| Investigative

Rules of Engagement

AS SADAH, Iraq — Shortly before noon on March 6, 2007, Small Kill Team leader Michael Barbera rose from his squad's position in high grass in a palm grove here and shot two teenage cattle herders.

A short time later, the Army staff sergeant ordered his soldiers to kill a third teenager walking toward them.

Barbera would report to his superiors that the three dead boys were insurgents operating out of this farming village about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad.

In reality, Ahmad Khalid al-Timmimi, 15, his brother, Abbas, and their cousin, Muhamed Khaleel Kareem al-Galyani, both 14, were unarmed deaf mutes with no known ties to the insurgency. Their slayings angered most members of Barbera's squad — decorated combat veterans who reported the killings to Army investigators in Fort Bragg, N.C.

Those soldiers believed Barbera's actions triggered two reprisal suicide bombings at their combat outpost that killed 10 of their fellow paratroopers in the 5th Squadron of the 73rd Cavalry Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment.

In late 2010, several of Barbera's former soldiers asked the Tribune-Review to get answers about what happened to a secret Army probe into their allegations. In a two-year investigation, a Trib reporter traveled to Fort Bragg, across the United States and into an area of Iraq vacated by American troops to find out what happened.

Classified documents provided to the Trib eventually revealed what no soldier or Iraqi villager knew: Army investigators recommended that Barbera face charges, including two counts of murder. But Barbera was never brought to court.

No prison time for Army Sgt. Barbera for phone threat against reporter’s wife

November 21, 2014
By Jim Wilhelm
TACOMA, Wash. — Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Barbera, who professed innocence on his social media sites, pleaded guilty Thursday to threatening the wife of a Tribune-Review reporter in a failed attempt to prevent publication of a report about his fatal shootings in March 2007 of two unarmed, deaf Iraqi ...

Murder charges dropped against sergeant who shot 2 unarmed Iraqi boys

September 30, 2014
By Jim Wilhelm
Murder charges against Sgt. 1st Class Michael Barbera in the 2007 shootings of two deaf, unarmed brothers in Iraq have been dropped — at least for now — but he will face court-martial trial on two lesser charges, the Army announced Tuesday. As a result of an Article 32 preliminary ...

Pentagon tries to challenge unwritten code of silence among troops

May 5, 2014
By Jim Wilhelm
Three months before then-Army Staff Sgt. Michael Barbera was accused of fatally shooting two unarmed and deaf Iraqi boys in March 2007, a survey found that just 55 percent of soldiers and 40 percent of ...

‘Motivation’ lacking in Barbera case, investigating officer says

April 29, 2014
By Jim Wilhelm
TACOMA, Wash. — The investigating officer overseeing the Army’s Article 32 preliminary hearing for Sgt. 1st Class Michael Barbera said he heard “very little” prosecution evidence to support premeditated murder charges in the fatal shooting ...

Army recon leader charged with murders of two Iraqi boys says he doesn’t kill “for no reason”

April 28, 2014
By Jim Wilhelm
TACOMA, Wash. — Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Barbera, accused of killing two unarmed Iraqi teenagers, said Monday he does not kill innocent people. “I do not kill people for no reason,” Barbera said in the brief, unsworn statement he read into the record in his defense during his Article 32 ...

Magnified view through rifle scope could assess threat posed by Iraqi boys, experts say

April 27, 2014
By Jim Wilhelm
TACOMA — The scope on the M-4 rifle that Sgt. 1st Class Michael Barbera is accused of using to fatally shoot two Iraqi boys might play a key defense role in the Army’s murder case against him, military justice experts say. “A reasonable person might say the boys posed no threat, ...

In hearing for Army Sgt. Barbera, soldier recalls no threat from Iraqi teens who were slain

April 26, 2014
By Jim Wilhelm
TACOMA — An investigating officer can ask questions during an Article 32 hearing, which determines whether someone in the military should receive a court-martial. Lots of questions. That’s just what Army Lt. Col. Charles N. Floyd has done during the preliminary hearing for Sgt. 1st Class Michael Barbera. A Small-Kill Team ...

Retired Army sergeant explains delay in reporting Iraqi boys’ shooting deaths

April 25, 2014
By Jim Wilhelm
TACOMA, Wash. — If he had it to do over, retired Army Sgt. Ken Katter said on Friday, he would have acted differently in how he eventually reported the 2007 shooting deaths of two unarmed, deaf Iraqi boys, allegedly by his Small-Kill Team leader, then-Staff Sgt. Michael Barbera. “Looking back on ...

Rules of engagement at issue in Iraqi boys’ slayings

April 24, 2014
By Jim Wilhelm
TACOMA, Wash. — Army Brig. Gen. Andrew P. Poppas testified on Thursday that if a Small-Kill Team’s reconnaissance position in the field was compromised, he would expect members to follow rules of engagement and employ nonlethal measures if they were uncertain whether intruders posed a serious threat. “It’d be a nonlethal ...

‘Nightmare’ killing of 2 Iraqi youths detailed during military hearing

April 23, 2014
By Jim Wilhelm
TACOMA, Wash. — A former radioman for an Army Small-Kill Team testified on Wednesday that he saw then-Staff Sgt. Michael Barbera look through his M-4 scope and fatally shoot two deaf, unarmed Iraqi boys in 2007. John LoTempio, then an Army specialist, said one youth was shot in the head, and ...

Hearing to determine fate of sergeant accused of killing 2 deaf Iraqi boys

April 22, 2014
By Jim Wilhelm
TACOMA, Wash. — Two high-profile attorneys will clash on Wednesday when a military hearing begins to determine whether Sgt. 1st Class Michael Barbera should face court-martial in the shooting deaths of two deaf, unarmed Iraqi ...

American soldier charged in Iraq killings of deaf, unarmed teens

November 15, 2013
By Carl Prine   and Jim Wilhelm
An Army small-kill team leader is charged by military investigators with two counts of murder in the fatal shootings of two deaf, unarmed Iraqi youths in March 2007, an incident first made public in a ...

Department of Justice urged to refile charges in 2007 deaths of Iraqi boys

December 3, 2012
By Carl Prine
AS SADAH, Iraq — The Department of Justice has legal authority to review criminal charges the military declines to prosecute, as in the case of two unarmed Iraqi boys shot to death by an Army ...

Five-year legacy of Iraq mission gone awry

December 1, 2012
By Carl Prine
AS SADAH, IRAQ - Staring over the barrel of his machine gun, Dary Finck had the shot. But the U.S. Army private first class refused to take it. Same with the three sergeants crouching in thigh-high ...

About the project

Sitting at his kitchen table in Saginaw, Mich., just past midnight on Veteran's Day 2010, Ken Katter seemed exhausted. The former Army cavalry scout and his wife, Patti, had spent hours detailing the problems they saw in the Warrior Transition Unit of Fort Bragg, N.C., and now the tape recorder was off.

Katter had a lot in common with Carl Prine, the Tribune-Review investigative reporter sitting across from him. Both had been Marines, had volunteered for combat duty as Army soldiers in Iraq in the years after 9/11, and had survived the blasts of improvised explosive devices that insurgents planted.

Katter, a former police officer in nearby Bridgeport Township, Mich., didn't necessarily trust reporters. But he felt he could trust a former Marine grunt. So after Patti quietly left the room, he told Prine about a tragedy that still gave him nightmares: the 2007 shootings of three Iraqi boys in the village of As Sadah. He said he told Fort Bragg investigators what happened, and was mistreated by commanders there for coming forward.

Questions nagged him, he said. What happened to the criminal probe Army investigators conducted in 2009? Who were the boys that a fellow soldier killed? How was all this covered up?

Finding answers would take nearly two years, involving dozens of interviews and multiple requests for official documents. Prine traveled from Fort Bragg to Washington, and then into the heart of Iraq's Diyala Province long after U.S. troops had pulled out, a veteran of the war now unarmed and ducking the insurgents he once hunted.

On Dec. 4, 2011, Prine flew to Erbil, Kurdistan, to make the 450-mile roundtrip to As Sadah, Iraq, where the killings occurred, to interview the dead boys' families and other villagers. He traveled to As Sadah with translator/cameraman Mustafa Fahmi Ahmed of Kirkuk, Iraq. At the village, they met up with another translator/cameraman, Hisham K. Alwan, who traveled from his home in Baghdad.

During the drive to As Sadah and during their time there, Prine and Ahmed suspected that unknown individuals shadowed them. Trib editors monitored Prine's trip by using a GPS locator on the reporter's international phone. He texted his arrival in As Sadah at 4:23 a.m. Pittsburgh time.

Because of the risks involved, Prine and Trib editors agreed he should spend no more than an hour in the village to avoid becoming a potential terrorist target. They planned in advance an alternative return route to Kirkuk and Erbil, to confuse anyone trying to track an American in the unstable region, but he did not use it.

Shortly before 10 a.m. Pittsburgh time, Prine texted his editors that he had returned safely to Erbil.

More disturbing, attempts to reach Sgt. Michael Barbera for comment on Oct. 3, 2011, led to repeated phone calls to Prine's home phone. When his wife, Deanna, answered at 6:12 p.m., a male caller warned her that she and her husband would be harmed if Prine did not “back off” from his reporting.

Prine filed a criminal report about the calls with Northern Regional Police Department in Pine, which later determined the calls came from Barbera's cell phone.

After learning that Barbera was stationed with the Army in Alaska, police turned the case over to the Pittsburgh FBI office. An FBI agent in Anchorage later told the Trib that Pittsburgh agents decided not to pursue the case “because it was a single incident.”

Pittsburgh FBI spokeswoman Kelly Pochamba said agents turned the matter over to the Army Criminal Investigations division at Fort Richardson, Alaska. Army officials there declined comment.

About Carl Prine

Carl Prine, 46, a Marine Corps and Army veteran, is an award-winning investigative reporter for the Tribune-Review.

An Indiana native, he joined the newspaper in 2000 after working as a war correspondent in Africa for The Christian Science Monitor and other publications. He reports regularly for the Trib on military, national security and related matters.

Following the 9/11 attacks, Prine wrote a Trib investigative report, “Think Like A Terrorist,” that exposed security failings at U.S. chemical plants. The CBS News program “60 Minutes” later worked with him to re-examine the issue.

He was one of two Trib reporters who covered the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

In 2005, Prine re-enlisted with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard for a one-year tour of duty in Iraq. He served in the Ramadi-Falluhjah region.

After his return from Iraq, Prine won awards for his investigation into the vulnerabilities of America's 150,000 miles of railroad tracks and the thousands of tanker cars carrying hazardous materials daily.

Last year, Prine won several awards — including the national American Legion's Fourth Amendment Award — for “Wounded Warriors,” a nine-month investigative series that revealed the red tape and inadequacy of care for American soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq.