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UPDATED: Why the Huffington Post Needs to Immediately Retract Mark Benjamin’s Afghanistan Massacre Report

A March 25 article by Mark Benjamin at The Huffington Post seriously misled readers about a link between the controversial antimalarial drug mefloquine and the mass murder in Afghanistan attributed to Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. Relying on a document he wrongly identified, and with zero evidence backing up his claims, Benjamin’s headline stated “Military Scrambles … Continued

A March 25 article by Mark Benjamin at The Huffington Post seriously misled readers about a link between the controversial antimalarial drug mefloquine and the mass murder in Afghanistan attributed to Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. Relying on a document he wrongly identified, and with zero evidence backing up his claims, Benjamin’s headline stated “Military Scrambles to Limit Malaria Drug Just After Afghan Massacre.” As a matter of journalistic ethics, Benjamin should apologize to his readers and retract the story.

The article begins with a dishonestly crafted lede that links the Afghan massacre with a “task order” memo from a Department of Defense (DoD) command regarding a review of mefloquine procedures, and goes on to suggest that Sgt. Robert Bales, a victim of traumatic brain injury, may have gone psychotic from use of mefloquine and possibly committed the killings under influence of the drug. Furthermore, the article strongly implied that DoD possibly knew this and then implemented an “emergency review” of mefloquine procedures nine days after the Afghan killings.

UPDATE: Instead of issuing the retraction I called for, Mark Benjamin, in yet another deceptive move aimed at misleading his readers, quietly rewrote his Huffington Post story hours after this report was published Wednesday morning without informing those readers that he made substantial changes to his original report. Nor did Benjamin point out to his readers that he quietly rewrote his story and changed the headline nearly four hours after we exposed the errors contained in his original report. Notably, the lede to Benjamin’s story, which formed the basis for the entirety of his claims that a Defense Department review revolving around the administration of mefloquine for US troops was ordered after the Afghanistan massacre, no longer makes that argument because, as this report notes, the initial review was ordered before Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly murdered 16 people. Readers who now visit the Huffington Post link where Benjamin’s story was originally published will be find a very different story. But this is how his report originally appeared when it was published Monday. I encourage you to compare the two. My report was published, as the time stamp below my byline shows, at 10:44 am. The rewrite to Benjamin’s story was posted at 2:35 pm.

But nothing in the record suggests this is true. The word “emergency” is never used [UPDATE: Benjamin changed “emergency” in his original report to “urgent” after I pointed out the word was never used.] in the one document Benjamin cites, and an actual examination of the full documentary record shows that the mefloquine review described in the article was actually ordered last January.

Despite these serious flaws, Benjamin’s article caused a sensation in the press, being picked up by many news outlets, including interviews with Benjamin on the topic at both CNN and Democracy Now!.

But in an email to Truthout, a DoD official strongly refuted Benjamin’s claims, explaining that the task order referenced by the Huffington Post author originated in a January 17, 2012, memo from Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Jonathan Woodson. Despite Benjamin’s reporting, the review order was not issued nine days after the Afghanistan murders, nor was it limited to Afghanistan, but involved five different regional commands.

The official explained that the delay in implementing the review in the Afghan theatre was due to the absence of a key individual. The urgency in the March 20 task order (sometimes called a “tasker”) referenced by Benjamin was due to a deadline for the conclusion of the review set back in January.

The official told Truthout:

Army Medical Command did receive the ASD [Assistant Secretary of Defense] Health Affairs tasking memo in mid-January, but due to the absence of the tasking individual on a temporary duty assignment for several weeks, the request to review the Army’s program was not staffed and pushed out to the five regional medical commands until March 5th with a suspense date of March 15th. The Regions expressed that this was not enough time so they were given until March 20th to reply. This still put us well within the 90-day window provided by the original tasker in January. This review has no relation whatsoever to the incident in Afghanistan, as borne out by the dates when the tasker was initiated by ASD-Health Affairs in mid-January and later by the Army Medical Command to its subordinate regions on March 5th.

The official noted other problems with the Benjamin story. The link to what Benjamin called the “task order from Woodson, obtained by the Huffington Post,” was actually to “a tasking document from one of the Army Medical Command regions – specifically the Southern Regional Medical Command, annotated in the incorrectly identified memo as ‘SRMC’.”

It appears Benjamin relied upon an implementing order by a lower command, but even with an update to his story a day later, the Huffington Post journalist insisted on linking this document to the Afghanistan killings. In his update [UPDATE: the “update” Benjamin posted was changed to a “correction” in the rewritten version of his story], Benjamin incomprehensibly kept pushing the March 20 order, which he claimed “shows that one part of the Army issued a new, urgent call to complete the Jan. 17 request from Woodson within six days.” But Benjamin must know this is false, and there was nothing “new” about the order.

Truthout has obtained the original January 17 memo, which can be downloaded here. Woodson expressed concern that, “[s]ome deploying Service members have been provided mefloquine for malaria prophylaxis without appropriate documentation in their medical records and without proper screening for contraindications.”

Some five months earlier, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) had issued a press release expressing her concern that mefloquine had been administered to military personnel without the safeguards put in place by a 2009 DoD protocol. Moreover, according to her press release, “These service members are now suffering from … preventable neurological side effects.”

While Benjamin never makes the point directly, if his mefloquine hypothesis about Bales and the killings were true, it would be the first mass murder attributable to mefloquine ever recorded in the roughly four decades of its use.

Yet, Benjamin admitted in his story that there is no evidence Bales ever took mefloquine, noting that DoD will neither confirm nor deny it. Even more, there is no evidence that if he did, he suffered ill effects, much less a reaction that led to the killings of 17 men, women and children on the night of March 13.

Benjamin states that military officials cited “privacy rules” as the reason they could not say whether Bales took mefloquine or not. But Benjamin appears dubious about this, and in his March 26 update to his story, continues to complain, “The Pentagon still will not say if Bales was wrongly given mefloquine.”

In fact, the Federal 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, also known as HIPAA, forbids the release of medical information, including by the military, “except for specifically permitted purposes” (see DoD 6025.18-R, paragraph C1.2.1). Such purposes can include criminal investigations, but not releases to the press.

To be fair, Democracy Now! has also emphasized the nondisclosure of Bales’ medical information in its story on the possible Bales-mefloquine link, and also never mentions federal law prohibiting such disclosure.

No Mention of Eyewitnesses

Benjamin’s article, like a similar piece on Time Magazine’s Battleland blog, which Benjamin cites, never mentions that there were eyewitnesses to the Afghan killings who have provided a very different story as to what happened in the March 11 pre-dawn hours of the massacre. The Battleland article was written by Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a former Army psychiatrist at Guantanamo.

One eyewitness report in the Global Post quoted Massouma, a woman who lives in the village of Najiban, where 12 people were killed, as saying at the time of the killings that there were helicopters flying overhead. She said the uniformed soldier that entered her home was speaking into a walkie-talkie.

According to the report, the soldier, “had a radio antenna on his shoulder. He had a walkie-talkie himself, and he was speaking into it,” Massouma said.

“After the soldier with the walkie-talkie killed her husband, she said he lingered in the doorway of her home,” the report continued. “‘While he stood there, I secretly looked through the curtains and saw at least 20 Americans, with heavy weapons, searching all the rooms in our compound, as well as my bathroom,’ she said.”

In another example of eyewitness evidence, Jefferson Morley at Salon pointed out a March 17 Afghanistan Outlook report describing an Afghan Parliamentary investigation, which spent two days “interviewing the bereaved families, tribal elders, survivors and collecting evidences at the site in Panjwai district.” The investigation found, “there were 15 to 20 American soldiers, who executed the brutal killings.”

The Global Post article also reported that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) turned away reporters who came to interview survivors of the shootings at a hospital at Kandahar Airfield. “‘The wounded survivors, who saw everything of the massacre, are crucial to the story,’ said one of the frustrated reporters. ‘But the Americans didn’t allow us to talk to them.'”

While there have been conflicting accounts of the massacre, Benjamin’s article followed the DoD claims that Sgt. Bales was the sole soldier involved, then sought reasons to explain the actions of the supposed lone killer. The reader was never informed there may be other evidence that would make the mefloquine narrative superfluous.

Bales was charged with the murders on March 23.

Mefloquine Controversies

Benjamin, with reporter Dan Olmstead, covered the controversy over the use of the antimalarial drug mefloquine in the military. The reporters wrote story after story exposing the slowness, ineptitude and possibly corruption that allowed a dangerous drug to be continuously prescribed to armed forces personnel. So, it may be understandable that Benjamin still harbors passion for the topic. Additionally, Benjamin was correct when he told Amy Goodman at Democracy Now! that the recent DoD review shows that DoD, “seems to be violating its own rules.”

Yet, curiously, he has remained silent, including in his most recent article, on investigations that revealed an unprecedented mass dosing of Guantanamo detainees. The supposed presumptive treatment for malaria of all incoming Guantanamo detainees was standard operating procedure, as documents revealed. One medical expert described the use of the drug, which was administered at doses five times that typically administered prophylactically to US soldiers serving in malarial regions, as “pharmacological waterboarding.”

[Full disclosure: this author, along with Jason Leopold, conducted these investigations, which were published at Truthout. Seton Hall School of Law’s Center for Policy and Research conducted their own investigation and released a report, while the story was later reported as well by the military’s own paper, Stars and Stripes.]

Benjamin and “Tall Tale” Journalism

One of the strangest aspects of Benjamin’s article is that it comes not long after Benjamin himself strongly criticized an article by Scott Horton at Harper’s Magazine. The article, which won the National Magazine Award for Reporting last year, revealed evidence of a cover-up in the 2006 deaths of three detainees at Guantanamo – deaths the military attributed to suicide.

Benjamin chided Horton for relying on witnesses “who did not witness much,” and relying on “alleged inconsistencies and weaknesses in the government’s investigation to buttress his narrative that something fishy was going on.” He referred readers to another article by his former collaborator, Alex Koppelman, who wrote a scathing critique of Horton’s article for Adweek. Koppelman called Horton’s investigation “a tall tale,” and chided Horton for, “less methodical reporting and more conspiracy building, favoring the evidence that supports the conspiracy view and minimizing the evidence that does not.”

Koppelman’s own criticisms were debunked by this author in an article at Firedoglake last June. But Koppelman’s verdict on Horton is an apt judgment upon Benjamin’s own recent mefloquine article, which misrepresented government documents, minimized or buried evidence that would refute his claims, and implied a conspiracy and coverup without a shred of evidence that would support his view.

Even sadder, neither editors at Huffington Post, nor major media outlets like CNN, Democracy Now! or others ever fact-checked or even questioned Benjamin’s assertions, which were patently untrue. To date, no media outlet that carried Benjamin’s story has issued any retraction or substantive correction.

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