Frontline Responds to Haditha Criticisms

Monday, 25 Feb 2008 03:16 PM

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On Wednesday, February 20, 2008, Newsmax.com published an article "Frontline Haditha Story Short on Facts" by Phil Brennan critical of PBS's Frontline program on Haditha "Rules of Engagement."

Frontline has responded to Newsmax's article below.

Dear Editor:

I am responding on behalf of FRONTLINE to Philip Brennan's piece last week about our broadcast of "Rules of Engagement." We would appreciate it if you would post this reply as a correction to the points he raises.

FRONTLINE is aware of the allegations about connections between the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization and insurgents. Major Dinsmore told FRONTLINE that Marine intelligence had intercepted communication between al-Mashhadani and known insurgents, and he voiced his beliefs about Hammurabi?s insurgent ties in our program. We are also aware of reporting about Abdul Rahman al-Mashhdani having been jailed, but that fact alone may not be enough to brand him an insurgent as many Iraqis have been arrested in broad sweeps.

Whatever ties the Hammurabi group or its individual members may have, we did feel it important to include the video in our coverage of the Haditha incident, for the role it played in drawing the attention of the media to the story. We were clear in our reporting that the Marines, having considered the source of the video, viewed it as propaganda and therefore dismissed it. Whatever the provenance of the footage, however, the central fact of the video is not in question - 19 Iraqis were killed in their homes, meaning the original press release was incorrect.

What remains less clear, and what interested FRONTLINE, was how the Iraqis died. Mr. Brennan is wrong in his assertion that FRONTLINE portrayed Haditha as peaceful and free of insurgents prior to the arrival of the Marines, while Newsmax and other media had reported the city to be firmly under insurgent control. In fact, what we reported is that Haditha was a "serene oasis" and "a popular vacation spot" before the war, but that "by the fall of 2005, nearly three years into the war, Haditha was war torn, and Sunni insurgents were in complete control."

As to Mr. Brennan?s third point that we showed the erroneous report numerous times, we?re not entirely sure what his concern is. We did in fact show the press release multiple times precisely because it was this erroneous report that led to accusations of a cover-up by the military and put these particular Marines under suspicion.

In fact, several attorneys defending the accused marines expressed their intense frustration with the press release, saying that had it not been for the erroneous initial description their clients would never have been subject to prosecution.

We were frankly surprised by the article, given that the reaction from the Marines we?ve heard from, including many in 3/1 has been overwhelmingly positive. The same has been true on military blogs; we?d invite you to read this from Blackfive, one of the most popular military blogs: http://www.blackfive.net/main/2008/02/frontline-convi.html

We're eager to hear details of the ?other serious flaws? in our program that you promise to detail later. We'd invite you and your readers to watch the program again on our web site at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/haditha/

Sincerely,

Catherine Wright Story Editor FRONTLINE

Phil Brennan responded today:

The Frontline documentary was on the whole stunningly accurate and went a long way toward destroying the media-fed portrayal of the November 19, 2005 battle in Haditha as a mindless massacre of innocent civilians, and I praise Frontline for what they have done.

My criticism however - that Frontline failed to properly address the motivations of Abdul Rahman al-Mashhdani - was a serious omission.

Regardless of what Catherine Wright implies – that it has not been proven that al-Mashhdani is an insurgent propagandist and operative – the fact remains that it was a series of cell phone calls between him and al Hadithi that alerted Marine Intelligence to the planned ambush in Haditha.

Moreover, al Mashhdani was arrested and imprisoned and interrogated in Abu Ghraib prison for five months and only released as part of a general amnesty. Marine intelligence officers continued to monitor his activities after his release. Finally, Frontline neglected to mention that the so-called Hammurabi group consisted entirely of al Mashhdani and his fellow insurgent operative al Hadithi.

I was wrong to infer that Frontline misrepresented the extent of insurgent control of Haditha. I had based that assertion on what several of the 3/1 Marines had said about the state of the city on the morning of November 19th prior to the IED blast.

As far as the erroneous press release goes, I stand by the facts as given to me by Major Dinsmore which I reported. It was by no means a deliberate cover-up by the Corps, but a stupid mistake by the press officer who ignored the last sentence of the report on the incident he was given which added that gunfire was also responsible for the civilian deaths.

I have no further criticisms of any real substance to offer. Frontline performed a great service to the United States Marine Corps and they deserve much credit for a superb documentary. If I gave any other impression, I apologize.

Phil Brennan

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