They Shoot Journos, Don't They?

CPJ Calls Hotel Palestine Deaths Avoidable

New evidence suggests that a war crime may have taken place in Baghdad on April 8. That morning, Taras Protsyuk, a Ukraine-born cameraman employed by Reuters, was standing on the 15th-floor balcony of the Palestine Hotel. José Couso, an employee of the Spanish news company Telcinco, was filming from a balcony one floor below. Suddenly a U.S. tank less than a mile away fired a single round at the hotel, hitting the 15th-floor balcony. Protsyuk was found lying on his back, unconscious. Couso was hit by debris. Both died soon afterward.

Now, Couso's relatives have asked a judge to extradite three U.S. military officers to Spain, where the officers stand accused of war crimes and excessive force against civilians. The Pentagon has consistently justified these killings as self-defense, because U.S. troops were allegedly being fired on by someone in the vicinity of the hotel. But according to an investigation by the Committee to Protect Journalists, "There is simply no evidence to support the . . . position that U.S. forces were returning hostile fire from the Palestine Hotel. It conflicts with eyewitness testimonies of numerous journalists in the hotel."

Last week, CPJ posted its report on the incident at Authors Joel Campagna and Rhonda Roumani conclude that the killings were not intentional, but could have been avoided. CPJ has filed FOIA requests, and the watchdog group now demands that the Pentagon conduct a thorough and public investigation of the matter. (A military investigation is underway, and one Pentagon source questions whether journalists on the hotel balconies could know with certainty that no fire was being directed at troops from the hotel.)

Why is this important? In a moral universe, there is no excuse for killing journalists under any circumstances. Firing on media facilities during wartime is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which is why CPJ was alarmed back in 2001, when the U.S. claimed it had "accidentally" bombed Al-Jazeera offices in Kabul. Killing journalists in response to a perceived threat is no more justifiable than killing them accidentally, especially when it appears that, with reasonable care, the deaths could have been avoided. In the U.S., one definition of voluntary manslaughter applies when a killing is unintentional but resulted from unreasonable and grossly reckless conduct.

On May 28, The New York Times and The Washington Post ran news articles about the CPJ report and the allegations filed by Couso's relatives in Spain. The defendants are Lieutenant Colonel Philip DeCamp, commander of the Fourth Battalion 64th Armored Regiment of the Third Infantry Division; Captain Philip Wolford, company commander of the tank unit that fired on the hotel; and Sergeant Shawn Gibson, the officer who asked Wolford for permission to fire and got it.

The good news is that an honest journalist has emerged as the hero of the CPJ narrative. On April 8, AP reporter Chris Tomlinson happened to be embedded with the Fourth Battalion, in which capacity he overheard crucial evidence. Tomlinson has no history as a military critic; in fact, he is an army veteran who recently called the decision to embed reporters with U.S. troops in Iraq an unqualified success.

On April 8, when Fourth Battalion tanks stationed on the west side of the Tigris came under heavy fire by Iraqis, Tomlinson was holed up in a U.S. command center inside one of Saddam Hussein's palaces, also on the west side of the river. Because he had access to a military radio, the reporter was able to monitor conversations between company members and between a commander and his superiors. By mid-morning, Tomlinson realized that the tanks were searching for a "forward observer," an Iraqi who was likely coordinating attacks on U.S. troops from a secure vantage spot.

Enter Colonel David Perkins, the commander of the Second Brigade of the Third Infantry Division and another hero of the story. Perkins worried that in the heat of this battle, U.S. tanks might fire on journalists who were working out of the Palestine Hotel on the east side of the river. Perkins asked Tomlinson to help identify the hotel and prevent it from being hit. Tomlinson called the AP office in Doha, Qatar, to find out what the hotel looked like and tried to get a message to the journalists, asking them to hang sheets out the windows.

Around the same time, Sergeant Shawn Gibson was down by the river, manning a tank. His company had been under fire all morning. When he saw someone with binoculars in a building across the river, he asked Captain Philip Wolford for permission to fire and got it. Immediately after the hotel was hit, Tomlinson recalls, Wolford's commanding officer, DeCamp, started screaming over the radio, "Who just shot the Palestinian [sic] Hotel? Did you just fucking shoot the Palestinian Hotel?" Shortly afterward, Perkins ordered that no one was to shoot the hotel under any circumstances.

The CPJ report is particularly skeptical of claims by both Gibson and Wolford that they didn't know journalists were inside the building. Not only did Perkins know this, but CPJ photos taken from the tank's location show the hotel distinctly visible in the skyline. CPJ also reports that anyone looking in that direction through binoculars would have seen the words "Hotel Palestine" on the building. So was the killing of these cameramen an accident, self-defense, voluntary manslaughter, or first-degree murder?

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