And as he was preparing to strike, the Predator pilot was unaware of the analyst's doubts.
At Alcatraz, a captain and a gunnery sergeant from 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion's Alpha company had requested air support after the platoon first reported gunfire at 8:20 a.m. When a Marine unit comes under attack, air or artillery support is supposed to be available within 10 minutes. The Predator was circling overhead in seven minutes.
The Marines at Alcatraz asked the drone crew to search for Marines along the road and for insurgents to the west. They also pressed Huff to confirm his men's positions. Huff reported that his men were on the road, or within 50 yards of it. In fact, some were more than 200 yards away.
At 8:41 a.m., the Predator pilot in Nevada reported seeing the muzzle flashes from three prone figures in the poppy field. The Marine officers quickly issued a "preemptive" order to prepare the Predator to fire.
The captain radioed to confirm where platoon members were and told Huff that the Predator was prepared to strike near a low-slung structure marked as Building 58 on detailed military maps "if it was still a viable target." The gunnery sergeant radioed in the captain's call sign to authorize the missile strike eight minutes later.
Hearing the order, Huff warned his scattered squad over the radio: "Get your guys down — danger close."
Hammonds shouted at a corporal to find Building 58 on their map.
"I hear [Huff] on the radio for us to take cover and I relayed it to my guys," he recalled. "Near the canal on the west side is a low wall that I tell everyone to get behind."
Smith and Rast were still out in the poppy field. Hammonds' radio blared again: The Hellfire missile would hit in 17 seconds. He shouted at Smith and Rast to hustle.
Suddenly the corporal found the building on his map. It was behind them, not the suspected Taliban position farther west. He yelled out, "Building 58 is the wrong building!"
The missile exploded almost on top of Smith. Running across the field, Hammonds found Rast face down with a large wound behind his ear. Smith lay five yards away, but his condition was clear. "I knew he was dead," Hammonds said.
Other Marines rushed to try to save Rast. They restored his pulse, but only briefly. They noticed Hammonds intently searching the ground. "What are you doing?" the sniper team leader demanded.
"Trying to find Smith's wedding ring," Hammonds replied. Smith had worn the silver band on a chain around his neck. He found the ring and would return it to Smith's wife, Rachel.
The Pentagon investigation into the deaths of Smith and Rast, the first friendly-fire deaths known to have been caused by a drone attack, was led by Marine Col. Randy Newman, a former regimental commander in Afghanistan.
The incident raised a series of broad questions: How did the battalion's new rules for handling Predator strikes affect the decision to strike? Was the missile fired too quickly? Did the system built to help commanders make better decisions break down again?
Newman's 381-page report placed much of the blame on Huff, maintaining that up until the moment the missile was fired, he could have called it off. It criticized Huff for failing to keep track of his men, and two sergeants for sending inaccurate radio reports that misled the lieutenant about their locations — and led the Marines at Alcatraz to call in the drone strike on the wrong location. However, it said the deaths were due to "miscommunications," and that no one was "culpably negligent or derelict in their duties."
The names of everyone involved except Smith and Rast — and, in one place, Huff — were redacted in a copy of the report obtained by The Times. In addition to material contained in the report, this article is based on interviews with family members and Marine Corps and Air Force officers involved in the case. The commander of the 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, Lt. Col. L.K. Hussey, declined to be interviewed.
Some ground officers appear wary of distant Air Force analysts who can delay air support for their men under fire. A senior U.S. officer familiar with the incident said the decision to strike as soon as muzzle flashes were seen was understandable "because of the urgency of supporting the guys on the ground, and to pursue a fleeting target."
Newman's report said the analysts should have been more aggressive in raising their concerns in the minutes before the missile attack. But the analysts said they were trained not to intercede when U.S. troops were in danger unless they saw women and children present, or evidence of a possible war crime.
In the minutes after the attack, an apparently distraught Huff radioed back to Alcatraz that he "didn't know why we had to hit that position," said a Marine officer who received the transmission.