Days after Afghanistan massacre, suspect unnamed

March 14, 2012 - 11:47 PM
US Afghanistan

Pedestrians walk to a bus stop near a gate at Joint Base Lewis McChord, Tuesday, March 13, 2012, in Washington state. A U.S. Army staff sergeant from the base is accused of slipping away from his base in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar and shooting nearby villagers in their homes. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The U.S. serviceman suspected in the massacre of more than a dozen Afghan civilians is a 38-year-old father of two who served three tours in Iraq and is based in Washington state. Still, days after the slayings, the military has kept under wraps one of the most salient details — his name.

Military officials said it was military policy not to release the name until charges are filed. But military experts said this case seems unusual.

"This is unprecedented in my experience," said Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale University. "It's very strange."

Fidell speculated that the military was focused on ensuring the safety of the soldier's family.

Information has also been limited inside the military. Jill Barber, a wife of a staff sergeant in the same battalion as the suspect, said she learned of the Sunday shooting only from news coverage. She said her husband wasn't allowed to call her for more than a day after the shooting and that soldiers can get in trouble for talking about it.

"They shut everything down over there," Barber, of Yelm, about 60 miles south of Seattle, said Monday. "I didn't even find out about it from him. They're not allowed to say anything."

It's typical for the military to put stringent controls on communication in the aftermath of deaths or injuries, including the shutdown of Internet and telephone access on a combat zone base, often for 24 hours. If a soldier is wounded but his injuries are not life-threatening, military officials will allow him or her to call next of kin on a satellite phone, but they are instructed not to mention others having been hurt or killed — and an officer or an NCO stands at the bedside to make sure that rule is followed.

Jeffrey Addicott, who previously served as the senior legal adviser to the U.S. Army's Special Forces, said the military has increasingly used the shutdown of communications to control information. He said soldiers who are aware of the identity of the suspect likely have orders from superiors not to speak about it and have probably had their electronic devices confiscated so nothing leaks out.

Addicott said he can't think of any other case where a name has been held back for this long, but he thinks it may be necessary in this case to help contain any backlash. He fears that extremists may try to seek revenge for the killings, perhaps by targeting the soldier's family.

"I think it's probably a good thing that we don't have to release his name," Addicott said.

In this instance, military officials haven't even officially confirmed that the soldier was based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Seattle. That information came from sources who spoke to The Associated Press and other media organizations and spoke only on condition of anonymity. Base spokesman Joe Piek referred any questions to military leaders in Afghanistan.

The suspect was flown out of Afghanistan on Wednesday evening to what officials describe as a pretrial confinement facility. Military leaders haven't publicly discussed details about the suspect, though officials have anonymously described him as a 38-year-old father of two who has been in the military for 11 years. He's served three tours in Iraq and began his first deployment to Afghanistan in December.

The soldier is with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. He was attached to Camp Belambai, home to a village stability force that pairs special operations troops with villagers to help provide neighborhood security.

Authorities said the suspect attacked two small villages close to his base in southern Kandahar province. An Afghan official said he was shown a surveillance video of the soldier returning to his base, laying down his weapon and raising his arms in surrender.

There have been other circumstances where military officials have taken their time in releasing information about soldier suspects, such as in the deliberate thrill killings of three Afghan civilians during patrols by another Lewis-McChord based unit in 2010.

Just after the last of those killings, in May of that year, a whistleblower told Army investigators about the unjustified killings. The officers quickly identified which killings the whistleblower was talking about, and within days they had arrested a dozen soldiers — five for potential involvement in the deaths, and the rest for a series of other misdeeds, including taking body parts from the dead and drug use.

Vague word of the arrests leaked out about two weeks later. The Army released the name of one of the central figures in the case, Jeremy Morlock, in early June after he had been charged with murder. It did not release the other names and charges until mid-June.

While that case was largely unknown until the military released information, this week's case was immediately known across the globe.

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Associated Press writers Manuel Valdes near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Shannon Dininny in Yakima and Robert Reid in Cairo, Egypt, contributed to this report.

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Baker can be reached at https://twitter.com/MikeBakerAP

Johnson reported from Seattle and can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle