senior reporter at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
Watch our extended interview with Aaron Glantz, a senior reporter at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. He covered the siege of Fallujah, Iraq, as an unembedded journalist, and his latest investigation examines whether President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for defense secretary committed war crimes there while leading U.S. troops in 2004.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for defense secretary, James "Mad Dog" Mattis, faces his Senate confirmation hearing today. This comes as House Democrats are threatening to revolt over the waiver needed for Mattis to serve as defense secretary, after the Trump transition team blocked him from testifying before the House Armed Services Committee. Mattis only retired from the military in 2013, meaning he needs Congress to waive rules requiring defense secretaries to be civilians for seven or more years after leaving the military. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has said she’ll vote against the waiver for General Mattis, saying, quote, "Civilian control of our military is a fundamental principle of American democracy, and I will not vote for an exception to this rule."
AMY GOODMAN: James Mattis reportedly received his nickname "Mad Dog" Mattis after leading U.S. troops during the 2004 battle of Fallujah in Iraq. He enlisted in the Marines at 19, fought in the Persian Gulf War, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, where he served as major general. In May 2004, Mattis ordered an airstrike in a small Iraqi village that hit a wedding, killing about 42 people who were attending the wedding ceremony. Mattis went on to lead the U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013, but the Obama administration cut short his tour over concerns General Mattis was too hawkish on Iran, reportedly calling for a series of covert actions there. Mattis has drawn criticism over his apparent celebration of killing, including saying in 2005 about the Taliban, quote, "It’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them," unquote.
For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Aaron Glantz, senior reporter for Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. His latest investigation, "Did defense secretary nominee James Mattis commit war crimes in Iraq?"
If you could summarize, Aaron, again, your major findings in this piece, that we will link to, where you are asking if the defense secretary nominee is responsible for, is guilty of, should be tried for, war crimes?
AARON GLANTZ: The very important legal doctrine in the United States of America and around the world is the doctrine of command responsibility. If you have a large-scale atrocity that takes place, the commanding general of the operation is held responsible. We held General Yamashita, who was the commanding general in the Japanese Army of a number of operations in the Philippines, under this standard back in World War II, and we executed him. And his execution was upheld by the Supreme Court. Legal scholars that I’ve talked to said the same standard applies to General Mattis. And so we have to look very closely at his command of the U.S. Marine Corps in Fallujah, which is an event that I covered in 2004 as an unembedded journalist. And in that battle, U.S. marines, under his command, killed so many people—one U.N. estimate says 90 percent of them were civilians—that the municipal football stadium of the city had to be turned into a graveyard. Marines shot at ambulances. Marines shot at aid workers. Marines posed with trophy photos with the dead that they had killed. All of these are things that Mattis could be tried for, potentially, for war crimes. And he is Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of defense.
In addition, we also spoke about his role as the convening authority of trials for marines in other cases—the Haditha massacre, the Hamdania massacre—where he wiped away or granted clemency to people who were already convicted, freeing them from prison, for atrocities. And if a person in his kind of command responsibility allows others to get off the hook for war crimes, that’s also something that he could be held culpable for, held accountable for. And, you know, it would be my hope that in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and perhaps in follow-on hearings in the House, if they occur, regarding the waiver that he’s going to need to get to become secretary of defense, that James Mattis be asked to explain himself regarding the actions that we’ve been discussing.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, is it the case that Mattis is still seen as a strong proponent of the Geneva Conventions and as an anti-torture advocate?
AARON GLANTZ: Absolutely, absolutely. He has been very vocal in saying that he supports the Geneva Convention. He has been an advocate against torture. Donald Trump emerged from a meeting with him and began to back off his support for the practice of waterboarding, after listening to General Mattis. But you also have to look at what happens when General Mattis is in the field. And what we saw in Fallujah and in other instances in Iraq is that when General Mattis is in the field, often he allows his marines to go well beyond what is normally permitted in the law of war.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean.
AARON GLANTZ: Well, we’ve been talking about Fallujah. You mentioned a wedding party that was bombed on his call in western Iraq not long after that, where he later told a Marine historian, Bing West, that he deliberated less than 30 seconds over whether to carry it out, simply because it was in the middle of the desert. And then, you know, the Associated Press later obtained footage that showed that there was indeed a wedding party, where dozens of civilians were killed. Later, as James Mattis moved up the chain of command, was no longer a field commander in Iraq, he became a convening authority in a number of tribunals involving war crimes committed by marines in the country, including the most famous massacre that occurred during the Iraq War, the Haditha massacre, where a number of marines went on a killing spree in the town of Haditha after one of their comrades was killed. They killed dozens of people in a number of houses, and charges were brought. And as the general overseeing the entire court-martial process, General Mattis dismissed charges against three of the perpetrators, and ultimately no one charged with that massacre of dozens of Iraqis was—spent a single day in prison.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to—go back a few years to 2008. Democracy Now! spoke with McClatchy journalist Leila Fadel, who traveled to Haditha to interview survivors of the massacre. I want to turn to a short video posted on the McClatchy website based on her reporting.
LEILA FADEL: Yousef Aid Ahmed has memorized the places where his four brothers’ bodies laid after they were killed by U.S. marines, he said. The family recounts that November day in 2005 and says it was a massacre of the brothers, along with 20 other people, following a roadside bomb in Haditha. Marines raided the house and shot the unarmed men in their heads in this back bedroom, the family said. Now they are angry that no one is being held accountable. Charges against six of the eight marines accused in the case were dismissed, and one marine was found not guilty on all charges.
WIDOW: [translated] I’m angry at those who sent them innocent. They were not supposed to sent innocent.
LEILA FADEL: The reminders of their deaths are everywhere: the white plaster that filled in the bullet holes in the wall, the dried blood that are now just faded gray spots under a new paint job on the ceiling, and the closet where one brother was shot inside and the other’s corpse leaned up against the wardrobe.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s McClatchy journalist Leila Fadel. If you could take it from there, Aaron Glantz?
AARON GLANTZ: Well, I mean, maybe the first important thing to point out is that when that massacre happened in 2005, nobody on the ground reported it. And it wasn’t until the story was broken sometime later by Time magazine that the Marine Corps even investigated what happened. Then, following the investigation, charges were brought against the Marine squad that committed the crimes that were described in the video. She mentioned that charges were dismissed against six of the accused. Mattis himself was responsible for three of those dismissals. Ultimately, only one person was convicted, who was the supposed ringleader of the operation, and he did not serve one day behind bars, although he did tell the court that he regretted telling the other marines to shoot first and ask questions later.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Aaron, what kinds of questions do you think Mattis should be asked today at his confirmation hearing?
AARON GLANTZ: I think he should be asked about what his marines did in Fallujah. I think that he should be asked if he was aware of the scale of civilian casualties—over 600 people killed, and, you know, official Marine Corps estimate is 220 civilians in just the first two weeks of the fighting, there was a U.N. official at the time who estimated that 90 percent of the people killed were civilians—if he’s aware of those deaths, if he thinks they’re proportional, if he thinks the destruction of the city was proportional to the killing of the four Blackwater security contractors. I think he should be asked about the other activities that I described—the shooting at ambulances, the shooting at aid workers, if he was aware of it. If he was aware of it, you know, how does he justify it? If he wasn’t aware of it as the military commander in the field with command responsibility, does he think he should have been?
And in these other cases—we talked about the wedding party, we talked about the Haditha massacre—there’s another massacre where he was also the convening authority, the Hamdania massacre, which was broken by The Washington Post, where a group of marines pulled a disabled Iraqi out of his house, shot him four times in the face and then framed him by planting a shovel and a machine gun next to him to make him look like an insurgent. In that case, General Mattis intervened to free some of the marines from prison, granting them clemency. I think he should be asked to explain himself for his actions and how all of the actions that we’ve been discussing comport with his well-known advocacy for the Geneva Conventions and international law.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what’s going on in the House, this kind of revolt that’s taking place? Not that the Democrats are in charge, but it was announced that he was going to be visiting the House committee today before he went to his Senate confirmation hearing, and then that was canceled. There’s been apparently some reports of some animosity between Mattis and the Trump transition team. Have you been following all of this?
AARON GLANTZ: James Mattis needs to be confirmed by the Senate, right? In our system of government, presidential appointees need to be confirmed by the Senate. But because he has not been out of the military for seven years, he needs Congress to change a law—and, you know, which is something that hasn’t been done since the Korean War—and allow a recently retired general to become head of the Defense Department, make an exception to our long-held belief in civilian control of the military, for him. The Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee were expecting that he would testify before the House Armed Services Committee on a hearing over whether Congress should grant that waiver. The Trump administration pulled him back, and now the members of the House on the Democratic side are very upset and saying that they may try to hold up his waiver, which would also hold up his confirmation.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, can you explain, Aaron, the context in which this law was formulated? Why is it important that the military fall under civilian control?
AARON GLANTZ: If you look at somebody like General Mattis, he’s incredibly well respected within the military community. He’s a marine’s marine. They call him a warrior monk. I’ve received a lot of backlash for my article from members of the military who revere him. There is an idea, though, that we have in our government, that somebody like General Mattis, who, you know, as we’ve been talking about, in Fallujah, is a good soldier and will do anything possible to get the job done, no matter how many people end up dead, that there should be a civilian check on that in a democracy. We have made exceptions to this before. General Marshall was appointed by Harry Truman during the Korean War, and Congress granted that waiver. But it has not happened since then. And it is a big deal for Congress to consider. And the Democrats in the House said, "Look, before we approve this waiver for General Mattis, we would at least like to hear from him and be able to ask him questions."
And there are some other questions that Democrats want to ask General Mattis, and may be asked in the Senate confirmation hearing today, that have nothing to do with the issues that we’ve been discussing around war crimes. He has expressed an opposition to allowing women in combat roles. He expressed opposition to allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military at one point.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to that. General Mattis co-edited the book of essays, Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military. In it, he claims the 2011 repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell" has had a harmful impact on the military. Mattis and his co-author, Kori Schake, write, quote, "We fear that an uninformed public is permitting political leaders to impose an accretion of social conventions that are diminishing the combat power of our military." Mattis and his co-author also claim the majority of soldiers were in favor of keeping LGBT military members in the closet. However, a Gallup poll shows that the repeal of the '94 "don't ask, don’t tell" law was widely popular, with two-thirds supporting the right of gay men and lesbians to serve openly. Mattis has also questioned, as you pointed out, if women should be allowed to participate in active combat, saying he believes they’re unsuited for, quote, "intimate killing," and, quote, "The idea of putting women in there is not setting them up for success." So, can you respond to all of that?
AARON GLANTZ: Well, these are the sorts of things that Democrats and, you know, perhaps some Republicans will want to know more about, you know, whether he still believes these statements. But as you pointed out, the book that he co-edited came out very recently. The comments about women in combat also happened very recently, were given in a speech in the Marines’ Memorial in San Francisco. So, these are not statements that he made in the 1980s. You know, these are statements that he made during the Obama administration. And also, you know, we have to remember that President Obama removed him early, as you mentioned at the outset, as the commanding general of Central Command because of his very hawkish position on Iran. And it’s rare, you know, for a president to remove a general from a command before his term is up in that way. So, I would imagine that we might hear members of the Senate today, and perhaps, if he does appear before the House, members of the House also, asking him about, you know, some of his hawkish beliefs.
Of course, all of this is mollified by the fact that some of the same Democrats who are very concerned about him are even more concerned about General Michael Flynn, who is Donald Trump’s national security adviser designee, who doesn’t have to be confirmed at all and has said that, you know, ISIS wants to drink our blood and that we’re already involved in a Third World War. So, Mattis looks pretty conservative by comparison to Flynn. And that’s just the world that we live in.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what is—Aaron, just to go back to what you said on Iran, what is Mattis’s position on the Iran nuclear deal?
AARON GLANTZ: It’s been a little bit unclear. You know, he was—he’s critical of it in general. The more important question, I think, for us now is, going forward—and it’s the same question that we have for the Trump administration in general—you know, Donald Trump, as with many agreements signed by President Obama, has criticized it mightily. But now, you know, we’re hearing that General Mattis might be of the opinion that we might want to just hold them to it very, very aggressively, rather than throwing it out. And perhaps we’ll get some clarity on that during his confirmation hearing.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, we only have a minute, but Donald Trump has tapped physician David Shulkin to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, currently serving in the Obama adminstration as VA undersecretary. If confirmed, he’ll be the first head of the Department of Veterans Affairs to have never served in the military. Your specialty over the last years has been covering veterans, Aaron. Can you talk about Dr. Shulkin?
AARON GLANTZ: I think the veterans’ community breathed a huge sigh of relief with the appointment of Mr. Shulkin as VA secretary. This is a man who was appointed to the position of undersecretary of VA for healthcare by President Obama. He is a well-respected doctor. He’s well respected in the veterans’ community. As you mentioned, he’s not a veteran. But veterans’ groups were extremely concerned about the possibility, given Trump’s campaign rhetoric, of a wholesale privatization of the VA. And they were concerned, many of them, about the floating of the name of Pete Hegseth, who founded a group funded by the Koch brothers called Concerned Veterans of America, which was advocating towards privatization. And, you know, by and large, the opinion of veterans’ groups is, while some private care is welcome, especially when you can’t get into the VA, that a privatization of the VA system would be a disaster for veterans. And so, with the appointment of Shulkin, it seems like Trump—you know, it’s likely private care will be expanded, but possibly not at the expense of the core mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
AMY GOODMAN: Aaron Glantz, we want to thank you so much for being with us, senior reporter at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. We’ll link to your latest piece, "Did defense secretary nominee James Mattis commit war crimes in Iraq?" This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.