When George W. Bush was asked Wednesday about the massacre at Haditha in Iraq, he responded as if it were news from far away that was just now coming in through sketchy reports by videophone. "I am troubled by the initial news stories," Bush said. "I am mindful that there is a thorough investigation going on. If, in fact, the laws were broken, there will be punishment."
We'd like to think that the president knows a lot more than he's letting on. Whatever happened at Haditha happened last November, and the "initial news stories" raising questions about it appeared in March. The "thorough investigation" -- there are at least a couple of them, actually -- is sufficiently far along that members of Congress are being briefed and details are being leaked to the press. Last week, the New York Times reported that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service has concluded that a small number of Marines engaged in the unprovoked and unjustified killing of as many as two dozen Iraqi civilians. Sources close to the investigation expect that murder charges will be filed.
Bush acknowledged Wednesday that he has talked about Haditha with Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And in doing so, Bush tried -- as the White House did after Abu Ghraib -- to argue that Haditha was a couldn't-have-been-expected aberration rather than a byproduct, as predictable as it is inexcusable, of the impossible situation in which he has put U.S. troops. "Nobody is more concerned about these allegations than the Marine Corps," Bush said. "The Marine Corps is full of men and women who are honorable people who understand rules of war."
Just how full? That's the question now. As the Washington Post reports today, a separate investigation, this one led by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell, is expected to conclude that the problems at Haditha went beyond the Marines who pulled the triggers. Among Bargewell's discoveries: A team of Marines sent in to help collect bodies at Haditha apparently failed to tell superiors that the victims had been killed by gunfire rather than a bomb blast, as the Marines involved in the incident had claimed.
It doesn't stop there. The Bargewell investigation will apparently conclude that the Marines' superiors should have noticed flaws in the reports they were getting, and that those flaws should have raised red flags about the incident. Bargewell is also expected to take the military to task for failing to train its troops properly for the kind of war that they're fighting in Iraq -- and for letting vociferous denials about Haditha stand long after the military knew that they were false.
As the Post says, the Bargewell report is likely to be "explosive" because it will focus attention on two questions that have "haunted the Bush administration and the U.S. military since the scandal over abuse at Abu Ghraib prison emerged two years ago: How do U.S. military leaders in Iraq react to allegations of wrongdoing by their troops? And is the military prepared to carry out the long and arduous process of putting down an insurgency as part of the first U.S. occupation of an Arab nation?"
Those are important questions to ask, but military officials aren't the only ones who should be doing the answering. George W. Bush will be the commander in chief for 963 more days.