Saturday, December 1, 2012

They gave him a medal for what?

Today's case illustrates two of the more frustrating things about doing research with declassified military documents: the fog of war and redaction.  The Vietnam War Crimes Working Group files were declassified in 1994, and then removed from the public shelves at Archives II in College Park, Maryland.  The reason for puling the files at that time was that they contained "personal information" normally exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests.  Because NARA had no plan to sanitize the files and make them available again, the result was that in order to get the files made public, someone has to file a different FOIA request for each folder in the collection.  Since there are around 276 folders, that's a whole lot of requests to make.  About a third of the total 9,000 pages in the VWCWG files have been redacted, and are currently accessible to the public.

Redaction is a tricky thing.  To do it well, you have to remove legitimately sensitive information like a living individual's Social Security number.  That seems to account for a large portion of the redactions in the VWCWG files.  I'm not sure why the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Division included a SSN (or as they referred to them, a SSAN) in these records because they were all created during the Vietnam War era when soldiers' serial numbers were not the same as their SSN.  According to the archivists, the SSN for all living soldiers in the files have to be removed before giving the public access.  I assume that this became an issue after Deborah Nelson and Nick Turse tracked down some of the witnesses and alleged perpetrators of the war crimes document in the files for her book The War Behind Me. The files also provided much of the grist, and most of the inspiration, for Turse's dissertation, since published as Kill Anything that Moves.

The problem is that this is not all of the redaction done in these files.  In cases in which the outcome is not known, the names of the alleged perpetrators have been removed.  This is true in the James Henry allegation, which Nelson documents in the first portion of her book.  She names the officers responsible for the events in the James Henry Allegation, but those names have been since redacted from the file.  An archivist at Archives II told me that they also removed the names of female rape victims to protect their identities in the same way that news organizations are required to when reporting crimes.  Unfortunately, these are not the only redactions in the files.

At some point after the files were pulled off the shelves, unidentified folks from the U.S. Army (unidentified as in the archivist didn't know who they were) copied some of the documents, redacted them with a black marker, and put those copies in the files.  Those redactions seem really random.  The actual pattern of redactions is hard to discern - in some cases both the unit and location of the alleged events are redacted in addition to the names of the alleged perpetrators and female victims.  Perpetrator names are also sometimes redacted when the files show that the claims were unsubstantiated, or when they were acquitted.  Then there are examples like this one:

What exactly am I supposed to do with something like this document? This is completely useless for researchers.  I can't imagine that FOIA was intended to produce results like this.

Today I have a pretty confusing file.  Ordinarily it would be one of those things that you could just chalk up to observers in different areas seeing different things, the power of the rumor mill, and a chaotic firefight at night.  It gets confusing, because even though the war crime allegation was redacted, many of the names, even of those people not accused of anything, are redacted throughout much of the document.  As if that's not confusing enough, the names aren't always redacted, so you're never quite sure who did what, who was accused of what, or even what supposedly happened.  I think I've figured this one out, though, and unlike my previous posts, I'm going to use names and ranks rather than just ranks as an aid to keep things straight.

On 14 January 1972 former SP4 Gerald Leventry sent a letter to Congressman John P. Saylow about an incident that occurred in Vietnam while he was serving in E Company, 1/501st Infantry, 101st Airborne division.  Leventry told his Congressman that a friend in A Company, 1/501st told him that after a firefight in which members of his company had killed two members of a squad of Viet Cong, capturing a third, that an officer arrived on the scene and shot each corpse with his sidearm.  Leventry was incensed that the officer had then allegedly fabricated a story about arriving in the midst of the firefight, and then nominated himself and members of A Company for a bronze star with V device.

Investigators interviewed all of the witnesses that they could, providing more details.  The investigation showed that the officer in question, apparently a LTC Hampton, ordered his pilot to land his C&C helicopter at the end of a night ambush.  The pilot, whose name is also redacted, testified that the situation on the ground seemed stable, but that he could not personally observe what happened after Hampton left the helicopter.  Either the pilot, or another officer, signed the nomination for Hampton's bronze star award saying that he had accompanied his Battalion commander to A Company's ambush site at 2200 hrs on 10 December 1971.  The helicopter landed 40 meters from the ambush site to pick up the wounded EPW.  This officer accompanied Hampton to the the wounded prisoner, who lay near the two others, who lie motionless, but were not obviously dead.  After they reached the prisoner, Hampton turned and shot one of the "dead" Vietnamese in the chest with his sidearm from a range of about 1 meter, and then shot the other in the head.  He did not know why Hampton had shot them, but afterward treated the prisoner's wounds and escorted him, with Hampton, to the helicopter.

At this point in the investigation Hampton refused to make a sworn statement on the advice of counsel, but the CID investigator's opinion was that it was not possible for him to have known whether the two Vietnamese men he shot were dead, or not.  Interestingly, there is an error in the redaction here, as the document identifies LTC Hampton as received a bronze star for the incident.

To make things even more interesting, another soldier, whose name is redacted from the status update mentioning it, sent a letter to Senator Edward Kennedy detailing the same incident, providing another witness for CID to interview, and getting another member of Congress to harass the CID about the investigation.  Despite this redaction, a later summary memo that indicates that the case lacks sufficient evidence to pursue identified the soldier who contacted Sen. Kennedy as 1LT Theodore Coughlin, Jr. (the Platoon Leader of 1st Platoon, A Company, 1/501st).   In his letter to Sen. Kennedy, the 1LT contended that not only did Hampton not deserve the bronze star awarded, but had committed a war crime (mutilation of the dead falls into this category, as would shooting wounded prisoners).

Coughlin provided a fairly complete summary of the incident.  On 10 December 1971, he led his platoon on a recon mission 4km north of FSB Arsenal.  Part of A Company, 1/501st (his platoon, the company Command Post, and mortar platoon) had been in the area for three days when it began to take fire at 2030 hrs on 10 December.  Observing that his ambush patrol was engaged 500 meters away.  Coughlin directed the squad to pull back and the Company Commander directed a Nighthawk helicopter (a UH-1D equipped with night sensors and an M-134 minigun) to fire into the area, leaving several enemy dead and one wounded.  After telling him to search the area, his CO contacted Coughlin to tell him that Hampton was going to evacuate the wounded EPW.  Although he didn't see Hampton shoot the dead Vietnamese, he was told that it happened by an unnamed member of his platoon, several members of which had been told that it had happened by their RTO.

The summary relating Coughlin's testimony (and revealing his identity) also has a tantalizing bit - the last name of the officer that tended the wounded EPW and signed Hampton's bronze star nomination appears to be Christie.  This document also indicates that the Brigade Commander and Executive Office knew about the incident (and later allegations about it), and ordered Hampton's Adjutant to prepare a nomination for him to receive the bronze star.  We get some additional strange redactions here - the name and squad number of a machine gunner who was the first to here the claymore mines triggering the ambush on 10 December 1971 is redacted for no apparent reason, but in the next paragraph, Hampton's name appears again.

Hampton's bronze star nomination shows the inconsistency in redaction.  It mentions his nameme and rank in the first paragraph, but appears to be redacted afterward...
Another strange redaction to wrap things up.  Since the Division Commander was on leave, the Acting Division Commander presented the bronze star awards to Hampton and the members of 1st Platoon that earned them.  The name of the Acting Division Commander (presumably the XO) was redacted (why?), but his testimony regarding Hampton wasn't.  In a private conversation after presenting the awards, he gave Hampton a sort of reprimand for unnecessarily exposing his large, expensive helicopter, himself as CO, and the crew of the helicopter to hostile fire in landing it to pick up the wounded prisoner.  The ADC also indicated that the award was made only after an investigation by he Division Commander into the incident, not out of any undue influence by Hampton or others, as Leventry had claimed.

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