New York, August 13, 2003—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is troubled by a news release summarizing the results of a U.S. Central Command (Centcom) investigation into the April 8 shelling of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. The release, which was published yesterday on Centcom’s Web site, failed to answer vital questions about the incident, which killed two journalists and wounded three others.
CPJ urges Centcom to make available the full report, which a Centcom spokesman today said was classified.
According to the news release, the report concluded that the tank unit that opened fire on the hotel did so “in a proportionate and justifiably measured response.” It called the shelling “fully in accordance with the Rules of Engagement.”
The release offers some detail—consistent with a CPJ investigation into the incident conducted in May—that the tank opened fire at what it believed was an Iraqi “spotter” directing enemy fire at U.S. troops. The release also explains that “one 120mm tank round was fired at the suspected enemy observer position. …It was only some time after the incident that A Company became aware of the fact that the building they fired on was the Palestine Hotel and that journalists at the hotel had been killed or injured as a result.”
Yesterday’s news release also failed to address one of the conclusions in CPJ’s report: That U.S. commanders knew that journalists were in the Palestine Hotel but failed to convey this knowledge to forces on the ground.
The results, which are summarized in the release, appear to back away from earlier charges by U.S. military officials that the tank unit was responding to hostile fire emanating from the hotel. Despite considerable testimony to the contrary from several journalists in the hotel, Centcom continues to maintain “that the enemy used portions of the hotel as a base of operations and that heavy enemy activity was occurring in those areas in and immediately around the hotel.”
In addition, the news release fails to provide other specific information, such as how the decision to target the hotel was made.
“It is troubling that the results of the investigation as summarized in this news release do not address the central question of whether U.S. commanders were aware they were firing on a hotel full of journalists,” said CPJ deputy director Joel Simon. “We hope that the full report deals with these issues and provides more specific information. We call on the Pentagon to make the full report public.”
CPJ’s investigation into the incident suggested that the attack on the journalists, while not deliberate, was avoidable because Pentagon officials, as well as commanders on the ground in Baghdad, knew that the Palestine Hotel was full of international journalists and were intent on not hitting it.
In May, CPJ filed Freedom of Information Act requests about the incident, as well as about the April 8 U.S. air strike on Al-Jazeera satellite channel’s Baghdad bureau, which killed reporter Tareq Ayyoub. (CPJ continues to investigate that attack.) The Defense Department has so far failed to release any classified material or any references to classified material to CPJ. Instead, the department only released transcripts of public interviews that were widely available.