Uncovering the Camp Bastion Cover-Up
All it takes is one crack for a stone wall to start crumbling. Nine months after the deadly 9/14 raid on Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, the families of two fallen Marines may finally get some answers. Real accountability, of course, is another story.
A formal internal investigation into lax security at the base — a British-run NATO compound that adjoins our Marines' Camp Leatherneck — is now under way. A few members of Congress are putting pressure on the administration for the truth. And a couple of mainstream reporters are digging deeper.
More, please. And faster. Camp Bastion belongs in the bloody scandal lexicon with Benghazi and Fast and Furious. This trio of national security disasters under the Obama administration didn't just involve run-of-the-mill corruption and cover-ups. It cost American lives.
As I've been reporting in a series of columns and blog posts over the past year, the Taliban waged an intricately coordinated, brutal attack on Camp Bastion in Afghanistan last fall — three days after the deadly siege on our consulate in Libya and after months of prior security incidents and warnings.
Fifteen jihadists disguised in stolen American combat fatigues penetrated the complex. They used rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and other weapons to wipe out nearly an entire squadron of Marine Harrier jets worth an estimated $200 million.
Along with the most devastating loss of U.S. airpower since Vietnam, two heroic U.S. Marines — Lt. Col. Christopher Raible and Sgt. Bradley Atwell — were killed in the battle, and nearly a dozen others were injured. Military officials refused to release details of the fateful budget and strategy decisions that led to the attack. But Deborah Hatheway, aunt of Sgt. Atwell and the family's spokesperson, and other Camp Bastion families learned on their own that their loved ones were left vulnerable to attack by military leaders who outsourced watchtower security on the base to soldiers from Tonga.
The neglect of security at Bastion was widely known. Nick Francona, a former Marine Corps Ground Intelligence Officer with 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, who served as a Scout Sniper Platoon Commander in Helmand Province in 2011, recounted on Foreign Policy magazine's The Best Defense blog in April: "It was obvious to even a casual observer that many of the posts were unmanned and were comically left with a 'green Ivan' silhouette target as a halfhearted attempt at deterrence."
Francona added: "The attack only occurred because of an egregious failure in basic infantry practices. ... It is painfully obvious that this attack would not have been successful, or likely even attempted, if not for multiple security failures at Leatherneck/Bastion."
The families zeroed in on Maj. Gen. Charles "Mark" Gurganus, who recently returned to the U.S. after commanding coalition forces in Afghanistan, as the man responsible for shortchanging security at Bastion. Gurganus was the same one who ordered Marines to disarm — immediately after a failed jihadi attack on then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last year — because he wanted them "to look just like our (unarmed) Afghan partners."
The Camp Bastion families are not the only ones scrutinizing Gurganus' decisions. A few weeks ago, Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran reported that the U.S. military has finally launched a formal probe into whether Gurganus and his subordinates bear responsibility for lax security at Bastion. A planned promotion for Gurganus has been put on hold.
Chandrasekaran confirmed that watchtowers were indeed left to Tongans (notorious at the base for sleeping on the job). In addition, reports Chandrasekaran, "Security patrols of the perimeter, which were conducted by the Marines ... had been scaled back substantially in the months leading up to the attack." Simply blaming the Tongans, however, is not accountability. U.S. staff decisions "made it easier for the Taliban to reconnoiter the compound and then enter without resistance," according to Chadrasekaran's sources with direct knowledge of the incident.
While U.S. Central Command investigates, there is now movement on Capitol Hill to help Camp Bastion families whose information requests have been stymied. Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., has written Marine/CENTCOM leadership on behalf of the victims' families. (Sgt. Atwell and his family are from Indiana.) Rokita told me in a statement this week: "This is about transparency and accountability. I want to make sure that Sgt. Atwell's family, Lt. Col. Raible's family and the American people get the full truth about the Camp Bastion attack."
It's a start. But as with Benghazi and Fast and Furious, getting the truth about Camp Bastion is only half the battle. Truth without consequences is a recipe for more dead Americans.