Afghan Massacre

Military’s Internet Scrub of Robert Bales Data Was a Futile Whitewash Bid

The military removed Web articles about and photos of the soldier accused of killing 17 Afghans—supposedly the military’s effort to protect his family—but it seems more an attempt to control his image, which is both unnecessary and hopeless in the Internet age.

03.26.12 8:45 AM ET

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales may be claiming memory loss in the shooting deaths of 17 civilians in Afghanistan earlier this month, but the entity with the fuzziest recollection of the soldier’s past is the military itself—at least, those memory banks accessible on the Internet.

Not long after the tragic shooting and before the military decided a week was long enough to wait to release his name, someone at the Pentagon scrubbed pictures of Bales and articles that referred glowingly to battles of yore from military websites. Bales’s wife’s blog disappeared, too.

Reporters who know how to find cached Web pages dug all that stuff up, so the effort was futile. But the attempt to thwart the public’s desire to learn more about the most infamous soldier in America has military and government transparency experts scratching their collective heads.

Unnamed military sources admitted to McClatchy that they’d yanked the pages to protect Bales’s family, presumably because they could be targeted for revenge by people angry about the killings. (The government has since sequestered Karilyn Bales and her two children on base in the wake of the killings.) How deleting pictures of the accused soldier keeps his family safe is unclear, though. Which is why the cynics don’t buy that argument for a minute.

“It’s obviously stupid,” said Allan Millett, a military historian with the University of New Orleans and a retired colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve. “People look at that and say there must be an information-control conspiracy.”

To what end, though? The military’s unofficial policy about “bad news” is to barf it up as quickly as possible, knowing it will eventually come out and that it’s best to get ahead of a story, Millett told The Daily Beast.

“Anyone who tries to control information these days is an idiot,” Millett said. “Once it goes into cyberspace, it’s there forever.”

J.C. Mathews, a public-affairs officer at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington (where Bales was posted), told The Daily Beast he wasn’t involved in or aware of the effort to clear Bales from military websites, but he did say the Army has in the past “offered assistance and advice” to soldiers and their family members about how to tweak privacy settings on social-media websites so they can shield personal information.

Karilyn Bales’s deleted blogs might fall into this category. But it’s still puzzling to people like Steven Aftergood that the military would go to such lengths. Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, told The Daily Beast that the only legitimate reason for removing material from websites would be to protect family members. But the real strategy here may be to protect the prosecution’s case.

Since before Bales’s name was public, the government and the soldier’s Seattle attorney, John Henry Browne, have battled for control of the narrative. The military labored to describe the soldier as rogue, that he’d been drinking the night of the shooting, that he suffered marital problems. Bales’s lawyer, his wife, and some of the information the government pulled from its websites paint a different picture, of a soldier beloved by his colleagues, in a stable marriage, with some financial problems, but nothing countless Americans across the country didn’t experience during the Great Recession.

In a civilian criminal trial, that narrative is as important as anything, as “mitigating circumstances” are likely the soldier’s only chance at avoiding the death penalty. Is Bales a rogue soldier with a drinking problem who went off on a killing spree? Or is he a good guy driven to snap after four deployments and lousy treatment of posttraumatic stress syndrome, thrown back into combat despite a traumatic brain injury?

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So far, it appears there’s some truth to both portraits. Court records show Bales had a history of alcohol and financial troubles, evidence that his emotional wounds may have been as much self-inflicted as they were by his time in battle.

But what’s odd about the military’s apparent whitewash is that its tribunals are far more immune to influence than civilian trials, Aftergood pointed out. With a jury made up of fellow soldiers, it would seem unnecessary to work so hard to shroud information that could taint the trial from potential jurors.

“That’s not really an issue here,” Aftergood said.

What’s also strange is that the information removed was basically everything.

“Based on what I’ve seen recovered, they sort of did a clean sweep,” Aftergood said. “They were indiscriminate in what they were attempting to remove.”

That suggests more ineptitude than deliberate strategy, Aftergood said.

“I think it was a not-very-well-considered, reflexive action by somebody. It doesn’t have a real basis in either policy or even common sense,” he said. “I don’t think it advances their interests in any particular way. And it generates suspicion.”

Next for the accused shooter is an Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a preliminary hearing, wherein the military will present some of its evidence against Sgt. Bales. What the government probably won’t be doing any more of is trying to erase the Internet. Even a medium whose content is stored only in cyberspace, it seems, is written in indelible ink.