Thursday, November 05, 2009

Fort Hood massacre and early news

When the news was coming out this afternoon about the mass murder at Fort Hood, I had an interesting conversation with a co-worker who was also following the news. He currently has two sons in the military so, as he said, the news "hits too close to home".

I said something to the effect that it was a horrible event. But I also said I was reserving judgment on the specifics until we heard some more solid news. He said that he believed what the base commander, Gen. Robert Cone, had reported in the first news conference he held after the incident. I said, "But the military's first statement on things like this is always a lie." He was taken aback by that. And we had an interesting talk about it.

I showed him the one of the first news articles I had seen about it from La OpiniĆ³n - I actually first heard about it from the paper's Twitter feed - which at the time was reporting seven dead and 20 injured, apparently based on Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's statement using information from the base. It was also said shooting had been reported at two locations on the base, and that there was believed to be one shooter and one additional suspect. I also showed him a Salon report that had been updated in an additional section after Cone's press conference. Then we were talking about 12 dead, 31 wounded, the shooter and a police officer also killed (the shooter maybe or maybe not one of the 12), and two additional suspects in custody.

I explained that expected just this kind of changing reporting from a situation like this. And that even if we assumed that the base commander had the best of intention, he might actually have good reason to give out incomplete or false information at that moment when they were still trying to resolve the immediate situation and make arrests. But I was a little surprised myself at how totally skeptical I was of Cone's information. As far as I recall, I've never heard of the man before. But as I explained to my co-worker, an endless number of false statement about battle situations has had it's effect. And especially the Pat Tillman case, in which senior Army officers knowingly lied to the public and to Tillman's family about his being killed in a "friendly fire" incident, because they wanted to cover up their own mistakes and also use his death as propaganda.

I also said that I could see reasons for the base commander to have not so admirable reasons to lie. After all, this is the largest US military base anywhere. And one of the worst terrorist-type incident, a real mass murder, had just taken place on the base under his command. Reading about recent German history, I know there were incidents in which the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) terrorist group attacked US military bases, sometimes killing several Americans. And there have obviously been deadly attacks on American bases in combat zones. But I don't recall ever hearing of one this costly in lives happening in the US outside actual combat situations like the Civil War. So he very well might have incentive to dissemble. As citizens and news consumers, we'd be foolish to overlook that possibility.

But I did say that I would be surprised if the death toll or the number of wounded turned out to be lower than reported, because I couldn't see any motive for the base commander to exaggerate those figures.

Well, here we are a few hours later. As the subtitle on this Alex Koppelman report at Salon puts it, "Much of what was initially reported about the mass murder at an Army post turns out to have been wrong." And while the last I saw, the count of dead and wounded is still at 12 and 30+, respectively, it appears I was a bit too optimistic about the likely accuracy of the Gen. Cone's information. Because the officer that was being reported killed at one point was wounded but not killed.

Even more surprisingly, the alleged shooter is still alive. Now, that's a real surprise. And somebody along the chain from the wounded but alive suspect to Cone's press conference to us was almost certainly knowingly lying. It's not unthinkable that there could have been a legitimate reason to disseminate that bit of disinformation. I can't think of what that might be. But if there was, I want to hear about it. As Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher observed on Twitter, "Military says they reported Hasan dead due to confusion at hospital. Huh?"

If the top brass at the base really thought there was a sole shooter and that he was dead, I'm not sure if that's more worrisome in its own way that the fact that they just lied about it. How good a job were they doing handling the emergency if they could get something that important wrong? As Mitchell said in another Tweet, "Get ready for days of jokes, old and new, about 'military intelligence.'"

But we also can't forget what kind of country we live in after the Cheney-Bush years and the Obama administration extreme claims of government secrecy for "national security" issues. Did the military initially make the false claim that the shooter was dead because they thought they might ship him off to Gitmo or some CIA gulag station and torture him for the next 10 years? Or did they say he was dead because they were torturing him already? Until there is a full legal investigation and prosecution of the known torture crimes of the Cheney-Bush administration, we have to learn to ask these questions.

Sen. Levin Carl Levin said early on that his Senate Armed Services Committee was calling for "a detailed accounting" of the incident. I hope they don't just take the base commander's word for it. We'll see if Levin's makes a decent follow-through. I've been disappointed by him more than once.

I suppose I should add that the military should look closely at Cone's performance in this matter. I won't hold my breath they they will do it responsibly. We've seen too much too often of how our glorious generals operate in such matters the last eight years.

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