Suspect in Afghan shootings identified

Afghan villagers pray during a ceremony Sunday for the civilians shot by a U.S. soldier in Kandahar. Afghan villagers pray during a ceremony Sunday for the civilians shot by a U.S. soldier in Kandahar. Allauddin Khan/AP

The Pentagon successfully kept the name of the alleged Kandahar shooter bottled up for nearly a week, but the floodgates are finally opening.

An array of detail had leaked out about the sole suspect in last weekend’s killings of 16 Afghan civilians, from the brain injury he reportedly suffered in Iraq to the wife and two children he left behind in Washington state. Late Friday, the Defense Department identified the shooter as Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.

Bales enlisted in the Army in 2001 and is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He's received a number of awards, including six Army Commendation Medals, the Army said.

Bales, who has retained a high-profile defense attorney, was flown out of Afghanistan and brought to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., the military’s main detention facility, earlier on Friday. He’ll be held in pretrial confinement as officials from the Army Criminal Investigation Command interview survivors, analyze shell casings, and try to get a clearer sense of what may have motivated the attack. A military official familiar with the matter said on Friday that Bales was not cooperating with the investigation.

It will be days or weeks before Bales begins his journey through the military's complicated legal system, but glimmers of his life and background are available in unusual places, like an article in the internal newsletter of his unit, Blackhorse Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, from Washington State.

An article from last August details a training exercise at a mock Afghan village in the Mojave Desert. Bales is shown in several pictures and quoted holding a conversation with an actor playing an Afghani civilian. In the photos, Bales is wearing full body armor and a helmet, which obscures his face.

Military officials have said they were simply following standard procedures in refusing to formally identify the suspect, arguing that a suspect’s name and background are typically kept out of public view until there’s been a so-called “preferral” of initial criminal charges. That hasn’t taken place yet in the Kandahar shooting, and the preferral could be days or, potentially, weeks away.

But the argument came under attack being by many military-law experts, who say that suspects are usually identified immediately after being apprehended or placed into pretrial confinement. The lawyers also note that the military has already confirmed that there are no other suspects in the case and that Army surveillance equipment recorded him leaving and returning to the base shortly after the shootings.

“I’m really surprised his name hasn’t been released by now,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charlie Dunlap, who had served as its deputy judge advocate general. “Some delay may be appropriate to protect the family, but I can’t think of a legal reason for why they’re not being as transparent as possible.”

The military’s refusal to formally name Bales stands in sharp contrast to its handling of a trio of recent cases. In March 2003, then-Army spokesman George Heath named Sgt. Hasan Akbar as the sole suspect in the killings of two fellow soldiers at a base n Kuwait just hours after the attack. In May 2009, a military spokesman waited just one day before naming Sgt. John Russell as the sole suspect in the shooting deaths of five American troops at a base in Baghdad. That November, then-Lt. Gen. Robert Cone named Maj. Nidal Hasan as the sole suspect in the Fort Hood shootings eight hours after the assault.

Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said it was wrong to compare the Kandahar case to the other episodes. He noted that Hasan’s name had leaked out almost immediately after the Fort Hood shootings, so Cone was merely confirming information which had already been widely reported. Russell had already faced preliminary charges in the Baghdad shootings at the time he was named. Other military public-affairs officials hinted that Heath had erred by naming Akbar so quickly.

Still, some of the Pentagon’s current defense of its refusal to name the suspect in the Afghan shootings simply raises more questions. If Russell could be charged within one day, why has it taken nearly a week to charge the Kandahar suspect when he’s thought to be the sole perpetrator?

The military has also said that it moved the shooter’s family into protective custody to prevent reprisal attacks. But the Afghan Taliban has shown no ability to mount attacks in the U.S., and no similar protective measures were taken for Hasan’s family, even though the bereaved spouses and children of the Fort Hood victims could much more easily have traveled to Virginia to attack members of his family.

Morris Davis, a retired Air Force colonel and former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay, said the military’s refusal to formally identify Bales after he was put in pretrial confinement was “unfathomable.” He also questioned why no initial charges have been filed in the case, given that the military has video footage of a soldier leaving the base right before the assault and returning right afterward and that there are no other suspects.

“I was a military lawyer for 25 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Davis said. “It should be out by now.”

In the meantime, anonymous military officials have been steadily dribbling out new details about the suspect, telling The New York Times that the soldier reportedly had been drinking the night of the massacre, hadn’t wanted to deploy, and was feeling the strain of marital difficulties caused by the impact of his repeated war-zone tours.

The military's reluctance to formally identify Bales could also stem from an institutional desire to control the narrative of the how the attack comes to be seen publicly and politically. Painting the suspect as a mentally unstable and potentially alcoholic rogue soldier would help sweep away questions about whether others in his chain of command should bear any responsibility for his alleged actions or if the military strategy of sending troops to isolated outposts makes such attacks harder to predict or prevent.

The suspect’s newly hired lawyer, John Henry Browne, added more information last night, telling reporters that his client had lost part of a foot in Iraq and had recently seen a fellow soldier from his unit lose a leg in an insurgent attack. He said the soldier had a “very healthy” marriage and that the soldier’s wife and in-laws were helping to pay for his defense.

Dunlap, the retired general, said the only substantive reason he could think of for why the military was continuing to shield the alleged shooter’s identity was to allow Army investigators to speak to his friends, relatives, and fellow troops before they come under significant media scrutiny and incessant demands for interviews.

Still, he said, one aspect of the military’s handling of the case was particularly troubling. Knowingly disclosing any aspect of someone’s medical history is a serious violation of federal health-privacy laws, but anonymous military officials have repeatedly done just that, whispering to reporters that the suspect had suffered a brain injury and potentially had post-traumatic stress disorder. That type of information came out days ago.

The suspect’s name, Dunlap said, should have been formally released at least as fast.

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