Published on Monday, May 15, 2000
Did Clinton's Drug Czar Lead Gulf War Slaughter Of Iraqis?
New Yorker Magazine Press Release
In ``Overwhelming Force,'' in the May 22, 2000, issue of The New Yorker, Seymour M. Hersh reports on the activities of the 24th Infantry Division during the 1991 Gulf War. The 24th was commanded by General Barry R. McCaffrey, who now serves as the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Hersh concentrates on three episodes in the campaign: the Battle of Rumaila, on March 2, 1991, which took place two days after President Bush declared a ceasefire; and two incidents, on February 27th and March 1st, in which Army personnel have been accused of wrongly shooting Iraqis who posed no threat to them and who, in the case of the February 27th incident, had already surrendered. All three of these episodes have been investigated by the Army, which found no wrongdoing, but, Hersh reports, key witnesses and information were either missed or ignored. Hersh interviewed more than two hundred past and present enlisted men and officers over the six months he spent preparing this account, including the Army's own investigators. Taken together, they present a picture that is, as editor David Remnick remarks in a Comment accompanying Hersh's article, ``at a minimum, unsettling.''

March 2, 1991: On the morning of March 2nd, Hersh writes, ``McCaffrey reported that, despite the ceasefire, his division had suddenly come under attack from a retreating Republican Guard tank division.'' There was disagreement among the officers assigned to McCaffrey's mobile headquarters, Hersh reports, about the significance and strength of the Iraqi attack and about whether there had indeed been an attack at all. There was also profound disagreement over the appropriate level for the division's response. Nonetheless, McCaffrey, after a delay, ``ordered an assault in force -- an all-out attack,'' Hersh writes. The assault destroyed some seven hundred Iraqi tanks, armored cars, and trucks.

``Many of the generals interviewed for this account believe that McCaffrey's attack went too far, and violated one of the most fundamental military doctrines: that a commander must respond in proportion to the threat,'' Hersh writes. ``That's the way we're trained,'' one major general tells Hersh. ``A single shot does not signal a battle to the death. Commanders just don't willy-nilly launch on something like that. A disciplined commander is going to figure out who fired it, and where it came from. Especially if your mission is to enforce a ceasefire. Who should have been better able to instill fire discipline than McCaffrey?''

In testimony before Congress and in written responses to questions sent to him by Hersh, McCaffrey has said that the Iraqis attacked first and that the subsequent response by the 24th was necessary to protect the lives of American soldiers. But, Hersh reports, McCaffrey's version of events was disputed by soldiers and officers who were at the scene on March 2nd. The assault ``was not so much a counterattack provoked by enemy fire as a systematic destruction of Iraqis who were generally fulfilling the requirements of the retreat,'' Hersh writes. McCaffrey, in his written responses to Hersh, says, ``I believe that my actions at Rumaila were completely appropriate and warranted in order to defend my troops against unknown and largely unknowable enemy forces and intentions.''

Among McCaffrey's harshest critics are several of his fellow Gulf War generals. ``There was no need to be shooting at anybody,'' Lieutenant General James H. Johnson, Jr. (Ret.), then the commander of the 82nd Airborne, tells Hersh. ``They couldn't surrender fast enough. The war was over.'' The officer in charge of enforcing the ceasefire, Lieutenant General John J. Yeosock (Ret.), says, ``What Barry ended up doing was fighting sand dunes and moving rapidly.'' He was ``looking for a battle.'' Major General Ronald Griffith, who commanded the 1st Armored Division of VII Corps, says of McCaffrey, ``He made it a battle when it was never one.''

After the ceasefire, the rules of engagement had been revised; commanders were to protect their troops and hold their positions but they were no longer authorized to initiate offensive military actions on their own unless they faced an imminent threat. In the two days following the ceasefire, McCaffrey had moved his forces toward an access road Iraqis were using to retreat, Hersh reports, ``without informing all the senior officers who needed to know -- inside his own division operations center at XVIII Corps, and at Third Army headquarters.''

Early on March 2nd, a Scout unit reported to McCaffrey's command post that it was being fired upon by the retreating Iraqis and that it had returned fire in self-defense. The Scouts were attacked by several different types of weapons, McCaffrey writes, and ``direct fire from T-72 tanks,'' adding that the rocketing continued later that morning. There was a delay after the initial American response, which destroyed several Iraqi tanks and guns, while McCaffrey decided what to do and his subordinates debated the nature of the Iraqi threat and the appropriate American response. Some officers were in favor of engaging the Iraqis and some were not. Major General John Le Moyne, then commanding the 1st Brigade of the 24th Division as a colonel, tells Hersh, ``there was absolutely no doubt in my mind'' that the attack was justified. Lieutenant General James Terry Scott (Ret.), then an assistant division commander, says, ``Eventually, we became convinced that it was a real, no-shit attack by the Iraqis.'' Others saw it differently. ``There was no incoming,'' Patrick Lamar, McCaffrey's operations officer, tells Hersh. ``I know that for a fact.'' Lamar describes the battle as ``a giant hoax,'' although he also told Army investigators that McCaffrey's response was ``necessary.'' To Hersh, Lamar says, ``The Iraqis were doing absolutely nothing. I told McCaffrey I was having trouble confirming the incoming.''

According to many of the enlisted men Hersh spoke to who were on the scene, there was nothing like an Iraqi attack forming the morning of the 2nd. James Manchester, a Scout positioned well forward of the main force, remembers thinking, ``It's over, it's over. These guys are going home. It was just a line of vehicles on the road.'' Edward R. Walker, another Scout, tells Hersh, ``Many of the Iraqi tanks were on flatbed trucks and had their turrets tucked backward.'' When Manchester heard a captain saying on the radio that the Iraqis were about to launch anti-tank missiles at his tanks, he was incredulous. ``We are sitting right on top of these people,'' he says, referring to the Iraqis, ``and there are no vehicles pulled off.'' The captain calling in this information, he says, was behind him and could not see the line of vehicles.

February 27, 1991: On the afternoon of February 27th, the day before the ceasefire, James Manchester and other Scouts were manning a roadblock in front of the main forces of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Ware's battalion. Things proceeded routinely until, as Manchester recalls, ``A Buick comes up, with the commander, and he surrenders his battalion to us.'' Vehicles continued to arrive, including a hospital bus, according to Specialist Edward Walker, who was in charge of counting the men. There were, he remembers, 382 Iraqis. They were stripped of their weapons, Walker says, and lined up in rows. One man, who had lost an eye, asked if he was now a prisoner. When he was told that he was, he said, ``Thank, Allah.'' The Iraqis were each given a ``a white piece of paper, if they didn't have anything white,'' Sergeant James Testerman, who was also present, tells Hersh. The lieutenant in charge of the Scout group, Kirk Allen, ``made it a point to keep the battalion headquarters in the loop,'' Hersh writes. Allen told the operations center that he had captured a large number of prisoners and reported the precise position of the surrendered hospital bus. According to Walker, Ware's headquarters ordered that the captured weapons be destroyed, a task which fell to Walker himself. Then the Scout group was ordered to move. As they drove away, the explosion detonated. At that moment, Walker says, a platoon of Bradleys came into view rolling toward the prisoners, and then the Bradleys' machine guns opened fire. ``I saw rounds impact in front of the vehicle,'' Sergeant Steven Mulig, another Scout, says. ``I could tell that they were hitting close to the prisoners, because there were people running. There were some who could have survived, but a lot of them wouldn't have, from where I saw the rounds hit.''

John Brasfield recorded radio transmissions that were being made by the Scouts and their superiors while the Bradleys were firing toward the prisoners of war, on a personal tape recorder he had brought with him to the Gulf. ``The lead company behind us is tearing up all those vehicles,'' one man is heard saying. ``There's no-one shooting at them. Why'd they have to shoot?'' asks another voice. Lieutenant Allen then reports to Lieutenant Colonel Ware, ``There's shooting, but there's no one there to shoot at,'' to which Ware responds, ``I understand.'' On the tape, Brasfield says, ``They want to surrender. Fucking armored vehicles. They don't have to blow them apart.'' Someone else says, ``It's murder.'' After more sporadic firing, someone says, ``We shot the guys we had gathered up,'' and another adds, ``They didn't have no weapons.'' At this point, Ware calls for all firing to stop.

March 1, 1991: The day after the ceasefire was announced, Hersh reports, another incident took place in which American soldiers stand accused of shooting unarmed Iraqis. Sergeant Steven Larimore, who headed a ground-surveillance-radar team, was assigned to work with Scouts from the 3-7 Battalion of McCaffrey's Command. Army troops had discovered a cache of weapons in a deserted schoolhouse late in the afternoon of the 1st, and Larimore's unit joined the Scouts in clearing the village and searching the schoolhouse. The weapons were secured, Larimore says, and after taking souvenirs, he and his men moved out toward the east, along with the Scouts. There was a group of villagers walking in the area. ``One guy had a white bedsheet on a stick,'' Larimore says, but ``out of the blue sky, some guy from where we're sitting'' -- that is, in the Scout Platoon -- ``begins shooting'' into the villagers.

Other machine guns joined in. ``We were screaming, 'Cease fire!''' Larimore tells Hersh. ``People hit the ground. The firing went on.'' Larimore estimates that he saw fifteen or twenty Iraqis fall. ``I did not see anything that looked like return fire,'' he says. Another eyewitness, Sergeant Wayne P. Irwin, who headed a different G.S.R. team that was in the area, says the Iraqis were ``just passing through'' when the shooting began. ``I yelled for them to cease fire. I couldn't understand why they were firing.'' Irwin, a seventeen-year Army veteran, tells Hersh, ``To me, they posed no threat to us-they were all in civilian clothes.'' Scouts told Irwin that they had seen the Iraqis carrying ``grenade launchers and stuff like that,'' but, Irwin says, he did not find that account credible. ``To me,'' he says, ``they had nothing.''

Lieutenant John J. Grisillo was the platoon leader of the Scout team that opened fire. Grisillo tells Hersh that Larimore, who confronted him at the time, did not understand that his men were responding to a threat. ``They raised a white flag,'' Grisillo recalls, but ``they were carrying weapons. We fired warning shots, but they didn't stop.'' Because they were headed toward the schoolhouse, a building known to contain weapons, they were, Grisillo determined, a danger. Grisillo also tells Hersh that after the war he spoke with his brigade commander, Colonel Le Moyne. ``He let me know that he thought the G.S.R. guys didn't understand the situation at the time,'' Grisillo says. ``Calls had to be made. It's not nice, but prudent. If I had that situation again, I'd do it again. I've never lost a minute's sleep about it.''

The Investigations: There were four Army investigations into the conduct reported on by Hersh in his article. Each of these investigations found that no criminal charges should be brought against anyone. Hersh describes these investigations in detail.

Concerning March 2nd: In August, 1991, Colonel Ernest H. Dinkel, then a deputy chief of staff for the Army's Criminal Investigation Division (C.I.D.), was assigned by Major General Peter T. Barry to investigate charges made in an anonymous two-page letter which had been sent from Fort Stewart to the Army's Inspector General. The letter appeared to have been written by an officer serving in McCaffrey's 24th Division command post. ``That's what scared everybody,'' Dinkel recalls. ``This was from someone who was there.'' The letter alleged that McCaffrey was guilty of a ``war crime'' in his March 2nd assault on the retreating Iraqis and that he had urged his brigade commanders to ``find a way for him to go 'kill all of those bastards.''' The letter also claimed that 24th Division soldiers had ``slaughtered'' Iraqi prisoners of war after seizing an airfield. Colonel Dinkel and his investigators spent several weeks conducting interviews and collecting data on the anonymous letter, at Fort Stewart and at Army bases around the country, but they did not focus on the shootings on the 27th or the 1st, Hersh reports. In the end, Dinkel and his assistants, after interviewing more than one hundred and fifty men and women, including McCaffrey, concluded that McCaffrey's actions on the 2nd were justified because the Iraqis had fired first. They also concluded that no prisoners had been mistreated. Nonetheless, General Peter Barry, the C.I.D's commanding officer, explains to Hersh that by the time the investigation shut down, the Army's senior leaders realized that there was ``a certain element of truth'' to the allegations made by the anonymous letter writer. ``Whoever wrote the letter had detailed knowledge,'' Barry says. ``But establishing the criminality is difficult.''

Concerning February 27th: Edward Walker told his story about the events of February 27th -- the collection of the prisoners and the shooting afterwards -- to a lawyer in Saudi Arabia. After Walker returned to his home base in Missouri, the 1st Brigade began an inquiry into his allegations. When he was asked if he had seen anyone actually get shot, Hersh writes, ``Walker said what he always said: he hadn't seen any prisoners fall, but he saw rounds being fired at them.'' The 1st Brigade's investigation absolved Lieutenant Colonel Ware's battalion of any wrongdoing. Le Moyne tells Hersh that Walker's claims were groundless. ``It was not a hospital bus. There were no wounded. They were armed Iraqi officers and soldiers.'' Steven Mulig and a few other Scouts had been summoned to testify, but Mulig says, none of the officers wanted to hear what they had to say. ``We were all getting upset,'' Mulig says, adding, ``It was just an officer cover-up kind of thing.'' The final report concluded that, while the Americans had fired in the direction of the Iraqis, no prisoners ``had been killed or wounded in the incident.''

Late in the spring of 1991, three members of the 5th Engineer Battalion at Fort Leonard Wood told officials in the base's Inspector General's office about the alleged shooting of Iraqi prisoners of war by soldiers from the 1st Brigade of the 24th Division. This investigation was conducted by Major Thomas Mitchell. Mitchell says, ``The kids who came in were nice, and there seemed to be some validity to what they saw. But we couldn't confirm anything illegal.'' In the formal report that Mitchell prepared for his superiors, he found that the 5th Engineer allegations were ``unsubstantiated.''

Concerning March 1st: After his return from Iraq, Sergeant Larimore gathered six of his colleagues in the Ground Surveillance Radar teams of the 124th Military Intelligence Battalion and met with investigators at the Fort Stewart branch of the C.I.D. The men described what they had seen on March 1st, when Iraqis in civilian clothes had been shot near a schoolhouse while holding a white flag. ``All six of us went and told what we knew,'' Larimore tells Hersh. ``The basic tenet was that we didn't see anybody shooting at us'' before the 1st Brigade platoon opened fire. After they made their report, Larimore and his colleagues heard nothing more from the C.I.D. until Colonel Le Moyne, the 1st Brigade commander, announced that he wanted to meet after work with the men in the chain of command. Once in Le Moyne's office, Larimore says, ``We got this big long speech about how we had never been in combat or in a firefight. We didn't know what it was like. He ripped us pretty good.'' When Hersh interviewed Le Moyne, he defended his meeting with Larimore and the other complainants as merely an attempt ``to cut down on confusion. You gather the key people all in one place, so there's no misunderstanding.''

Le Moyne's next step was to authorize a captain in his brigade to conduct an informal investigation and file a report. ``The captain laid out the course of his investigation,'' Larimore tells Hersh. ``He said there was a group who observed no weapons'' among the civilians who had been shot and ``there were also people who said they saw weapons and muzzle flashes.'' The captain then concluded that the allegations of wrongful death were ``unsubstantiated.'' In Le Moyne's view, the case was now closed. The investigation, he said, had produced a series of witnesses who ``totally refuted the allegations.'' The soldiers' immediate superior, Lieutenant Charles Febus, who had encouraged them to make their report, tells Hersh, ``They did their duty and filed their report. And the Army chose to do what it did.''