CNN: “No US Access to Sites of Afghan Killings”, But Did US Ask for Access?

A story just posted at CNN.com addresses two crucial questions that have been raised at Emptywheel regarding the Panjwai massacre. Late last night, MadDog repeated a speculation he has raised several times regarding how Bales could have been undetected when he left the outpost twice on the night of the killings:

Given the 3 points above, I’ll again wonder as I’ve done here before whether Bales himself was an individual assigned to provide the very security that he’s purported to have breached.

The CNN article confirms that very fact:

The official said Bales, 38, was meant to have been on duty guarding the base that night, and would have had full body armour and weaponry as standard.

A point that I raised in an early post on this incident was that we would be able to tell how serious the US is in determining whether Bales truly acted alone or if other soldiers were present and fired weapons during the killings would be to observe how fully the US carries out forensic examinations of the crime scenes:

Although the bodies appear to have been buried already, we will know just how serious the US is about establishing the number of shooters involved in the attack if they actually visit the homes invaded to recover shell casings and bullets. Even rudimentary forensic evaluation should be able to establish conclusively how many weapons were fired. Slightly more advanced forensics can determine whether all the weapons involved were in the possession of the soldier who has turned himself in.

Remarkably, over two and a half weeks after the attack, we now learn that the US has not yet had “access” to the crime scenes:

U.S. military officials have yet to gain access to the sites in which 17 Afghans were killed in Kandahar, an obstacle that could impede efforts to prosecute the American soldier accused of the multiple homicides.

U.S. personnel had not been able to collect DNA from the sites or access the areas, although DNA collected by Afghan investigators may have been received, an official said.

However, DNA has been found in blood on the clothing of the suspect, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.

“We do not have access to the crime scene,” said the U.S. official, who has knowledge of the investigation but did not want to be identified discussing an ongoing inquiry.

With so much time having passed, it seems to me that the question of access now becomes moot. It seems virtually impossible that Afghan officials have sealed off the crime scenes and limited access there only to their own investigators, so any evidence gathered at this point is rendered virtually meaningless.

Not addressed by CNN is whether the US even asked for access to the crime scenes. It has been reported that the US transported at least some of the wounded for treatment. If that occurred, why did no troops remain behind to secure the scene for later investigation? It’s hard to imagine why the Afghans would not have allowed access to the crime scenes if the US had asked for it. Successful prosecution of whoever carried out the killings would seem to be a primary concern for the Afghans, so they should have been motivated to provide access to the sites. How difficult would it have been for a joint investigation to have been organized in the immediate aftermath? A joint investigative team collecting evidence together would have seemed to be a natural and rapid agreement given the circumstances.

Whatever the reasons for the US not getting access for analysis, whether due to refusal by the Afghans or the US not being interested enough in the outcome to even request access, Bales’ attorney already has realized the importance of this developing gaping hole in the case against him:

“They have no murder scene, no forensics,” the lawyer said Thursday night outside his Seattle office. “I’m going to make them prove every claim.”

Military law experts acknowledge that proving the case may be difficult, especially given that there are no autopsies to help prove the cause of death — in part because those killed were buried quickly, in accordance with Islamic tradition — and difficulty in getting witnesses to testify.

But Gary Solis, a former U.S. Marine Corps lawyer and current Georgetown professor, told CNN that any bullet rounds recovered from the scene could be matched with Bales’ weapon — assuming it was “immediately seized” — which would serve as “powerful evidence for the government.”

Solis does raise an interesting question. Was Bales’ weapon (or weapons) seized immediately when he surrendered? As for the “bullet rounds” Solis discusses, now that we know no access to the sites has been obtained, we are left with the very low probability that a casing or casings were picked up along with the wounded who were transported for treatment, along with any bullets or bullet fragments removed from them surgically. Any evidence from these sources would be only a small fraction of the total amount of evidence that would have been ready for collection in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. That evidence now has no chance of being used against the killer(s), unless Afghan investigators controlled the crime scenes and then documented and collected bullets and casings. The results of the Afghans’ analyses, or the materials gathered, would need to be shared with the US for any prosecution to be successful.

Coupling this apparent complete failure to collect evidence at the crime scenes with the decision to hold Bales’ trial in the US, making it virtually impossible for Afghans to testify, we get the distinct impression that the military is setting the stage for Bales to be the only suspect tried and for him to be acquitted due to lack of evidence.

Update: See this comment and the the comments related to it from MadDog and orionATL for links to photos and video of Afghan authorities appearing to collect evidence on the day following the killings. Will any evidence collected be shared with the US, and will it withstand scrutiny in a prosecution of Bales or anyone else? Why didn’t CNN’s source mention that the Afghans have collected evidence at the crime scenes?

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
25 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    a drunk soldier was allowed to go on duty

    or

    a soldier was allowed to drink on duty?

    where were the officers?

    speaking of which, i have heard no noise yet about anyone but bales being transferred or otherwise disciplined.

  2. orionATL says:

    “…Remarkably, over two and a half weeks after the attack, we now learn that the US has not yet had “access” to the crime scenes:

    U.S. military officials have yet to gain access to the sites in which 17 Afghans were killed in Kandahar, an obstacle that could impede efforts to prosecute the American soldier accused of the multiple homicides…”

    oh, really?

    a military that conducts raids anywhere in afghanistan at will has to wait to be “invited” or “permitted” to a murder scene generated by one of its soldiers?

    how very civil of that military.

  3. AfGuy says:

    …the military is setting the stage for Bales to be the only suspect tried and for him to be acquitted due to lack of evidence.

    As with the Ted Stevens and Trayvon Miller cases, I’m starting to think that the shoddy investigations and supposedly-incompetent prosecutors are now a “feature” in the justice system, no longer a “bug”…

  4. emptywheel says:

    As I’ll show–I’ll do a f-up post–what this source is saying contradicts CNN’s own onsite reporting.

  5. Steve H. says:

    @orionATL

    “a military that conducts raids anywhere in afghanistan at will has to wait to be “invited” or “permitted” to a murder scene generated by one of its soldiers?”

    Sorry, but a crime scene analysis is no raid. It needs patience and due diligence. Perhaps the two villages are not secure any more?

  6. orionATL says:

    @Steve H.:

    i’m sure you’re right.

    my point is that the u.s. military could have gone anywhere in those villages they pleased, cordoned off, and conducted a forensic investigation.

    when you have the helicopters and the guns, you make the rules.

    “local concerns and sensitivities” seem like an opportunistic excuse here.

  7. orionATL says:

    having read the cnn story, i’m not sure that bales’ attorney is not blowing some smoke.

    – i thought bales had confessed that he had killed afghans to base “officials”

    – wounded can testify by video i presume

  8. Ben Franklin says:

    I keep saying it. This is SOP for the military. My Lai had a Platoon, and yet only one, Calley was charged.

    The incident occurred in March o ’68. The investigation didn’t begin until the summer of ’69. What kind of evidence existed for forensics after 15 months in a steamy jungle?

    ” There were others who were deeply worried of what such a war crimes trial would mean. It would be America itself on stage; the whole Vietnam War issue would be explored, dissected, ripped apart in all its ugly truth. President Nixon decided to let the Army handle it with a court martial. On September 6, 1969, two days before he was to be released from the Army, Lt. William Calley was formally charged at Fort Benning, Georgia, with 109 murders.”

    Then, there’s that….

  9. emptywheel says:

    OK, I’ve got a new post laying out what I think this anonymous source is doing–among other things, trying ot rebut CNN’s earlier reporting.

  10. MadDog says:

    I agree with Jim that given that the information in this CNN report is accurate, the US investigative and legal folks have dropped the ball with regard to this massacre of Afghan civilians.

    I can understand the absence of an effort to secure the crime scene by the US military folks who first responded to the horrendous incident.

    They are not CSIs, and from all the reports I’ve seen and read thusfar, the first US military folks involved were a search party for an absent US soldier, and perhaps US military “First Responders” treating and evacuating the wounded.

    That said, I again agree with Jim that it appears that US investigative and legal folks then should have jumped in with both feet.

    The enormous US Kandahar base is less than 15 miles away from the massacre crime scenes in the Panjwai villages, and a base that hosts the following surely has CSI-aware US investigative and legal folks:

    “…Entering through the front gate of the KAF was like stepping through a time portal into a different world. The entire base is a constant beehive of activity, with construction ongoing everywhere…

    …While the troop strength housed at KAF is estimated at around 14,000, the large number of foreigners working and living inside the base makes it impossible to make an accurate estimate of the total population.

    “It’s probably somewhere around 22,000 people”, guessed my contractor friend. “No one really knows as the base workers now require other workers to support their own services…”

    …There is also no bread and water diet at KAF. Instead, a private caterer “Supreme Foodservice” provides four full meal services a day in three massive mess halls on the base. If soldiers want a little more variety in their cuisine, they can frequent any one of the numerous fast food outlets at KAF including the popular Tim Hortons, Burger King, etc.

    Should they wish to enjoy a little more atmosphere with their dining experience, a Dutch restaurant offers private booths. We were told that a special caf that recently opened near the new British gymnasium is all the rage these days as it serves specialty coffees…”

  11. MadDog says:

    I would note that the dereliction of duty charge against Bales is likely directly tied to his guard duty absence.

  12. MadDog says:

    “…As for the “bullet rounds” Solis discusses, now that we know no access to the sites has been obtained, we are left with the very low probability that a casing or casings were picked up along with the wounded who were transported for treatment, along with any bullets or bullet fragments removed from them surgically…”

    FWIW, I distinctly remember seeing in some of the first video of the massacre site(s), what appeared to be Afghans wearing latex gloves picking up spent shell casings and placing them into plastic baggies.

    Were these folks official Afghan investigators? If so, is there “chain of custody” documentation that would meet our legal standards?

    Don’t know, and don’t know.

  13. Zachary Smith says:

    “…we get the distinct impression that the military is setting the stage for Bales to be the only suspect tried and for him to be acquitted due to lack of evidence.”

    This has been nagging at me ever since I first read it here. And thinking about it has led me to wonder how Bales can afford the high-powered team of lawyers he’s supposed to have. How he even knew of Browne? If the news stories I’ve seen are accurate, Bales was savvy enough to clam up from the very outset. Not exactly the way I’d imagine a brain-addled person would behave…

    The lead lawyer echoes what has been written here:

    *****

    “I don’t know if the government is going to prove much,” lead attorney John Henry Browne told CNN about the shootings of nine children, three women and four men in a village in southern Afghanistan. “There’s no forensic evidence, there’s no confessions.

    *****

    It starting to look to me like there was some premeditated murder which will go unpunished. I may never know how many others were involved in the crime and coverup.

  14. Bob Schacht says:

    Successful prosecution of whoever carried out the killings would seem to be a primary concern for the Afghans, so they should have been motivated to provide access to the sites.

    First of all, I would not say that “we know” anything based on this report.
    Second, the quote above seems off-base to me. Reading of Afghan motives can be a tricky business, but cynicism about the US ability to clean up crime scenes might make them wary of turning the scene over to the US. A joint investigation, maybe. But the “police work” at this crime scene makes about as much sense as the police work after Treyvon Martin’s murder. Another possible parallel to keep our eyes on is that the police work re: Treyvon is emerging as better than the AG who decided not to press any charges against Zimmerman, and allowing valuable evidence to be lost. This sounds so much like police work in the old South, where the evidence would be fixed around the case so that it would work out in the way that the White power structure wanted.

    Bob in AZ

  15. Jim White says:

    @harpie: Aw, now. I was having a nice evening until running into Stanley again.

    (Actually, thanks. I had seen a link to that earlier in the day and never made it back there.)

  16. harpie says:

    @harpie:

    Transcription of the police report narratives from this PDF:

    NARRATIVES [PDF 7 of 8]
    Report Date: 2/27/2012 2:28 Reporter: A49160 Ayala, Ricardo

    On 2/26/12, at approximately 1917 hours, I was dispatch to 1111 Retreat View Cir. in reference to a complainant seeing a suspicious person in the area. While on route dispatch stated the they were receiving calls in reference to gun shots being heard in the area where I was responding to.

    Ofc. T Smith stated via radio that he was arriving in the area. Ofc. T. Smith later stated that there was one subject shot and he had one at gun point.

    Upon arrival Ofc. T. Smith had a white male, later identified as George Zimmerman, in custody. Zimmerman was also the original caller in reference to the suspicious person.

    I then noticed that there was, what appeared to be a black male wearing a gray sweater, blue jeans, and white/red sneakers laying face down on the ground. The black male had his hands underneath his body. I attempted to get a response from the black male, but was met with negative results. At that time Sgt. Raimondo arrived and attempted to get a pulse on the black male but none was found. At that time, Sgt. Raimondo and I turned the black male over and began CPR. Sgt. Raimondo did breaths and I did chest compressions.

    Sgt. S. McCoy arrived on scene and relieved me continuing compressions. Sanford Fire Rescue arrived on scene and attempted to revive the subject, but could not. Paramedic Brady pronounced the subject deceased at 1930 hours.

    The scene was then secured with crime scene tape by Ofc. Mead and Ofc. Wagner. Ofc. Robertson began a crime scene contamination log.

    Lt. Taylor arrived on scene and notified dispatch to have Major Crimes respond to the scene.

    Ofc. Mead and Ofc. Wagner were able to make contact with neighbors in the area. They were able to obtain statements from all witnesses on scene.

    Report Date: 2/27/2012 3:29 Reporter: S25894 Smith, Timothy

    On 2/26/2012, at approximately 1917 hours, I responded to 1111 Retreat Cir in reference to a report of a suspicious person. As I arrived on scene, dispatch advised of a report of shots fired in the same subdivision.

    I was advised by dispatch that the report of shots fired was possibly coming from 1231 Twin Trees Ln. I was then advised, after receiving multiple calls, that there was a subject laying in the grass in between the residences of 1231 Twin Trees Ln. and 2821 Retreat View Cir. I responded to 2821 Retreat View Cir and exited my marked Sanford police vehicle and began to canvas the area. As I walked in between the buildings I observed a white male, wearing a red jacket and blue jeans. I also observed a black male, wearing a gray hooded sweat shirt, laying face down in the grass.

    I asked the subject in the red jacket, later identified as George Zimmerman (who was original caller for the suspicious person complaint), if he had seen the subject. Zimmerman stated that he had shot the subject and he was still armed. Zimmerman complied with all of my verbal commands and was secured in handcuffs. Located on the inside of Zimmerman’s waist band, I removed a black Kel Tek 9mm PF9 semi auto handgun and holster. While I was in such close contact with Zimmerman, I could observe that his back appeared to be wet and was covered in grass, as if he had been laying on his back on the ground. Zimmerman was also bleeding from the nose and back of his head.

    Shortly after securing Zimmerman, Officer Ricardo Ayala arrived on scene. I advised Officer Ayala that I had not made contact with black male subject laying on the ground. I observed Officer Ayala make contact with the subject and attempt to get a response, but was met with negative results. Shortly after this, other officers began to arrive on the scene along with SFD Rescue 38 who began to give aid to the subject laying on the ground.

    Zimmerman was placed in the rear of my police vehicle and was given first aid by SFD. While the SFD was attending to Zimmerman, I over heard him state “I was yelling for someone to help me, but no one would help me.” At no point did I question Zimmerman about the incident that had taken place. Once Zimmerman was cleared by the SFD, he was transported to the Sanford Police Department.

    Zimmerman was placed in an interview room at SPD, where he was interviewed by Investigator D. Singleton. Zimmerman was turned over to investigations and this was the extent of my Involvement in this case.

    The Kel Tek hand gun that I collected from Zimmerman was placed in to evidence under TS-1.

  17. Brenda Koehler says:

    The CNN interview with the Australian journalist who interviewed the survivors of the massacre has been around for over a day, so since the accounts of the survivors are so at odds with the the official military account, shouldn’t this discrepancy be a point of substantial interest to major media outlets? I don’t understand why no one is picking this contradiction up. It’s not as though CNN International is the equivalent of the Weekly World or something.

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