The Man on Both Sides of Air War Debate
Bomb Targeter-Turned-Human Rights Advocate Lobbies for Greater Restraint
Sitting in a secure vault deep inside the Pentagon, Marc Garlasco cheered when the laser-guided bombs he had helped target slammed to Earth, striking Iraqi soil. As a body flew like a rag doll across the video screen, framed in a bright flash and a cloud of dust, Garlasco and his fellow intelligence analysts thought they had taken out one of the U.S. military's top targets during the early days of the Iraq war.But even as he reveled in the April 2003 airstrike, Garlasco was thinking ahead to his next job, which would take him to the edges of the very crater he had just helped create. Just two weeks after the failed attack targeting Iraq's notorious Ali Hassan Majeed, known as Chemical Ali, Garlasco left the Defense Intelligence Agency and traveled worldwide as a human rights activist seeking to determine the civilian toll of his previous work.
"I found myself standing at that crater, talking to a man about how his family was destroyed, how children were killed, and there was this bunny-rabbit toy covered in dust nearby, and it tore me in two," Garlasco said. "I had been a part of it, so it was a lot harder than I thought it would be. It really dawned on me that these aren't just nameless, faceless targets. This is a place where people are going to feel ramifications for a long time."
Garlasco is uniquely suited to understand both sides of the air war debate: He knows what the bombs can do, and he knows the price of errant attacks. In the five years since he moved from targeter to human rights advocate, he has lobbied for greater deliberation in the military's use of air power. He has made it his mission to prevent the use of cluster munitions and has argued for smaller bombs that have less impact on surrounding areas -- like the bombs that the Air Force now uses in Iraq.
As the U.S. military has significantly stepped up its use of airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan, Garlasco has tracked every bomb, noting their effectiveness and their potential for killing the innocent. The United States increased its use of aerial bombs in Iraq by more than 500 percent from 2006 to 2007 and dropped more than 20 times as many bombs on Afghanistan last year as it did just a few years ago.
That increase, part of a strategy by U.S. commanders who want to attack enemies in areas they have controlled for years, has made Garlasco's work all the more relevant. And his previous work on the Pentagon's Joint Staff has given him a level of credibility and a voice that few human rights activists have. He can call up officers in the Air Force's secret facility in Southeast Asia and can walk up to U.S. command posts in Afghanistan to learn what is being done.
Garlasco "knows more about airstrikes than anyone in the world who isn't in the military currently," said Colin Kahl, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University. "He knows enough about the professional military to know they make mistakes but that they try hard. When Marc says stuff is messed up, the military has to take it seriously. It's not some wing nut in a human rights group out to get the military."
Military experts and human rights advocates said Garlasco's background is a mixed blessing: He can communicate well with both sides, yet he is simultaneously suspect at the Pentagon and in human rights circles.
At Human Rights Watch, where Garlasco said he is more pro-military than many, colleagues value his perspective. Tom Malinowski, the group's Washington advocacy director, said that while it may at first seem incongruous for a former targeter to join a humanitarian effort, Garlasco has been a "perfect fit."
"The objective is not to end war, it's to change the way militaries wage war," Malinowski said. "In order to do that, we need people who can speak with credibility to military leaders. Marc is effective because he speaks the language of the community he seeks to influence, he comes from that culture. . . . They tend to see him as a constructive critic rather than the enemy."
In "Off Target," a 2003 report, Garlasco criticized the U.S. military for its last-minute targeting of officials in Iraq -- noting that it went zero-for-50 at hitting Iraqi leaders, while killing hundreds of civilians -- yet he has also praised U.S. forces for being careful.
While a student at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, Garlasco became captivated with the character Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy's book "The Hunt for Red October." He began studying the military and could rattle off details about naval ships. He became interested in his grandfather's service as an antiaircraft artilleryman in the German Luftwaffe in World War II.
After studying at St. John's University in New York and earning a master's degree at George Washington University in 1995, Garlasco took a job with a defense contractor, then was hired at the Defense Intelligence Agency's information warfare department. He trained to do analysis for bombing missions, including Operation Desert Fox in Iraq in 1998, before planning airstrikes and assessing battle damage for Operation Allied Force, which took him to Kosovo, where he saw the realities of the strikes.
"Seeing the locals digging in the bombed-out rubble for building materials or learning of death tolls was all new to me," Garlasco said. "It was something you just don't get when you have a chart in front of you, photos of a target and a projected death toll."
He set his sights on Iraq in 1999, traveling the world to debrief Iraqi nationals who could give him information about Saddam Hussein, at one point sharing a swimming pool with one of the Iraqi president's mistresses while gathering intelligence.
"There were a number of sources that I talked to that informed a lot of bombs on target on Iraq," Garlasco said. "It was contingency planning for a war that was probably never going to be fought."
A senior Army interrogator who worked closely with Garlasco said he was intimidated by how much Garlasco knew about Iraq, finding it almost scary how he could lay out a map of Baghdad and describe every building in detail, even though he had never been there.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Garlasco was in the National Military Joint Intelligence Center at the Pentagon when the building was hit. "I really felt violated," he said.
He thought his work would focus on Afghanistan. But a week after the attacks, Garlasco and his office were asked to assess any links between al-Qaeda and Hussein. Though he was one of the leading experts on how to find those close to Hussein, Garlasco did not support the prospect of war with Iraq. As he saw the invasion coming throughout 2002, he began to think about getting out.
With the identification of potential targets finished in January 2003, Garlasco and his colleagues at the CIA and the National Security Agency met at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina and went over each target building, with hundreds of potential sites and thousands of aim points. Still, Garlasco had doubts.
"I had conversations with my counterpart at the CIA at the time," he said, "and I said I had no idea why we were doing this."
As the March 2003 invasion neared, Garlasco was looking for different work. One morning, his wife, Carolyn Gray, found a newspaper ad for a job with Human Rights Watch in New York. The description fit Garlasco perfectly.
"I didn't support the war," he said. "It's not why I left, but it was the grease that made it easier."
After the Chemical Ali strike, which killed 17 civilians and failed to take out the target, Garlasco wrapped up his time at the Pentagon. On Friday, April 11, he provided his last briefings, and 10 days later he was driving an SUV over the Iraqi border for Human Rights Watch. He and his new colleague Reuben Brigety II headed for bombing sites that Garlasco had helped target.
"He had an intimate knowledge of Iraqi infrastructure," said Brigety, who helped hire Garlasco. "He knew the targeting packages because he put those targeting packages together."
Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., the service's deputy judge advocate general and an advocate of air power, said Garlasco's background has helped him build relationships in the military.
"I think that Marc is the prototype of what many nongovernmental organizations are seeking -- that is people with real expertise," Dunlap said. "I have not always agreed with Marc, but I have never found him to be driven by an ideological agenda."
Service members feel comfortable reaching out to Garlasco because of his military ties. A 2006 article in Esquire magazine described his work with service members who were reporting military abuse and pointed out that he is that rare breed of human rights activist who is also a member of the National Rifle Association.
Garlasco, who is now studying airstrikes in Afghanistan, wants the military to create an office to examine the human costs of such strikes. "I think that airstrikes probably are the most discriminating weapon that exists," he said. "The problem is that even when you hit the right target, there are times when innocents pay the price. . . . I just want people to ask: 'Did it have to happen?' "
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