Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Iraq War: Sgrena/Calipari incident - dueling reports

I've now read the text of the US Army's official report (unredacted version thanks to Corriere della Sera) on the Sgrena/Calipari incident on March 4. There's usually something to be said for reading the original document. I've seen several news reports on the Italian report that has been released (see references below), but I haven't seen the full text yet.

The one thing both reports agree on is that there is no evidence that the shooting of the Italian military intelligence officer Nicola Calipari (who was killed) or Giuliana Sgrena (the just-freed hostage who was fairly seriously wounded) was a deliberate plan or premeditated act.  (The driver of the vehicle, Andrea Carpani, is also an Italian military intelligence officer.)

But even the US Army report, which insists that no one in the Army did anything wrong, describes enough problems in what happened that it highlights what foolishness it was for the Bush administration to alienate our Italian allies with ham-handed diplomacy. Sometimes the diplomatic niceties matter. A tragic and unnecessary killing didn't have to turn into the serious diplomatic breech it did.

If the Bush administration and the Pentagon had refrained from issuing their standard press release saying it was the Italians' fault that they got shot; if they had shown a willingness to bring Italian officials in on the investigation immediately; if they had allowed an Italian forensics team to examine the car immediately instead of a few days ago; if the presidential spokesman had managed not to sound snappy and petulant about the shooting; then the US response might have improved the American image in Italy and Europe instead of just driving one more nail into the coffin.

The US Army Report

One possibly confusing factor that anyone who digs into the reports may encounter is that the location that the shotting took place was known as Checkpoint 541. However, the roadblock that the US soldiers set up was not what the rules of engagement calls a "checkpoint" but a "blocking position." Essentially, a "blocking position" is meant to be more short-term.  This makes a difference in the Army case that no rules of engagement (ROE) were violated, because the ROE for a "checkpoint" are more specific than for a "blocking position."

First, a couple of things that stand out to me about the Army report itself.  One is that, even though the Army completely exonerates all Army personnel of so much as a mistake, they do identify a communication problem within the Army units responsible for the "blocking position."  According to the mission given to the unit that set up the "blocking position" where the fatal shooting of Calipari occurred, they should have dismantled their roadblock 40 minutes before the Italian trio arrived at Checkpoint 541.  But they didn't get the order to leave because of a breakdown of their own communication, the reasons for which remain mysterious to me in the Army report.  (See section IV. D(4) of the report.)

Also, the account in the Army report strains credibility on the face of it.  The Army claims everyone followed the rules of engagement.  And no one in the Army did anything wrong.  But the report says that they turned back several cars at the "blocking position" before the Italians approached, apparently without incident.  Yet the Italian driver, a major in Italian military intelligence described in the Army report as having "years of experience working and driving in Baghdad," somehow failed to see two big hulking vehicles (HMMWVs) blocking the road, a spotlight, a green laser warning beam and to hear warning shots?  When a number of other drivers, presumably on less sensitive missions, saw the blocking position with no reported problems?

The Army even goes out of its way to blame all three of the Italians in the vehicle.  Maj. Carpani, the driver, is said to "not be in the habit of checking his speedometer."  It even quotes Staff Sergeant Brown, a reservist who is a New York City cop "trained in vehicle speed estimation," saying that he thought the car was going too fast to even "be able to stay on the road around the curve" where the incident took place, he was going so fast.  The report notes that the inside light in the car was on, and that "Ms. Sgrena and Mr. Calipari were in the rear of the car talking to each other.  The atmosphere in the car was a mix of excitement over the recovery of Ms. Sgrena, and tension from the tasks yet to be completed."  To complete the picture of the three Italians acting like chattering teenagers, it notes that the side window was halfway open (presumably creating wind noise, though it doesn't specify that) and that Maj. Carpani was talking on the cell phone as they approached the Checkpoint 541 on-ramp.

Yet even on the latter points, the Army report says that he was on the phone updating an Italian official and "reporting that everything was going fine."  It also says the window was open "to listen for possible threats."  Both suggest that Carpani was very much on the watch for possible trouble.  Interestingly enough in this regard, the Reuters article below says that the Italian report criticizes the Americans for only talking to US soldiers in the initial inquiry.  It's not clear from this news report whether the Army investigators later interviewed the two survivors from the car.  But it does make you  wonder why they were so confident that Maj. Carpani didn't make a habit of checking his speedometer, or what the "atmosphere" in the car was.

When I say this account strains credibility, I mean just that.  It's possible.  But it's hard to picture that an intelligence officer like Carpani carrying out a sensitive mission in a road that, as a person with "years of experience working and driving in Baghdad," he must have known was hazardous, would nevertheless take a on-ramp curve at a speed likely to throw him off the road and ignore the presence of two HMMWVs, one immediately in front of him and the other farther back.  But no one in the Army did anything wrong.

The Italian Report

The Italian report disputes the American account in a number of ways and criticizes the US Army's conduct in the case.

* To the headline writers, the Italian claim that the soldiers involved suffered from "stress and inexperience" seems to stand out.  The Army report also gives plentyt of support for that.  But the Army seems to make the stress into an excuse.  And, though the soldiers at Checkpoint 541 were inexperienced, no one in the Army did anything wrong.  The Italians didn't see it so benignly:  "It is likely that tension ... inexperience and stress led some of the US troops to react instinctively and with little control."  Not having seen the full report, I can't tell from the news accounts if the Italians agreed that only one shooter was involved as the Army claims.

* The most important difference, it seems to me, is that the Italians contend that the information that the Italian agents were coming along that route in their car was properly communicated to the US authorities and that they had a reasonable expectation that this vehicle would be coming at about that time.  The Army contends that no one in the Army knew and no one did anything wrong.  Actually, the Army report may be parsing its words very closely.  It concludes that "it can be positively stated that the U.S. military was totally unaware of the recovery and transport of Ms. Sgrena on 4 March 2005 until after the shooting incident had occurred." (my emphasis)  And in listing all the responsible officials who didn't know anything and therefore didn't do anything wrong, they always refer to "the Sgrena operation."  Okay, fine, no one knew about "the Sgrena operation" or her "recovery and transport."  But does that mean that no one in the Army knew about the car with the military intelligence agents coming?  (See Section V of the US Army report.)

* The Italians criticized the fact that the Army cleared the scene before a forensic examination could take place.  The Army reports seems to agree on the facts.  But it contends that no one in the Army did anything wrong.

* The Italian report says that Army had not set up "the most elementary precautions" like signs to warn about the "blocking position."  The Army report agrees about the signs, and even says the soldiers had signs on the scene but didn't set them up.  But no one in the Army did anything wrong.

* The Italian report cites the accounts of both Sgrena and Carpani that they were given minimum warning before the car was shot up, and finds those accounts "coherent and plausible."


I certainly wouldn't want to see an American soldier unfairly prosecuted or reprimanded simply for the sake of a diplomatic gesture.  And, unless someone comes forward in some way with conflicting testimony from among the relatively few people involved on the American side, there seems to be no grounds for any kind of punishment.  If the Army report is to be believed, no one even deserves a verbal reprimand.

As I said above, the Army's account of the incident itself strains credibility, though it is within the realm of possibility.  I find the contention that everyone in the US military was "totally unaware" of the car with the Italian officials coming along that route to the airport that night hard to credit.  Especially since the Army seems to be very careful to talk about their lack of knowledge of the "Sgrena operation."  In fact, the Army report says explicitly (if comewhat cryptically) at the end, "Not coordinating with U.S. personnel was a conscious decision on the part of the Italians as they considered the hostage recovery an Intelligence mission and a national issue."

It appears from what I've seen of the reports that there was some serious carelessness involved in the operation, perhaps by both sides.  But the idea that no one in the Army did anything wrong in the whole  process is just too much for  me to swallow, for the reasons explained above.  There are also a few questions that I haven't seen addressed in the published reports as to whether the Italian report addressed them: whether the car was  in motion when it was hit by gunfire; how many shots hit the car; was there a single shooter or more than one; and, who did the Italians inform that they expected to relay the message to any military units that might be assigned to the road that evening?

Italia atribuye a la 'inexperiencia' de la patrulla de EEUU la muerte de Calipari tras la liberación de Sgrena (EFE) El Mundo (Spain) 03.05.05
Italy cites stress as factor in US killing of agent by Barbara McMahon and AP Guardian (UK) 05/03/05
Italy criticizes U.S. over its Iraqi checkpoints by Crispian Balmer, Reuters 05/02/05

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