Were Rules of Engagement Violated?

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This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," March 7, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.


SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: This was a tragic incident and the President was calling to express our regret about the incident. He also assured Prime Minister Berlusconi that the matter would be fully investigated. The investigation is ongoing at this point.


JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The White House calling the statements from Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena (search) absurd. Sgrena says it is possible that U.S. troops fired on her car on purpose. Sgrena was wounded and an Italian intelligence officer was killed as they drove towards Baghdad Airport after Sgrena's release by terrorists.

Joining me now is retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Nick Halley. General, Giuliana Sgrena claims that they were given no warning before U.S. troops opened fire on her car — at what was an otherwise pretty well-marked checkpoint, full of jersey barriers; and you had to do a serpentine thing and so forth. And the troops, of course, say the car was speeding towards the checkpoint; didn't slow down; didn't respond to orders to stop and so forth.

What's the drill on these checkpoints? What is it that U.S. soldiers actually do?

BRIG. GEN. NICK HALLEY, U.S. ARMY (RET): Well, you need to understand that every soldier in the combat situation has what's called Rules of Engagement and they vary from time to time and place to place, and even sometimes from day to day.

And these rules, really, are a set of rules which determine when and how you can use force against a target. And I'm sure that they had rules of engagement, and I'm sure the car did something that they felt violated those rules of engagement. And after going through their processes, they took it under fire.

GIBSON: We're looking at the checkpoint in question, I believe. This looks like you have to know this is a checkpoint, and especially if you've got a senior intelligence agent in the car he would have to know. What explains the speeding toward the checkpoint without seeming to respond to instructions to slow down and stop?

HALLEY: Well, it's hard to tell what the driver had in mind there. But remember, this is that road from Baghdad to the Baghdad Airport, which is probably the most dangerous road in the world and the site of many attacks. And there have been a lot of car bombs lately.

So, these soldiers would have interpreted speeding or passing a checkpoint, or not responding to one of their directions as being a hostile intent. And I'm sure that their rules of engagement, under those circumstances, would allow them to fire.

GIBSON: OK. Now General, there's this other thing that's going on: the Italian intelligence agent, otherwise a fine guy, as far as we know, who died in this, he was senior Italian intelligence. He brought his people in to Baghdad on a Falcon jet. They apparently had money with them, many millions of dollars, which they did not tell the Americans that met them that they were carrying or planned to give to the hostage takers.

They also didn't get into a lot of detail with the Americans about what they were going to do. And I kind of get that. The Americans wouldn't want them to go giving this ransom. But what explains a senior intelligence agent, upon returning, having the hostage, recovered the hostage, why wouldn't he try to get in touch with the Americans and say, "We're coming in."?

HALLEY: Well, you would think he would, at that time. It's understandable, from their point of view, that they didn't tell us everything before because as you know, the United States does not pay ransom for hostages. And had we known they were going to do that, I'm sure the Italians were worried that we would, perhaps, try to interfere with what they were doing.

But after he had done that, you would think that he would have been in some contact with us. And I'm sure that we would have probably even given him a military escort had we known what he was doing. So, it's kind of, unexplained why he didn't signal us or stop the car and get out and approach the checkpoint with his hands up.

And we'll probably never know the answer to some of those questions.

GIBSON: Well the journalist, so-called journalist, who works for an Italian paper called Il Manifesto, which its origins were a Communist Party newspaper — she's blaming the Americans, saying that she was purposely targeted because the Americans did not want the Italian intelligence agency paying a ransom for her release.

What do you make of that?

HALLEY: Well, I agree with the administration in this case that I think that that's absurd. These young soldiers on that checkpoint were just trying to do their job. They obviously didn't have any idea that this person was coming along at this time and at this place in this car. So, certainly, those young soldiers didn't have anything like that in mind. I'm sure that they were just trying to protect themselves. But I think the army will do a good investigation of this and find out what really happened.

GIBSON: OK. But what does this really mean? We're taking our lumps in Italy right now; this is not a great day to be stepping off the plane in Rome as an American tourist. What does this really mean? You think this is going to be sort of, permanent trouble between the Italians and us? Or is this going to fall into perspective at some point and they'll calm down?

HALLEY: I think that they'll calm down. I think that any reasonable person — even in the papers in Italy today are telling this story pretty much as we've told it — I think reasonable people in Italy will realize that this was just a tragic accident, and not have any long-term effects.

And remember, this woman is from a communist newspaper, and has been a very vocal critic of the United States and the United States army. So, I think that she's using this, and her supporters are using this, just for their own political purposes and this will blow over, I believe.

GIBSON: You're not under the impression that she went to Iraq to explain how well things are going for the American military and the Iraqi people, are you?

HALLEY: All of her correspondence and newspaper articles have been very critical of the United States and the United States Army, and of the Iraqi government during this period of time. So, she's just, I think, exploiting this for her political purposes.

GIBSON: Brigadier General Nick Halley. General, thanks a lot. Appreciate it.

HALLEY: Thank you very much.

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