General questions whether commander fully detailed Haditha killings
CAMP PENDLETON —- A general said Friday he now questions whether the battalion commander who led U.S. Marines accused of murder in the deaths of 24 civilians in Haditha in 2005 reported everything he knew about the killings.
The general, Maj. Gen. Richard Huck, said he is uncertain whether Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani was completely forthright in the days and weeks following the incident.
"The question becomes, did he report everything he knew, and I have some questions about that," Huck said at the conclusion of more than two hours of testimony conducted via a video hookup from the Pentagon in Virginia.
Chessani was commander of Camp Pendleton's 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment until relieved of that post when the unit returned from Iraq in April 2006.
Huck commanded the 2nd Marine Division and the II Marine Expeditionary Force Forward and was one of Chessani's bosses when the slayings were carried out the morning of Nov. 19, 2005. Nineteen Iraqis died inside homes and five were killed while being held at gunpoint after emerging from a car that drove up shortly after a roadside bomb destroyed a Humvee, killing a lance corporal and injuring two other Marines.
Now working in a planning position in Washington, Huck gave his testimony on the third day of a hearing that will determine whether Chessani will face a court-martial on charges of dereliction of duty for failing to fully report and investigate the deaths.
The general said he had expected that any alleged wrongdoing that emerged would have been reported as soon as possible.
Late in the day of the killings, Chessani sent a report to regimental headquarters stating that 15 civilians and eight insurgents had died, an inaccurate account based on the first reports from Marines involved in the incident.
That initial report would be the official account of what happened for several weeks. It remained unchanged until questions were raised by Time magazine in January 2006.
When asked by prosecutor Lt. Col. Paul Atterbury whether he had ever been made aware that three entire families were killed, including several women and children, Huck said he did not learn about the families until after an investigation was ordered in February 2006.
"I would have expected any new facts or discoveries to be reported," he said.
Atterbury asked Huck whether he had ever learned that Haditha officials alleged within days that the men in the car were students who had been, in the prosecutor's words, "essentially executed by the Marines."
"That should have been reported," Huck said.
Huck also said he didn't become aware until this week that the Haditha town council met with Chessani eight days after the killings and presented a formal letter, written in English, contending a war crime had been committed.
"If that document was presented, (that) needs to be reported and the commander should be thinking, 'Perhaps I should get an investigation started,' " Huck said.
Chessani, 43, and three other battalion officers were charged Dec. 21 with dereliction of duty for failing to investigate. Four enlisted men were charged with murder, although prosecutors dropped charges against one in April in exchange for his testimony.
Testimony from a two-star general at a preliminary hearing is an unusual occurrence in the military justice system. Longtime military lawyers say generals rarely testify in criminal cases, and that an appearance by one carries a great deal of weight with the officer presiding over the session.
Chessani's attorneys sought Huck's testimony to show that he had in fact reported the killings up the chain of command. They contend that it was up to commanders above him to determine whether an investigation was necessary.
Huck wasn't the only general to testify Friday.
Brig. Gen. John Toolan also testified via video hookup from Washington, saying he has known Chessani for 18 years and considers him a man of strong values who always gave commanders a straight answer.
Toolan, who oversees Southeast Asia issues for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, said he doubted Chessani would sit on bad news.
"I don't have any question that he would ever try to hide it or cover up," Toolan said.
Col. Christopher Conlin, the hearing officer, asked Toolan his opinion of Chessani's failure to go to the site of the bombing until a day later and not within hours of the event. Toolan said he was surprised to hear of that.
"A battalion commander should be at the point where there is conflict," he said.
The hearing continues today. It will be closed to reporters and the public on Monday when classified testimony is scheduled to be heard.
When the hearing wraps up, Conlin will write a report to Lt. Gen. James Mattis stating whether he believes the charges should move forward to trial. Mattis is head of Marine Corps forces in the Middle East and is the convening authority over the case.
Chessani could face more than two years behind bars and dismissal from the service if ordered to trial and convicted.
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