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The Nation

Frustration in Marines shooting inquiry

Testimony about the Afghanistan incident is called inconsistent.

January 18, 2008|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — An investigator expressed frustration Thursday at what he said were incomplete and sometimes inconsistent accounts by Marines involved in a March shooting in Afghanistan that left up to 19 Afghans dead.

"We were trying to put pieces together and some of them just don't fit," David Kurre, a Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent, said on the eighth day of testimony in a court of inquiry reviewing the incident.

The 30-man convoy from Marine Special Operations Company F has been accused by an Afghan human rights group of firing indiscriminately at civilians after being attacked by a car bomb March 4. An Army colonel apologized for the killings, paying $2,000 to the family of each of the alleged victims.

Kurre interviewed members of the convoy in Kuwait after their unit was ordered out of Afghanistan. Asked in court Thursday whether their accounts were generally consistent, Kurre replied firmly: "No."

He said that Marines gave differing accounts of where they believed the gunfire had originated and where on the highway in eastern Afghanistan they had heard shots.

"We're not sure of anything," Kurre said at one point, referring to the NCIS team investigating the incident.

A government lawyer, Maj. Phillip Sanchez, said: "We're dealing with the fog of war. We're going to have many statements that are different."

Several Marines have testified that they believed they were attacked by small-arms fire as part of a "complex ambush" moments after the car bomb exploded. The Marines, who said they heard shots and saw tree branches hit by bullets, testified that they did not see any gunmen.

Kurre said a Marine gunner in the fourth of six vehicles told agents that he had seen "an armed individual" shooting at the convoy. The gunner returned fire, Kurre said.

Those in the convoy have testified that gunners followed military rules of engagement during the incident, firing warning shots and shooting into vehicles' engine blocks. They described the military gunfire as controlled -- with far fewer rounds fired over a much shorter distance than alleged by the human rights group.

Only one Marine, a counter-intelligence specialist, has been critical in court of the convoy's armed response, calling it "excessive."

Some Marines have testified that they did not have a clear view of events. The gunners who fired had the best view of the highway because they were posted atop the Humvees, but their lawyers have told them not to testify without immunity from prosecution. The active-duty Marines who have testified were granted immunity.

The inquiry is a fact-finding body, not a court of law. Its panel of three Marine officers, all with combat experience, is probing the conduct of the convoy and two of the unit's top officers.

No one has been charged in the case. Maj. Fred C. Galvin, the company commander, and Capt. Vincent J. Noble, the convoy platoon commander -- both of whom were on the convoy -- are "designated parties" represented by defense lawyers.

The panel will report its findings to the commander of the Marine Corps Forces Central Command, who will decide on any further action.

One panel member, Col. Barton Sloat, seemed to acknowledge the murky and incomplete nature of the testimony after Kurre said late Wednesday that agents were unsure of many aspects of the incident.

"That's the most accurate statement I've heard in the court so far," the colonel said.

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

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