Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Sunday, April 15, 2007

  Thousands, or millions, of dollars in compensation?

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usToday my friend Milo entered the debate about the level of compensation being offered by the U.S. to the civilians killed accidentally in Iraq and Afghanistan by American troops. People have been much too harsh in the past regarding Milo's credibility. As I think even his critics will agree after reading this, he's come up with quite a good news story from a Florida paper.

Milo preferred not to divulge what he was doing in Florida this weekend (I think it had something to do with buying an orange plantation). Anyway, in the Orlando paper he noticed a story showing that the government paid out millions of dollars in compensation to a group of passengers riding in a single vehicle blown up in 2003.

That doesn't seem to fit at all with the other news stories we've been seeing this past week, based on documents released by the ACLU. These state that compensation payments are capped at a few thousand dollars. So which is it? Thousands, or millions, of dollars?

The ACLU obtained their documents from a FOIA request:

Most of the Iraq claims range from early 2003 to late 2006; the majority are from 2005. Most claims from Afghanistan are from May 2006, with one dating back to 2001. Based on the number of deaths represented and the variation in number and location of claims per year, the ACLU said it believes there are additional documents being withheld and is pressing the Defense Department to disclose them all.

Of the 496 files, 198 [about 40%] were denied because the military found that the incidents arose "from action by an enemy or resulted directly or indirectly from an act of the armed forces of the United States in combat," which the military calls "combat exclusion."

Of the 496 claims, 164 incidents resulted in cash payments to family members. In approximately half of the cash payment cases, the United States accepted responsibility for the death of the civilian and offered a "compensation payment." In the other half, U.S. authorities issued "condolence" payments, which are discretionary payments capped at $2,500 and offered "as an expression of sympathy" but "without reference to fault."...

The files provide a window into the lives of innocent Afghans and Iraqis caught in conflict zones. In one file, a civilian from the Salah Ad Din (PDF) province in eastern Iraq states that U.S. forces opened fire with more than 100 hundred rounds on his sleeping family, killing his mother, father and brother. The firepower was of such magnitude that 32 of the family's sheep were also killed. The Army acknowledged responsibility and the claim resulted in two payments: a compensation payment of $11,200 and a $2,500 condolence payment. In another file, a civilian in Baghdad states that his only son, a nine-year-old (PDF), was playing outside when a stray bullet hit and killed him. The Army acknowledged responsibility and paid compensation of $4,000.

Incidentally, the NY Times reported today on one of those situations that the Army normally deems a "combat exclusion":

American marines reacted to a bomb ambush with excessive force in eastern Afghanistan last month, hitting groups of bystanders and vehicles with machine-gun fire in a series of attacks that covered 10 miles of highway and left 12 civilians dead, including an infant and three elderly men, according to a report published by an Afghan human rights commission on Saturday...

One victim, a 16-year-old newly married girl, was cut down while she was carrying a bundle of grass to her family’s farmhouse, according to her family and the report. A 75-year-old man walking to his shop was hit by so many bullets that his son said he did not recognize the body when he came to the scene.

In its report, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission condemned the suicide bomb attack that started the episode, striking a Marine Special Operations unit convoy and slightly wounding one American. And the report said there might also have been small arms fire directed at the convoy immediately after the blast. But it said the response was disproportionate, especially given the obviously nonmilitary nature of the marines’ targets long after the ambush.

“In failing to distinguish between civilians and legitimate military targets, the U.S. Marine Corps Special Forces employed indiscriminate force,” the report said. “Their actions thus constitute a serious violation of international humanitarian standards.”

In this case however, given that an investigation was made, the victims' families may get compensation payments after all—despite the fact that they'd had the bad luck to be near an exploding bomb and thereby managed to get gunned down.

In 2003 and 2004, according to this report on NPR, many of the valid requests for compensation were turned down by the Army because it lacked funds to pay more than a few. And that despite the fact that many Iraqi children were being injured by cluster bombs that the U.S. had dropped during the 2003 invasion.

Army Captain John Tracy, who oversaw compensation claims in those years, tells of one instance where he was permitted to authorize a $3000 payment in compensation for the gruesome injuries inflicted on three children of one family. He seems to have found the payment memorable, perhaps just because of the fact that it was made? During his time in Iraq, he was allowed to authorize only a trickle of condolence payments.

The NY Times also interviewed Tracy:

“I know plenty of lawyers who did not pay any condolences payments at all,” said Mr. Tracy, who is now a legal consultant for the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. “There was no reason for it. It was clearly not combat, and the victim was clearly innocent, all the facts are there, witness statements, but they wouldn’t pay them.”...

In his year judging claims, Mr. Tracy said he paid 52 condolence payments, most for deaths. “I had three to four times more,” Mr. Tracy said, “I just didn’t have enough money.”

The Times also has further details based upon the ACLU documents:

In February 2006, nervous American soldiers in Tikrit killed an Iraqi fisherman on the Tigris River after he leaned over to switch off his engine. A year earlier, a civilian filling his car and an Iraqi Army officer directing traffic were shot by American soldiers in a passing convoy in Balad, for no apparent reason.

Of these three men, only the family of the civilian at the gas station received compensation ($5000).

In another incident, in 2005, an American soldier in a dangerous Sunni Arab area south of Baghdad killed a boy after mistaking his book bag for a bomb satchel. The Army paid the boy’s uncle $500...

In Haditha, one of the most notorious incidents involving American troops in Iraq, the Marines paid residents $38,000 after troops killed two dozen people in November 2005.

The relatively small number of claims divulged by the Army show patterns of misunderstanding at checkpoints and around American military convoys that often result in inadvertent killings. In one incident, in Feb. 18, 2006, a taxi approached a checkpoint east of Baquba that was not properly marked with signs to slow down, one Army claim evaluation said. Soldiers fired on the taxi, killing a woman and severely wounding her daughter and son. The Army approved an unusually large condolence payment of $7,500.

All of this has been troubling, because it seems to suggest that the U.S. has grossly undervalued the lives of civilian victims in these wars. The evidence we've been hearing about points toward condolence payments on a very small scale indeed. The Times reports that "The total number of claims filed, or paid, is unclear, although extensive data has been provided in reports to Congress." It adds that a Pentagon spokesman puts the total for all compensation payments made in Iraq and Afghanistan, for deaths, injury, and property damage, at just $32 million.

Equally troubling, the mercenaries serving in Iraq seem to be permitted to indulge in every conceivable variety of mayhem without any significant restraint, much less accountability. There doesn't appear to be any compensation at all for most of the victims of mercenaries who take it into their heads that they "want to kill somebody today".


With all this in mind, I was startled when out of the blue Milo calls to tell me about this article from the Orlando Sentinel:

The federal government paid $26.6 million to the families of seven passengers who died aboard a minivan in Baghdad -- a settlement that has been kept secret for more than 2 1/2 years.

The administration recruited former FBI Director William Webster, also a former federal judge, to act as a mediator and adviser in negotiating the out-of-court settlements, according to documents released to the Orlando Sentinel through a federal Freedom of Information Act request...

In an interview with the Sentinel, Webster, also a former CIA director, said he was bound by confidentiality and couldn't discuss details of the agreements, but defended the process as proper.

"The members of the [survivors'] families wanted this to be a private matter," said Webster, a consulting partner in Washington with the international law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy. "They were healing, and they were ready to discuss, properly, their rights. . . . Everyone felt it had a better chance of coming together without seeing their name in lights."...

"We were in a state of shock," [the widowed husband of one victim] said. "To go the lawsuit route, it's very painful and very protracted. So we settled."...

[One government letter obtained by the Sentinel] called the disaster a "tragic loss" and said his office had performed a "privileged and confidential" review of "potential legal exposure" for the Pentagon and its contractors. It said the DoD had advised family members to retain lawyers and that early discussions had been "positive and constructive."...

Webster said his team met with the seven families and their attorneys, both collectively and individually, in 2004. The families made emotional presentations with videos, computerized slide shows and economic projections for lost income.

Each family presented its own view of the financial damages they were due, but all agreed to receive the same award for pain and suffering of the passengers during the accident, Webster said.

"It was a moving experience," Webster said. "And as a total family, they all accepted the settlements.

"It was really an honor to do it. I didn't give the government's money away but tried to be fair to everyone."...

"It wasn't a lot of money. A few million [dollars] isn't much," [one relative] said. "We had to prove our loved ones were worth something."... To him, the government settlement means little. "Give me my wife back, keep the money and we'll call it even."

I don't for a moment begrudge these grieving relatives a reasonable compensation for the accidental deaths of their family members. I'm just puzzled how in the world this story from the Orlando Sentinel can be reconciled with all the reporting in the past regarding the paltry sums awarded to the families of victims in Iraq and Afghanistan. There's also the fact that in this one case the U.S. government was exceedingly solicitous and perhaps showed genuine concern in the way it treated the families of the victims.

Milo was right, I think, this is sensational news. Evidently, ABC News agrees, because it has now picked up the Sentinel story. We'll have to see if Americans notice the gross disparity in the record.

crossposted from Unbossed

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