by Wayne M. Anderson
Kicked out of war
Another embed journalist in Afghanistan was kicked out. I was sent home early after reporting on the shootings and killings of American-Afghan soldiers in the North Country.
July was the deadliest month for US casualties, with 66 lives tragically lost. And the timely reporting I did for The Washington Times again revealed the ultimate cost of war.
On July 20th tragedy struck at Camp Mike Spann, where I was embedded with a mentoring unit of the Minnesota National Guard. (One of the finest groups of soldiers I ever reported on.)
That quiet morning I was, as thesong said, just “walking along, minding my business” when the fatal story rushed me.
Standing on a corner, security soldiers rushed past me to mount their armored-ready vehicles and load their .50 caliber machine guns.
Something terrible happened.
Right then an Afghan ambulance quickly rounded the corner heading for the hospital tent. The assembling crowd was tense. I readied my video camera and steadied my shaking hand, as I filmed the off loading of the victims of the lethal shooting.
Those young professional medics rightly deserve medals of commendation for that brave moment, holding themselves together, staying focused and doing their duty. It was textbook and a sight to behold.
Rules of war
The Media Ground Rules say reporters are allowed to photograph, film and write about the horrors of war, even if military leaders object. And in this case they did—many times.
Being the only civilian journalist on the base, I immediately started reporting on this breaking story for the public.
The shooting happened on Afghan Camp Shaneen, which adjoins the NATO camp. Exactly what happened that day depends on whose side is telling the tale.
Afghan Brig. Gen. Sanaull Hag, a commander on Camp Shaneen and Lt. Col. Mohammad Naem, commander of media operations, freely and promptly offered the Afghan side. Col. Stuart Cowen, NATO spokesman, declined comment, citing “an on-going investigation.”
Subsequent media requests for NATO findings went unanswered.
In a few days I pulled together a news story, interviewing an eye witness, senior officials on both sides, and other personnel close to the investigation.
The gist of what happened is this. A verbal argument erupted between two weapon’s trainers, a US civilian and a military Afghan, at the training area on Camp Shaneen.
Jafa, the Afghan trainer, impermissibly took possession of two M-16 rifles and then opened fire on civilians and NATO soldiers. Two people were killed and several wounded. Jafa was also killed.
Eye witnesses said Jafa died holding prayer beads, which is a Taliban practice. Sources also said the date of July 20 was circled on Jafa’s calendar in his quarters and “suicide” music was found in his locker.
The story was complex. But the Taliban motive was not disputed by any source. Most consider this a clear suicide mission.
Yet throughout this, senior US officers tried to “redirect” the reporting. Commanders are forbidden by the Media Ground Rules to interfere with legitimate news gathering.
But on several occasions they employed direct and soft interference with the gathering of the news. And in one known case, base officials discussed with media officials in Kabul how to get rid of me, days before we went to press.
“I’m not opposed to dis-embedding him,” said a media officer in Kabul on the cell phone. “But we have to be v-e-r-y careful.” The ironic thing is he didn’t know he was talking to me on the phone. He later insisted that the inadvertent conversation should be used for background only.
“Wayne, you’re chasing a non-story here,” said one senior commander roaring at me at a later time. “This is not 1968. This is not 1968!”
The 1968 incident he was referring to is the My Lai Massacre, where hundreds of Vietnam civilians were sexually abused, tortured and killed by American soldiers. The massacre prompted outrage around the world and increased US calls to get out of Vietnam.
The killing incident in northern Afghanistan was not in the same universe as My Lai. But it was another highly-charged incident of the war right in the middle of a batch of bad press that month.
In July the Wikileaks occurred. Here some 92,000 documents were leaked to the public exposing a slew of “cover ups” including civilian casualties from “friendly fire.” And on top of that a CBS news poll came out showing 62 percent of Americans felt the war was going badly.
No worse environment
I could not have asked for a worse environment for my bad-news story to be published.
But on July 30th my story and video ran in The Washington Times. It told both sides of the shooting story and showed the casualties of war. And for that, all hell broke loose.
I walked into the Public Affairs Office the morning of publication and immediately came under fire.
“You wrote this f---ing s--t?!” screamed a man in my face. He refused to identify himself and continued to assault me with other expletives, as media officers stood by and allowed this unbecoming conduct.
They were deeply offended by the reporting. I sensed they felt I betrayed the code of honor and stabbed them in the back by reporting the story and showing the video.
They claimed the video showed an “identifiable” image of a wounded soldier. It is against the Media Ground Rules to identify wounded or dead, without permission.
The Times and I had looked at the footage and decided it did not identify the soldier. We would never dishonor our wounded, or their families, by publishing their identity.
Army officials complained about the video, and we immediately pulled it off the Web site, pending further review.
Injustice is swift
But livid military officials were looking long, hard and fast for a way to get rid of a troublesome reporter. And they used the questionable video to kick me out in less than 48 hours. Injustice is swift.
The military says it wants reporters there to “encourage the democratic ideals of open reporting and transparency.”
Yet, when a reporter is charged with an alleged offense, they get no proper hearing, no chance for redress, no due process, all in a rush to judgment. Democratic protections for the accused vanish—all in the face of upholding democratic ideals.
Upon returning to the land of the free, I filed an appeal. Appeals are a reporter’s right and “rarely” occur, said Col. David Lapan, Pentagon spokesman.
After bouncing from the Department of Defense to US Central Command, public affairs officials finally shipped me across the pond to Brussels at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, where Col. Gregory Julian, chief of public affairs, will adjudicate the case.
Members of Congress, like Rep., a member of the House Appropriations Committee, have expressed interest in this case. The Virginia Republican is calling for “fresh eyes” in dealing with Afghanistan. How the press is being treated in-country is part of that vision.
Afghan worthy cause
On a personal note, I saw and say we are fighting and dying for a worthy cause in Afghanistan. And I support NATO’s efforts to establish democracy and build a new nation there. We are nation building there, make no mistake about it. And that is a good thing, to bring a freer Afghanistan about. But we cannot do it without living what we preach—there and here.
I discovered an injustice for reporters that goes on and on in Iraq and Afghanistan. It must stop. And the top brass agrees.
“I will gladly engage in a discussion…to review the existing guidance to ensure there is a fair appeal process to resolve disputes,” said Col. Julian in an email.
Before I left for the war, a pastor told me God had a “divine appointment” for me there. I never thought getting kicked out of a war which started a “Bill of Rights” for embed reporters was my destiny.
But then as the Scottish Psalter wrote: “God moves in mysterious ways.