Bales report wrongly classified by secretive Pentagon

This photo of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was taken the night of his attacks that killed 16 people in Afghanistan on March 11, 2012.
This photo of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was taken the night of his attacks that killed 16 people in Afghanistan on March 11, 2012. Courtesy of the U.S. Army

What’s most shocking about a newly released report on Robert Bales’ murderous rampage in Afghanistan is the Defense Department’s indifference toward the American public’s right to know.

The Pentagon sat for two years on this “command climate” investigation before finally giving it up last week in response to escalating demands from the nation’s news organizations.

The News Tribune first requested the report under the Freedom of Information Act in August 2013, when Bales — a staff sergeant based at JBLM — was sentenced to life in prison for shooting 22 Afghan civilians the year before. The Defense Department refused the request, citing criminal proceedings that had clearly ended. Then it kept on refusing.

Given the contents of the document, it’s hard to see even bad logic behind the secrecy. The investigation — completed shortly after the massacres — wasn’t focused on Bales himself. Its scope was limited to what was happening around him at Camp Belambay, the tiny Special Forces base he was attached to as a non-Special Forces squad leader.

The investigation detailed nothing that warranted classification after Bales’ sentencing two years ago. It did include some embarrassments:

▪ Drinking and steroid use — forbidden in combat zones — were common at the post. Non-commissioned officers, like Bales, didn’t merely tolerate it; they indulged freely. Discipline was poor at the outpost.

▪ Bales’ superiors should have been alerted to his recent assault on an Afghan truck driver and other troubling behavior. But his behavior wouldn’t have predicted the worst American atrocity since the Vietnam War. Many soldiers act out in stressful combat conditions; only a few become murderous berserkers.

▪ Bales was part of a JBLM battalion whose members had been sprinkled among 48 different bases in Afghanistan. He was cut off from the commanders who knew him and might have spotted a change in his behavior.

While none of this is flattering, it doesn’t add up to an indictment of the U.S. Army. The real scandal was already public: An American soldier had carried out a mass murder of innocent villagers. What the report describes is piddling by comparison.

Yet the Defense Department continued to treat the document as a state secret.

After it denied the FOIA request, the Seattle Times, KUOW and the Washington Post joined The News Tribune in trying to shake the report loose. The absurdity of the denial eventually attracted broad attention from the American media. The Pentagon finally gave in after two national organizations, Military Reporters and Editors and the Project on Government Oversight, began pressing Secretary of the Army John McHugh.

The Defense Department’s resistance to the News Tribune’s modest request reveals a reflex to lock down documents even when there’s no particular reason to hide them — even in the face of intense public interest, even when accountability to the nation is of overriding importance.

In other words, cover-up is the default setting. It’s an impulse unworthy of America’s military leadership.