Human Rights Watch Analyst Marc Garlasco: The Pentagon Official Who Came in From the Cold

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As chief of high-value targeting at the Pentagon, Marc Garlasco was in charge of the hunt for former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Now, in his position as a weapons expert at Human Rights Watch, he has become a critic of the military.

In a few days there will be another anniversary of the embarrassing incident involving the notorious "Chemical Ali." The same questions are asked every year, including: Who, in the US military's long chain of command, was responsible for this major error? "Everyone, somehow," says Marc Garlasco. "Each individual contributes something, and that's what is executed in the end."

Almost six years ago, at 5:30 a.m. on April 5, 2003, a warplane dropped two laser-guided, 500-kilogram bombs on a house in Tuwaisi, a neighborhood in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. The Americans believed that the man responsible for poison gas attacks on Kurds in Iraq beginning in 1988, Saddam Hussein's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali, was inside. Garlasco was the Pentagon's chief of high-value targeting at the time. Only 32 years old, his job was to pinpoint the whereabouts of President Saddam Hussein and his cohorts, then recommend when and where US bomber pilots should strike. Chemical Ali was a so-called high-value target.

On that April 5, Garlasco was standing in the basement of the Pentagon, monitoring satellite images of the bombs' impact site. The room was cold to keep the high-powered computers from overheating. Officials usually wore winter coats in this room, even in the summer, and stared at their screens as if looking at a computer game.

Reality was 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) away. Garlasco watched as the bombs landed, precisely on target, and exploded. He threw his arms up into the air and yelled: "I just blew up Chemical Ali!"

Two weeks later, he stood corrected. Ali Hassan al-Majid has not been in the house, after all. Instead of killing Chemical Ali, the bombs took the lives of 17 innocent people.

Garlasco accepted the consequences and left his job at the Pentagon. And then he changed sides.

Video vs. the Real Thing

Today Garlasco, a native New Yorker, is a senior military analyst with the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), which pays special attention to the victims of armed conflicts. He's considered one of the most prominent critics of the military, and his former colleagues now fear the precision of his analyses, which they valued when he was still on their side.

Most recently, Garlasco and his colleagues at Human Rights Watch spent several weeks in the Gaza Strip to study the aftermath of the Israeli attacks in late 2008 and early 2009, in which 1,400 Palestinians died. Human Rights Watch released a report on March 26 that included evidence of the Israeli military's alleged violations of the laws of war, especially through the use of white phosphorus and the firing of artillery shells into densely populated areas.

Garlasco's task was to investigate senseless attacks on civilians by Israeli soldiers. One of their victims was Majar Abu al-Aish, a 15-year-old schoolgirl who was sitting at a desk in her room doing homework when, at 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 16, a tank shell crashed through the wall and sent hundreds of pieces of shrapnel into the ceiling.

A piece of shrapnel severed her head from her body, while other fragments killed her two sisters and a young female relative who had sought shelter in the house. She had believed that the house of Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, a well-known doctor and peace activist, would be safe.

The Israeli army initially claimed that it had been attacked from the direction of the house. But a week later, Garlasco, searching through rubble, hair barrettes and blood stains, collected the deadly pieces of shrapnel, calculated the angles from which the projectiles had been fired, and concluded that the Israeli tanks had attacked the settlement from a hill 100 meters away.

The fact that Israeli tanks had computer-controlled targeting systems led Garlasco to rule out the possibility that the direct hit was a mistake. There was also no evidence of Palestinian weapons in the house. In early February, after an investigation, the Israeli army accepted responsibility for the error.

Garlasco is a slim man, fond of wearing jeans and wool sweaters. He sits in the office of his small house in Pleasantville, 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of New York, sipping a cup of black tea. His black-and-white photographs are displayed on the walls, scenes from his new life on the other side of war: the empty gaze of a woman standing in front of her bombed-out house in Georgia, mourners in Iraq, a little boy standing in the rubble of Gaza City, holding two passports in his hands, the only memento he has of his family.

During the Iraq war, Garlasco picked out hundreds of strategically significant targets for the US armed forces without having set foot in the country. Shortly after his job at the Pentagon, he arrived in the Iraqi capital to begin his research for Human Rights Watch. Driving through Baghdad, he thought he knew every street, bend in the river and large building -- except that the real thing didn't look quite as expected.

He stood at the crater of the house in Basra that he had helped destroy. An old man walked up to Garlasco and told him how his family was wiped out on the morning of April 5 by a US bombing attack. Only one son survived. "Why did this happen?" the old man asked.

The administration of former US President George W. Bush sanctioned up to 30 civilian deaths for each attack on a high-value target in the Iraq war. Why that number was 30 and not 5 or 60 is mystery to Garlasco. Nevertheless, he says he doesn't feel truly responsible for what happened in Basra, during the hunt for Chemical Ali. "I didn't build the bomb, fly the plane or make the decision. I issued an order."

'We Don't Want You Here'

After obtaining a degree in political science, Garlasco planned to join the US Diplomatic Service, but he landed at the Pentagon. His interview had just ended when an official told him that he had the job, but that the precise nature of his work was classified. "I accepted on the spot. It sounded exciting, just cool."

The new employee soon embarked on a successful career. By 1998, one year after being hired, he was an Iraq analyst. During President Bill Clinton's four-day war against Saddam Hussein, he was suddenly told: "Garlasco, we're dropping bombs today, and you're up." Four years later, in 2002, he was promoted to chief of high-value targeting.

From then on, he devoted much of his attention to Saddam Hussein, monitoring his movements "among various palaces in Baghdad, his hometown of Tikrit and his lakeside country house." Based on the intelligence reports, Garlasco even knew when the Iraqi president and his wife argued, which was often the case, especially after Saddam allegedly had her brother killed. Saddam also had several girlfriends.

Senior officials started appearing in Garlasco's office for briefings almost daily. They included half of the Bush administration, from Vice President Dick Cheney -- whose doctor would wait in the next room in case his patient suffered a heart attack -- to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who rarely paid attention. George Tenet, the CIA director at the time, was the most frequent visitor. Unlike Rumsfeld, Tenet was always extremely interested in what Garlasco had to say.

Garlasco flew to Germany on behalf of the Pentagon at least a dozen times, where he met with contacts at Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), in Pullach outside Munich -- and visited relatives. His mother is German, and his German grandfather was constantly asking him: "Why on earth are you in the military?" The grandfather, a former soldier in the German Wehrmacht, had long ago become a fervent pacifist. "I experienced a war, Marc," he told his grandson, "and it's horrible."

Shortly after the fall of Baghdad, Garlasco left the Pentagon and spent much of his time following the bombs that continue to fall around the world. He has been in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Georgia and Gaza.

Again and again, Garlasco points out mistakes the Americans made while hunting terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he has also sharply criticized the use of cluster bombs in Georgia and Lebanon and researched cases of alleged torture in US prisons. He was the first to name the European countries in which the Americans had their enemies tortured during the Bush administration in order to circumvent the Geneva Conventions: Poland and Romania.

In return for his efforts, Garlasco has become a target of the overt hatred of military personnel around the world. He has received emails wishing him death at the hands of terrorists. The Israelis tried everything under the sun to keep him out of the Gaza Strip. A government representative in Jerusalem told Garlasco bluntly, "We don't want you here."

The persistent weapons specialist eventually entered the Palestinian Territory through Egypt.

Garlasco's life has not grown any easier since he switched sides. An organization like Human Rights Watch pays even less than the Pentagon. A stack of photographs he took on his last visit to Gaza is on his desk. The road to where he is today has been a long one, he says. "But at least I can sleep well at night."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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