ALEX CHADWICK, host:
From NPR West and Slate magazine online, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
Coming up, the Supreme Court says those terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay should get lawyers. So why don't they?
First, the lead. A journalist's account of combat in Iraq--there is more of it today. US forces are fighting in an area mostly neglected so far, the western border with Syria. Marines may have killed 100 insurgents there in the last couple of days.
Meanwhile, the Marine Corps says it will not prosecute a corporal who appeared in an infamous news video last November. In it, the Marine shoots to death a wounded Iraqi insurgent during the battle for Fallujah, the city where the fighting was so intense last year. That video is from a freelance correspondent named Kevin Sites, who was an embedded journalist working for NBC. The furor over the video drove him out of Iraq and into retreat for a while. He's back now. We spoke yesterday for his first American interview since the incident. Before we play that for you, two things. One, go to our Web site now so you can see the video, npr.org. At the program key on top, click DAY TO DAY. And, two, that footage and parts of this interview may be disturbing to some listeners.
Kevin Sites, what do you think about this finding by the Marine Corps that the corporal on your videotape did no wrong and will not be charged?
Mr. KEVIN SITES (Freelance Journalist): Well, that's not exactly what happened. What they decided is that they didn't have what they believed was enough evidence to actually make a case. They couldn't tell what state of mind this corporal was in when he actually did the shooting, so it was a finding that they couldn't make a case to stick, but not that he hadn't done anything wrong.
CHADWICK: You were there that day. Describe those circumstances for us again, would you?
Mr. SITES: I followed a squad from a platoon into a mosque where we had been in there the day before. There had been insurgents fighting from that mosque as a fighting position. Ten of them were killed. Five were wounded. The five that were wounded were treated and left there with no guards, no supervision, but also no weapons.
(Excerpt from recording)
Unidentified Soldier: Did you shoot him?
Unidentified Soldier: Yes.
Unidentified Soldier: Did he have any weapons on him?
Mr. SITES: There had been some shooting in that vicinity. Basically what happened is I followed one squad in to the mosque from one direction. Another squad went in from the rear. They had already been in there...
(Excerpt from recording)
Unidentified Soldier: All right.
Unidentified Soldier: These are the ones from yesterday.
Unidentified Soldier: These were the guys...
(Soundbite of gunfire)
Mr. SITES: ...and that's when those shootings occurred. The five men that had been wounded the day before, at least four, were shot again. I walked in following this squad, and we saw these same men that had been wounded and treated but weren't dying from their wounds from the Friday shooting. They're on Saturday bleeding to death in front of us. I heard this particular Marine say, `This man, he's faking! He's (censored) dead!'
(Soundbite of recording)
Unidentified Soldier: He's faking he's dead!
Unidentified Soldier: Yeah, he's breathing.
Unidentified Soldier: He's faking he's (censored) dead!
Mr. SITES: And he raises his rifle and I think maybe he's just going to cover him, but he raises his M-16 and he fires pointblank into his head...
(Soundbite of recording; gunfire)
Unidentified Soldier: He's dead now.
Unidentified Soldier: Yeah, he's dead. Going up on the roof?
Mr. SITES: ...and his brains were splattered against the back wall. I'll never forget that image, and in the mosque, there are shafts of light filled with dust and you can just see those and this image, it just--it kind of burned into my mind.
CHADWICK: What did he actually do? This video was shown all over the world. It appears to show this Marine shooting an unarmed, wounded Iraqi, but in the defense of the Marine, you can't quite see what is in this man's hands. These certainly were insurgents who'd been firing at the Marines the day before, and is it within the rules of combat that what this corporal did was completely justified?
Mr. SITES: If you look at the point-by-point logic of hot combat in Fallujah in those first few days of warfare in November, you could say everything is justified. Being cautious is a good thing, and you have to look at every particular situation. In our report for NBC, we highlighted all the mitigating factors, you know, the fact that this Marine had been shot in the face the day before, that there had been booby-trapped bodies; in fact, you know, one that was fairly close to the region that we were in. And so is this a justified killing? I'm not going to try to judge that. All I can say is these are the things that I saw and these are the things that I recorded on videotape.
CHADWICK: You were shooting under the rules of a pool, which means you were representing all of the broadcast journalists in Iraq in some way on this particular assignment. By the rules of what you were doing, you couldn't hold on to that videotape. You had to release it within 48 hours and everyone was going to have access to it, but when they got that access, you knew that this was going to blow up.
Mr. SITES: It was the most difficult decision I've ever had to make in my life, period. Part of our--the code of ethics we live by as journalists: find and report the truth. And I'm dedicated to that. That's been my whole life. But there's another aspect to that: minimize the harm. And I wasn't sure that in this particular situation that if we released that whole videotape, we could minimize the harm. The men that I had been with for six weeks, I wasn't convinced that it wouldn't put them at risk again or put other Marines at risk, you know, or other Iraqis at risk because of the association that they had with the coalition, with American forces. So it was a very difficult situation. It could be used by propaganda, and in some cases, it was.
CHADWICK: Indeed what happened was you did become the center of enormous controversy. NBC pulled you out of there. You were the subject of death threats, a lot of suspicion in the blogosphere and on the right that you were not an embedded journalist but rather some kind infiltrator, you were against the Marines.
Mr. SITES: It's so funny because I had kept an independent blog, a Web site, and I got enormous amount of e-mail saying, `Thank God you're there. You're telling the truth. You're showing the men and women of the Marines in a way that no one else is showing them.' So it was interesting that there was such a whiplash after this event happened and that I could be painted as an anti-war activist whereas in some cases I had gotten a little bit of criticism prior to that that, `You're getting too close to the Marines.'
CHADWICK: So now six months has gone by. This Marine has gone through a judicial review process. He's not going to be charged with anything. You're no longer in Iraq as a war correspondent. Where are we? What's happened?
Mr. SITES: I think that we're in a bit of a limbo, that this country, unfortunately, has become so polarized both on the left and the right that we can't even have a dialogue anymore about something like this. If I had to do it all over again, you know, I would loved not to not have been the person to have recorded that incident. It would have saved me a lot of grief, but this is my job. And in some ways, now I feel energized by it. I need to see a dialogue started where people truly understand what we do as journalists and that the things that we bring to them are about telling them about the realities of war. And a lot of people have said to me, `You shouldn't have journalists there on the front line anyways. They impede what we're trying to do there in achieving these war aims,' and what I say to them, `That's fine. If you want to be ignorant of what's going on and you want to trust completely what the government and the military's telling you, look at the Pat Tillman incident.'
CHADWICK: The football player who decided to join...
Mr. SITES: To enlist...
CHADWICK: ...the Army. Yeah.
Mr. SITES: ...and served in Afghanistan and was killed by friendly fire, and the Army knew for a long time that that happened and did not tell his family. I can understand their hesitance. It's a difficult thing to have to tell someone, but the truth is the truth. You know, these kind of things happen in war. If we want to close our eyes to them, then we are truly going to be ignorant and we're going to be more willing to send our sons and daughters to war without understanding really what they're doing over there.
CHADWICK: Freelance journalist Kevin Sites. Kevin, thanks for joining us on DAY TO DAY.
Mr. SITES: My pleasure.