Washington – Besides waiting nearly a week before identifying the Army staff sergeant who’s accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers, the U.S. military scrubbed its websites of references to his combat service.
Gone were photographs of the suspect, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, as well as a recounting in his base’s newspaper of a 2007 battle in Iraq involving his unit that quoted him extensively.
But not really.
Given the myriad ways that information remains accessible on the Internet, despite the best efforts to remove it, the material about Bales was still out there and available, such as in cached versions of Web pages. Within minutes of the Pentagon leaking his name Friday evening, news organizations and others found and published his pictures, the account of the battle — which depicts Bales and other soldiers in a glowing light — and excerpts from his wife’s personal blog.
So why did the Pentagon try to scrub Bales from the Internet in the first place?
The military said its intention in removing the material wasn’t to lessen the Army’s embarrassment over the horrific attack — nine of the victims were children — but to protect the privacy of Bales’ family.
“Protecting a military family has to be a priority,” said a military official, who like several interviewed for this story spoke only on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case.
“I think the feeding frenzy we saw after his name was released was evidence that we were right to try. … Of course the pages are cached; we know that. But we owe it to the wife and kids to do what we can.”
A second Pentagon official acknowledged that one of the reasons for the delay in releasing Bales’ name was to remove references to his Army service from the Internet. However, when Army Maj. Nidal Hasan was arrested in the deadly shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, the Pentagon released his name immediately.
Several former military officers said they were perplexed that the Army would try to remove information that already had been public. One called it “unusual.”
Experts agreed that the effort was futile.
“Once a site has been accessed enough times, it’s very, very difficult to remove content,” said Dan Auerbach, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports Internet access. “I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but there’s no evidence of it happening in recent times.”
Another likely concern of the military was that criminal charges against Bales are expected, and the case could last a long time. He’s at the Army’s maximum-security prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
“The military actually does a very good job of protecting defendants’ rights,” said Allan Millett, a military historian at the University of New Orleans and a retired colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve. “I suspect it was simply a matter of not prejudicing either public opinion or anyone who might be involved in the case. I’m sure they’re leaning over backwards.”
Bales is a 38-year-old veteran of four combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the father of two young children. Before his name became public, the Army moved his family from their home near Tacoma, Wash., to the security of his home military base south of the city, Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The massacre occurred early in the morning of March 11. Bales allegedly left his base in southern Afghanistan, walked to two nearby villages and killed 16 residents.
He then returned to his base, the military says, where he was arrested. The military didn’t disclose his identity until five days later.
A motive for the killings isn’t known. But Bales’ history of repeated combat tours, including a diagnosis of traumatic brain injury, has become a subject of speculation.
“Why didn’t they spot this guy as a risk?” Millett said.
Steven Aftergood, a government transparency advocate, said secrecy was an “instinctive response” of the military and government in general, usually to try to avoid controversy or thwart the news media.
Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, said that in the Bales case, “there are competing interests at stake. But if nothing else, the defendant deserves a fair trial.”
Parts of a private blog about the life of military spouse that Karilyn Bales, the suspect’s wife, has been writing for several years also appear to have been deleted since the killings. It’s unclear how that occurred. Her blog, in which she discussed her husband’s disappointment at being passed over for a promotion, among other topics, previously was available to anyone but now is password-protected.
Elizabeth Buchanan, the director of the Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, a scientific and technical campus, said the removal of the Bales material was “fairly risky,” given the controversies surrounding disclosures of secret data by WikiLeaks and the group of hackers known as Anonymous.
“Anytime there’s a very public issue, people want to know what’s going on at the higher level with authority,” she said. “So when all of sudden it’s made public, I don’t think people immediately go to the thought, ‘Well, they’re protecting this individual.’ There’s a societal stance of, ‘Well, what is it they’re hiding?’ “
(Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report.)