The government's first hearing into the killing of 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha in November 2005 now features testimony from a two-star Marine general.
Maj. General Richard Huck commanded the 2nd Marine Division in the Al Anbar province at the time of the incident. He testified Thursday at Camp Pendleton in California, where the military equivalent of a grand jury investigation is under way.
Huck insisted that given what he knew about the killings in Haditha, he saw no reason to open an investigation.
Initial reports received by the general from the outfit that did the killing said 15 civilians had been killed in a crossfire, along with eight insurgents. He said he could imagine how the deaths had happened and that he considered them an unfortunate consequence of war.
The general testified at a hearing for Capt. Randy Stone, a Marine legal officer who has been charged with dereliction of duty for not ordering an investigation.
He's one of four officers so charged. Stone was the battalion's legal officer. Stone's attorney, Charles Gittins, called Huck to testify.
"General Huck has all the information my client has, he has 36 years of experience, including multiple combat tours, and he doesn't perceive a reason for having an investigation," Gittins said. "My client is charged with not pushing for an investigation."
But it's not quite that simple. Huck says he wasn't informed about the incident for months. By that time, Tim McGirk of Time magazine had begun asking questions about Haditha.
Those questions found their way into the hands of Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Huck's boss, three months after the killings.
Chiarelli sent Huck an e-mail saying Huck undoubtedly knew about McGirk's questions — but, in fact, this was Huck's first notice that something was coming unraveled.
He confronted his staff and discovered they had been working on McGirk's inquiry for more than two weeks without telling him.
He asked his chief of staff, Col. Gary Sokoloski, "What, am I the last guy to learn about this in my organization?"
Sokolowski has invoked his right against self incrimination and will not testify.
Nevertheless, Huck sent a reply to Chiarelli saying he still did not think an investigation was necessary.
Huck said McGirk's inquiry was inspired by the mayor of Haditha, whom Huck strongly suspected of being an insurgent. Chiarelli ordered an investigation the next day.
Huck was shown a document prepared by the town council of Haditha shortly after the incident, demanding an investigation into the killing of three families in the town.
He said that was the first time he had seen it. He said the document should have been sent to him and might have triggered an investigation.
Huck has not been charged. He had hoped to retire last year but has been ordered to stay on duty until the Haditha case is closed.