales leave his base twice, to commit two massacres, without being stopped or even missed?
• Given that Bales was drinking and had used anabolic steroids before the killings, how widespread was the use of alcohol and drugs among U.S. soldiers in the area?
• Bales acted erratically and lashed out angrily weeks before the killings. Who missed those signs of trouble? Who was watching the non-Special Forces troops at the base?
Did the military ask itself those questions?
We don’t know.
Central Command’s latest denial is especially maddening.
In November, the agency told the TNT it would process our request. It referred our request to the Department of the Army, which sent it to a subordinate command, Third Army.
Third Army sent our request back to Central Command, which since has changed its mind about releasing the investigation.
The TNT editorial board raised this issue with Lanza when he visited the newspaper in February. Lanza asked his staff to see whether the document could be released outside of FOIA.
The Defense Department concluded the report must come from Central Command.
Oddly, aside from personal medical records, the so-called command climate report is the only Bales-related document the Defense Department is unwilling to disclose.
Last June, the Army released thousands of pages of criminal investigative reports about Bales.
Why are those documents releasable when the only report that investigated his superiors is not?