I just finished writing this week's syndicated column urging President Bush to pardon Sgt. Evan Vela (above), a 25-year-old Ranger-trained sniper now serving TEN YEARS for unpremeditated "murder" on the Iraqi battlefield. (My April column on Vela here. More info here.) I consider Vela to be the proverbial lamb sacrificed to the cause of "the surge" and the Sunni "awakening"--not to mention the blood-curdling desire for retribution against Americans on the part of the Orwellianly designated Iraqi Human Rights Minister, Wijdan Mikhail Salim.
Salim attended Evan Vela's trial back in February where she told Time magazine (February 8, 2008): "I want to be sure that any American soldier who wrongs an Iraqi will go on trial, [Vela] killed an Iraqi man, an unarmd man. He must be punished." She also told the New York Times on July 12, 2006 that "a government commission had been formed to study the possibility of scrapping a law that granted American troops immunity from Iraqi prosecution." Such attitudes are why I am so concerned about the SOFA agreement with Iraq, which, as far I can tell, still appears to be vague on such matters.
Esquire magazine ran a long piece about the Vela case by Tom Junod in June. In discussing the rationale behind the military's decision to press murder charges against Vela and the others involved in the incident, Junod writes:
[Capt.]Levine, then, had several interests to protect when he preferred murder charges ...
For one, he had to protect the surge. He had to demonstrate to the Iraqis that the Army was willing to do the right thing.
"The right thing," huh? I take issue with that, but I'll save it for the new book I'm working on.
Indeed, when the May 11 close kill was just starting to be investigated, the engineer who was the go-between for Balcavage and Sheik Sabah went to Balcavage and told him that he had to go talk with the sheik and other local leaders about how the Army was handling the matter. "So I met with them," Balcavage says. "And I told them the truth. I told them we were investigating the accusations. What I was surprised at was how well just telling them that we were investigating stymied the negative impact."
Let me interject here with some info about the Iraqi whom the Vela squad killed, a man from a tribe associated with both al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency. From the April column:
And let's go back to the victim of the "crime": Genei Nesir Khudair Al-Jenabi, a member of Babil province's pre-eminent tribe. Come the U.S.-led invasion, the Jenabi, like other Sunnis, joined the Sunni insurgency.
And come "the surge," or shortly thereafter (just revving up around the Vela incident), the Jenabi, like other Sunnis, began, via "awakening" councils, to join the United States. At least they started getting paid to stop shooting Americans and start shooting Al Qaeda. Not that it was always easy to make the transition. Lt. Col. Robert Balcavage -- who just happens to be the commander of Evan Vela's battalion, and is said by Vela's team leader to have pushed for higher kill rates from snipers -- explained it this way last August to the Washington Post: "The Jenabi tribe, the problem they're having is that the Al Qaeda is them."
So let's review. Evan Vela in May 2007 kills a member of "the Al Qaeda is them" tribe. His commanding officer them tells "the Al Qaeda is them" tribe that the US is investigating whether "murder" has been committed. Of course, the AQ-is-Them tribe is satisfied. But the US officer is suprised. Back to Esquire's quotation from Balcavage:
"I thought the impact was going to be retributional attacks on our guys because of perceived injustice -- perceived injustice in a war of injustice over there."
Why should the Sunnis bother? The Americans are eating their own.
"Little did we know that the Sunni awakening in our area was just around the corner." Little did he know that in a month he would be paying Sheik Sabah and his tribe for every IED they removed from the roads his soldiers traveled.
Back to the issue at hand: Evan Vela deserves a presidential pardon. I notice the parents of the American Taliban, Johnny Walker Lindh, are now angling for a presidential pardon for their son. Lindh does not deserve a presidential pardon; such a pardon would be a travesty. Having grown deeply angry at this President--for leaving the border open, for ignoring the enemy threat doctrine of jihad, for socializing the economy, to name a few things--I will be most interested to see if uses his pardon power on any of these cases. Overlooking worthies such as Evan Vela (border agents Ramos and Campion also come instantly to mind) would leave an indelible black mark on his record.