The military waited six days before releasing the name of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians earlier this month. One of the reasons for the somewhat unusual delay: to give the military enough time to erase the sergeant from the internet — or at least try to.
That’s according to several Pentagon officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to McClatchy newspapers about the subject. The scrubbed material included photographs of Bales from the military’s official photo and video distribution website, along with quotes by the 38-year-old sergeant in the Joint Base Lewis-McChord newspaper regarding a 2007 battle in Iraq “which depicts Bales and other soldiers in a glowing light.”
The sergeant’s wife, Karilyn Bales, and their two young children were also moved onto Lewis-McChord, reportedly for their protection. Her blog, titled “The Bales Family” about her life as a mother and military spouse, was removed although it’s not known how, precisely. The military’s reasoning for the blackout: protecting the privacy of the accused and his family.
“Protecting a military family has to be a priority,” a Pentagon official told McClatchy. “I think the feeding frenzy we saw after his name was released was evidence that we were right to try.”
Try as they might, the military couldn’t completely scrub Bales from the web. What you put online lasts pretty much forever, and that’s no different for the military. Reporters quickly discovered cached versions of Bales’ photograph, the quotes from his base newspaper and the family blog. “Of course the pages are cached; we know that,” the official added. “But we owe it to the wife and kids to do what we can.”
But as McClatchy points out, the military didn’t hesitate to release the name of Major Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people in a 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, Texas. (Though Hasan was unmarried and had no children.)
Bales’ killings of Afghan civilians also potentially maimed the U.S.’s war plans.
While not a special forces operator, Bales was working alongside U.S. commandos at a small combat outpost set up for “village support operations” in Afghanistan’s Panjwai district, within the country’s restive Kandahar province. Effectively, establish ties with the district’s elders in the hope of warding off Taliban infiltration and influence. And with distrust of U.S. forces in the wake of the massacre, the mission to stabilize the district’s villages may have become more difficult.
The massacre also raises questions about the military’s awful record of diagnosing and treating (or mismanaging) traumatic brain injuries, which Bales reportedly suffered during a 2010 car accident.
“Any time there’s a very public issue, people want to know what’s going on at the higher level with authority,” Elizabeth Buchanan, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Applied Ethics, told the newspaper company. “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?’”