Sep 1 2000

Digging Too Deep at No Gun Ri

AP's massacre exposés survived corporate pressure and criticism--but not apathy

In September 1999, the Associated Press published a dramatic investigative story documenting a massacre of civilians by American soldiers during the Korean War. Eyewitness testimony was gathered from American veterans who said that they had fired–on the orders of their superiors–into a group of hundreds of Korean civilians fleeing the fighting at a place called No Gun Ri. Those veterans corroborated the testimony of Koreans who survived the 1950 massacre, as well as U.S. military documents.

In addition to sparking a joint investigation by the Pentagon and its South Korean counterpart, AP‘s story immediately won attention from major U.S. news outlets. The New York Times and Washington Post both ran the report on their front pages (9/30/99). Other major papers, like the Chicago Tribune and Newsday, also ran the story or published articles based on AP‘s findings. ABC (9/29/99) and NBC (9/30/99) each aired a segment on their nightly news about the “mystery” or the “shocking story” of No Gun Ri.

Later, some of the networks followed up with more detailed examinations of the story. ABC‘s Nightline (10/21/99) aired a well-researched report by Chris Bury interviewing some of the veterans and reconstructing the incident. Dateline NBC (12/28/99) chose to personalize its coverage, focusing on “a soldier’s story”–that of veteran Edward Daily. In April 2000, the AP‘s team of No Gun Ri reporters were rewarded for their efforts with a Pulitzer Prize.

Soon after the Pulitzer award, AP‘s story came under attack. In May, both U.S. News & World Report (5/22/00) and Stars & Stripes (5/11/00), a newspaper that covers military affairs, published long articles taking aim at the accuracy of the report. The U.S. News piece claimed to “raise substantial doubts” about the scoop–even placing the word “massacre” in quotes in the headline.

U.S. News‘ Joseph Galloway re-interviewed the veterans who had spoken to AP, picking out discrepancies and gray areas in their stories. Galloway also obtained military records showing that Edward Daily was not at No Gun Ri at the time of the incident–in fact, he was not even a member of the Army unit that was there. Other documents purported to show that some of the other veterans had also been absent from the site of the massacre at the time of the incident.

Swiping at the story

Shortly after U.S. News‘ swipe at the No Gun Ri story was released, its claims were reported in a front-page, above-the-fold article in the New York Times (5/13/00). “New evidence has been published that appears to undermine the testimony of two witnesses who said that American soldiers were ordered to kill civilians,” the Times‘ lead paragraph reported. The piece was co-authored by Pentagon correspondent Elizabeth Becker and Felicity Barringer, the paper’s media reporter.

Careful readers might have questioned the importance the Times seemed to attribute to U.S. News‘ allegations, in light of a noteworthy disclosure made in the article’s fourth paragraph: “Despite the new questions,” the Times wrote, “senior Defense Department officials said yesterday that an Army investigation has confirmed the central element of the [AP] report, that American troops fired on refugees, resulting in what the Pentagon calls the ‘tragic death of hundreds of civilians.'”

Later, the article refers to the comments of a “senior Pentagon official” and a “senior Army official” familiar with the official investigation into No Gun Ri. Neither official makes any attempt to play down the AP‘s charges or to endorse U.S. News‘ criticisms. On the most contentious part of the controversy–AP‘s claim that soldiers had received orders to fire at the refugees–the comments from the Times‘ Army source were remarkably frank: “It’s not just the taking of innocent life,” the official said. “What was unique in this situation was this notion that it was intentional.”

A week later, an excellent review of the charges and countercharges appeared, less prominently, on the front page of the Times‘ business section (5/22/00). Written by Barringer, the article closely examined each of the specific charges made by U.S. News and other critics, painstakingly assessing the validity of each.

In paragraph 54 of her 55-paragraph article, Barringer makes her decisive judgment about the controversy: “In the end, the crucial centerpiece of the AP report, [that] American soldiers killed at least 100 Korean civilians–possibly under direct orders–has been chipped but hardly shattered by the latest revelations.”

Unfortunately, that verdict had to wait for the article’s jump to page C19 of the business section. Neither the story’s bland headline (“A Press Divided: Disputed Accounts of a Korean War Massacre”) nor the portion of the article appearing on the section’s front page contained any hint of Barringer’s final conclusions. The article’s fourth paragraph asks the key question: “Have U.S. News and other critics seriously undermined AP‘s reporting?” But readers have to wade through 2,000 words of densely written analysis to find Barringer’s stark answer.

Thesis undamaged

Barringer began her analysis by pointing out that U.S. News did not deny that Korean civilians were killed at No Gun Ri. Rather, as the magazine’s executive editor, Brian Duffy, told Barringer, the inquiry intended merely to “raise questions about the scope and circumstances of the incident,” in Barringer’s paraphrase.

For example, U.S. News questioned AP‘s claim that hundreds of refugees were killed at the bridge. James Kerns, one of the veterans re-interviewed by U.S. News, is quoted in the magazine as saying “there weren’t over 125 people in there.” Barringer points out that Kerns’ testimony does not contradict AP, which reported that “ex-GI’s speak of 100, 200 or simply hundreds dead.” Furthermore, Barringer notes that the Pentagon officials quoted in her earlier article had acknowledged to the Times that “hundreds were killed” at No Gun Ri.

The most significant point raised by U.S. News was the credibility of Edward Daily. Daily’s depictions of the events at No Gun Ri were more dramatic than those of the other veterans and his expressions of guilt more emphatic. But U.S. News discovered documents suggesting that much of Daily’s military record–including his presence at No Gun Ri–was invented or imagined.

AP acknowledged Daily’s unreliability, issuing an editor’s note relaying the new information. The question is how important Daily’s testimony was to the AP‘s story. Charles Hanley, the lead AP reporter, told Barringer that Daily was only “one of our more than 40 sources” and that he “provided no essential information” for the report.

Stephen Smith, editor of U.S. News, justified the magazine’s portrayal of Daily as the story’s “linchpin” by pointing out that Daily was one of the few veterans quoted by the AP in “full, vivid sentences” (Barringer’s paraphrase) amid a “mosaic of partial quotes” from the other veterans. In light of the fact that Pentagon officials have now confirmed the story’s basic thesis, this fact does not appear to be very significant.

U.S. News also questioned AP‘s claim that the soldiers received orders to shoot the refugees, citing military records purporting to show that Eugene Hesselman–one of the soldiers confirming that orders were issued–was also not at No Gun Ri. The documents say Hesselman was evacuated to the medical unit the day of the massacre. But, as Barringer points out, the documents do not say when the transfer occurred–“before or after the shooting, before or after any order might have been given.”

Most importantly, as AP‘s Hanley told Barringer, U.S. News simply ignored the written order issued two days before the incident by the Army’s First Cavalry Division. The instructions, which AP found among declassified documents at the National Archives, were cited in the wire service’s original No Gun Ri report. The order said: “No refugees to cross the front line. Fire everyone trying to cross lines. Use discretion in case of women and children.” Another order, issued by the 25th Infantry Division and cited in an AP follow-up (10/2/99) a few days after the initial report, instructed GIs that Korean civilians in the battle zone “are to be considered as enemy and action taken appropriately.” No one has disputed the authenticity of those commands.

Not since Nuremberg

In fact, these orders represent a crucial dimension of the No Gun Ri story that was strangely overlooked in the ensuing media coverage. To the team of AP reporters who pursued the story, the importance of the massacre at the bridge was what it revealed about how the U.S. fought the Korean War in its early days. But to the rest of the media, No Gun Ri was interesting largely as a freakish aberration–a “shocking story” of how one day, amid the fog of war, something went horribly wrong.

The initial AP story did focus on reconstructing the specific incident at the bridge. But it also hinted at a broader pattern–noting, for example, that the “veterans told the AP of two smaller but similar [Army] refugee killings in July and August 1950. They also told of refusing orders to fire on civilians in other cases.” The story further reported that before the soldiers shot at the Korean refugees, the refugees had been strafed by Air Force planes.

Then, in several follow-ups, AP‘s No Gun Ri team examined other incidents and explored more general questions about the U.S. military’s conduct in Korea. An October 2 piece assessed the soldiers’ and officers’ criminal liability for their actions, noting that the Army orders cited in the report are “patently illegal” according to military law experts.

The article quoted Scott Silliman, director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University Law School and a former 25-year Air Force lawyer. “I have never heard of orders like this, not outside the orders given by Germans that we heard about during the Nuremberg trials,” Silliman said.

An October 14 AP piece examined several similar incidents of mass killing. In one episode, which took place a week after No Gun Ri, a retreating Army division blew up a bridge behind it, killing hundreds of refugees streaming across. The goal was to prevent advancing North Korean soldiers about 15 miles behind from crossing the bridge after the refugees. At first, the G.I’s tried firing warning shots over the refugees’ heads to send them back. But the refugees were desperately fleeing the fighting behind them and would not go back.

In another incident, retreating Americans were being trailed by a group of about 80 refugees. Five disguised North Korean soldiers appeared in front of the Americans. Memories differ on what happened to them: They were either shot and killed or surrendered and led away. But believing the guerrillas had come from among the group of refugees behind them, “we got orders to eliminate them [the refugees],” Eugene Hesselman told AP. “And we mowed them all down. The Army wouldn’t take chances.”

A third article (AP, 10/2/99) asked from how high up in the chain of command the orders to kill refugees at No Gun Ri originated. The article reported that many veterans believed orders came from the headquarters of the entire battalion. And the piece noted that “whoever ordered the refugees shot probably felt authorized by blanket ‘kill’ orders passed down the chain of command.” It also asked whether Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander in the Pacific, might have been implicated.

No “showy guilt trip”

The rest of the media virtually ignored these follow-ups. The third article was not picked up by a single U.S. newspaper in the Nexis database. Of the other two stories, only one was published by a major newspaper: Long Island Newsday, which ran a truncated version of the October 14 story. Besides Newsday, the pieces appeared only in a handful of smaller, local papers.

Thus, despite the AP reporters’ efforts to raise broad questions about the Korean war, the media commentary that followed focused almost exclusively on what happened at the No Gun Ri bridge on July 26, 1950. How many victims were there that day? How reliable were the individual veterans quoted in AP‘s story? Will the Korean survivors of the massacre win their compensation case?

The New York Times ran an editorial two days after the story’s publication calling for a thorough investigation of the incident at the bridge and criticizing the military for having previously ignored the No Gun Ri survivors’ claims (“The Atrocity Allegations,” 10/3/99). Yet it had nothing to say about the larger question of what the stories reveal about the conduct of U.S. forces in Korea.

A Washington Post editorial (10/2/99) did try to assess the broader meaning of No Gun Ri. The Post concluded, however, that it meant very little. “There is a tinge of inevitability” to the massacre, the Post editorialists mused. After all, “ill-equipped and -trained Americans, rushed to the front, were retreating in disarray.”

“Particularly vexing,” the Post explained, “was the North Korean tactic of ignoring the rules of war and infiltrating soldiers in peasant garb into columns of fleeing refugees, then attacking American forces from the rear. Some commanders gave orders to shoot suspect refugee groups. This is apparently what happened at No Gun Ri.” In fact, there was never any substantive evidence of North Korean soldiers among the refugees at the bridge. And the Army orders cited by AP were to systematically shoot all refugees, using “discretion” in the cases of women and children.

Of course, there were “multiple crimes against civilians on both sides,” the Post continued. But “any flaws in the American military’s performance must be measured against the American success in rescuing South Korea from Communist aggression and enabling it eventually to become a democratic and prosperous country.” (At the end of the war, the U.S. installed a military dictatorship in South Korea. Free presidential elections did not take place there until 1993. The current elected Korean president is a former dissident who was tortured and spent six years imprisoned by the U.S.-backed government.)

Finally, the Post cautioned that while the U.S. should conduct a speedy investigation and compensate the victims if necessary, “there is no call for a showy guilt trip.”

“Policy on Strafing Civilians”

Soon after Barringer’s May article was published, stunning new evidence emerged that the incident at No Gun Ri was indeed only the tip of the iceberg. CBS correspondent David Martin (6/5/00) reported on a long-declassified Air Force document dated July 25, 1950–one day before the incident at No Gun Ri–which discussed the military’s policy toward the Korean refugees. Martin was tipped off to the memo’s existence by someone close to the Pentagon investigation.

Entitled “Policy on Strafing Civilian Refugees,” the memo, written by Col. Turner Rogers, one of the Air Force’s top operational planners on the Korean warfront, said: “It is reported that large groups of civilians, either composed of or controlled by North Korean soldiers, are infiltrating U.S. positions. The army has requested that we strafe all civilian refugee parties that are noted approaching our positions. To date we have complied with the army request in this respect.” The memo was addressed to the vice-commander of the main Air Force unit fighting in Korea.

The memo went on to add: “Our operation involving the strafing of civilians is sure to receive wide publicity and may cause embarrassment to the U.S. Air Force and to the U.S. government in its relations with the United Nations.” Rogers recommended changing the policy to one where Air Force pilots would not attack civilian refugee groups “unless they are definitely known to contain North Korean soldiers or commit hostile acts.” Referring to the Army’s request, he added: “It is not understood why the army is not screening such personnel or shooting them as they come through, if they desire such action.”

The document is remarkable for two reasons: First, its statements are categorical and almost completely free of euphemism or ambiguity. It clearly states that both the U.S. Air Force and the Army carried out a policy of systematically killing all civilian refugees approaching Army lines. Second, the memo implicates officials at the highest levels of the Air Force as well as implicating the Army.

Yet even those news outlets that had respectfully covered the original No Gun Ri report showed scant interest in this new revelation. It was as if the original story had succeeded in attracting attention precisely because it could be interpreted as a unique and isolated event–a “shocking” war story or a moving “soldier’s tale.” As soon as the story broadened its focus to the actions of U.S. forces in Korea generally, it lost its appeal.

ABC, NBC and CBS ignored the story. So did Time, Newsweek and, tellingly, U.S. News & World Report. The New York Times and the Boston Globe also failed to mention it. The Washington Post and Chicago Tribune (6/6/00) ran 200- and 400-word articles respectively. (The Post‘s headline, “U.S. Studies Link Between Strafing Memo, No Gun Ri,” was rather beside the point.) Of U.S. newspapers in the Nexis database, only the Los Angeles Times (6/7/00) devoted a full-length story to the memo, placing it on page 9.

CNN deception

CNN (6/6/00) aired a deceptive report on the memo by the network’s Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre. (In 1998, McIntyre had played a key role in the Tailwind affair as a vocal critic of the report within the network, basing his criticism largely on the testimony of his Pentagon sources.) Reporting live from the Pentagon after a news briefing about the document, McIntyre quoted from Col. Rogers’ memo, but McIntyre’s implication is that this was an exhaustive search. But in the transcript of the Pentagon briefing, spokesperson Adm. Craig Quigley clarified his statement a few minutes later: “But again, I mean, despite the very large number, over a million pages so far, a lot remains to be done. So it’s very much a work in progress.” McIntyre must have heard Quigley’s clarification, since it was followed by a question from McIntyre himself, who began: “Speaking of work in progress, what’s the timetable now for wrapping up this investigation…?”

In his report, McIntyre went on to cite unnamed “Pentagon sources” as saying that investigators “have had difficulty substantiating the central charge made by the AP” in its No Gun Ri report. He then claimed that the discredited veteran Edward Daily was “the only soldier to say he was under orders to shoot”–which is flatly untrue. Eugene Hesselman and George Preece also confirmed that they were ordered to shoot, although Preece recanted his videotaped interview after the AP story went public. AP‘s Charles Hanley says he now has 10 veterans confirming the orders to shoot (New York Times, 5/22/00).

Ending his report on an odd note, McIntyre informed viewers that AP “is not considering giving back the Pulitzer Prize.” The Pulitzer board had reaffirmed its award more than six weeks earlier, following U.S. News‘ attack. There was “no expression of concern by any member of the board,” according to Seymour Topping, the administrator of the prize (New York Times, 5/22/00).

Our war crimes–and theirs

Threaded through the media’s reaction to the No Gun Ri story was the delicate question of war crimes. The AP‘s report emerged at a sensitive time, only three months after the end of NATO’s Kosovo War, a watershed that placed human rights firmly at the center of America’s foreign policy rhetoric–a development widely hailed in U.S. news media. To the New York Times‘ Michael Wines, for example (6/13/99), Kosovo revealed the United States to be “an idealistic New World bent on ending inhumanity.”

Meanwhile, Serbia’s gross human rights abuses in Kosovo brought fiery condemnation from the media. Take the Washington Post, for example. When it came to No Gun Ri, its editorial page (10/2/99) sanguinely found “a tinge of inevitability” to the massacre. The intermingling of North Korean guerrillas with the general population was the “particularly vexing” cause of the killings. Due to these mitigating factors, “there is no call for a showy guilt trip.”

But during the Kosovo War, the Washington Post editorials had a different tone. “The barbarity of the Milosevic onslaught is appalling,” the editorialists railed (3/31/99). In editorials like “The Sacking of Kosovo,” “The Killing Goes On,” “The Atrocities Go On” and “The Sirens of Appeasement,” the writers called Milosevic a “serial war criminal” whose “calculatedly evil campaign” involved “terrible and massive crimes against humanity” using “tactics rarely seen since Hitler and Stalin perfected them” (4/6/99, 4/11/99, 4/23/99, 5/5/99, 5/28/99, 6/9/99). Worst of all, Milosevic “has not even given the tiniest indication of regret or remorse,” the editorialists wrote (5/5/99); apparently a “showy guilt trip” is not a concern when it comes to Milosevic.

As the Post editorialists show, commentators are not indifferent to war crimes. Rather, two standards exist–one for judging “our” war crimes and another for judging “theirs.”

For one of their follow-ups to the No Gun Ri report (10/2/99), AP‘s Charles Hanley and Martha Mendoza located one of the Army’s top war-crimes prosecutors during the Korean War, a now-retired colonel named Howard Levie. Looking back on the war in light of the AP‘s revelations, Levie said he was disturbed that the Army had managed to have such war crimes “kept quiet.” He added: “What bothers me most is the fact that the American public seems to take the side of the war criminal if he’s American.”

What explains the American public’s apathy? Answering that question means taking a hard look at the U.S. news media and how they grapple with the politics of human rights. The No Gun Ri case shows the extraordinary hurdles reporters have to overcome in bringing these stories to light: hostility from their editors, attacks from their colleagues, and a studious ignoring of their findings when they dig too deep.


Echoes of Tailwind

Even before it was published, AP‘s No Gun Ri story had already faced intense scrutiny–from within AP itself. AP executives William Ahearn and Louis Boccardi spent 14 months trying to kill the project before it finally made it onto the wires. At one point, Ahearn objected to the story on the grounds that he was unconvinced of the importance of the massacre. In March 1999, AP executives moved to shelve it. It is not clear what led to the project’s revival six months later.

“The people I worked for just didn’t want to do that story,” Bob Port, the AP editor who oversaw the project, told Brill’s Content (12/99-1/00). Over the course of the year, Port resigned from AP in frustration at the way the No Gun Ri story was handled. Another AP staffer involved in the investigation also left the organization. “This was a difficult and frustrating process,” Martha Mendoza, one of the reporters on the story, told the New York Times (5/14/00).

Why were AP‘s editors so resistant to publishing the story? One reason, according to Port, was the controversy then raging over another exposé about the U.S. military. In 1998, CNN (6/7/98) aired a report alleging that the U.S. military had used sarin nerve gas during a secret mission in the Vietnam War code-named “Operation Tailwind.” But after coming under fire from high-ranking Pentagon officials and Vietnam veterans, the network backtracked, disowning the broadcast and firing two of the segment’s producers, April Oliver and Jack Smith.

In the ensuing media uproar, CNN was roundly criticized for having broadcast the story in the first place. (Meanwhile, Oliver and Smith’s compelling defense of their work was mostly ignored.) AP management worried that they “could be pulling another CNN” by publishing No Gun Ri, according to Port. “This is what can happen if you don’t get it right,” Ahearn told Brill’s.

Corrected version: June 24, 2009.