October 14, 2003


Prof. Scott Silliman of Duke, perhaps the foremost academic authority on Air Force justice, was on campus today, which gave me the chance to see the full FLIR footage and hear the full audiotapes of the Kandahar bombing of Canadian troops for the first time. I've commented on the transcript before, and I've seen outtakes on the news, but this was the full presentation, with everything synched up... voice, the HUDs of both pilots and the FLIRs. Long-time readers will know the transcript alone is damning enough, and you'll have to take my word on what I saw and heard, but there were a couple new things that were clear to me, and will be clear to the court martial jury for Maj. Harry Schmidt, which resumes this Thursday.

In particular:
* There is no evidence of ground fire by the Canadians through the entire time either FLIR is on them. While Schmidt was certainly attracted through the target initially by seeing tracers, he would aim his ordnance via FLIR. He thus is not telling the straight truth when he tells the AWACS plane he is currently under fire, and invokes self-defence. The fire he would have been responding to had to have been from some time before. In the video, you can see Schmidt take some time to bring the FLIR on target: what seems to have happened is he initially identified the target through NVGs as being on a road, and then homes in on a similar road in the FLIR and follows it into the group of individuals (the Canadians). But for some time after that, before he says he's under fire and launches his weapon, he has a clear, close-up view, and there is no visible surface-to-air fire.

* Schmidt's wingman Umbach demonstrably never sees the target at all. We already could guess this from his utterances (asking if the Canadians are on a bridge, and so on), but it's crystal clear from this footage. While he either automatically or manually slaves his FLIR to Schmidt's at one point before bomb impact, so he does manage to see the explosion, his FLIR, unlike Schmidt's, is never zoomed in close enough to identify any ground or target detail.

* Even with the stresses put on them by exertion, the voices of the pilots clearly hint at state of mind. Umbach's response to Schmidt after they're told "Disengage, friendlies, Kandahar," asking him if he was sure he saw a target, is quintessential stunned disbelief... to get personal for a second, he reminds me exactly how I'm sure I sounded on an officer course once when I realized a soldier of mine I thought was okay actually had heat stroke (he'd pull through okay, but I knew my final grade was going to go south.) Umbach, now out of the Air Force after "pleading down" to a reprimand, is curiously on the Air Force's (prosecution's) witness list in the coming trial, according to Silliman. It should be interesting to hear what he says about Schmidt now that he's off the hook himself.

*Schmidt's intent is more clear than ever in his voice, too. I can certainly forgive his what-can-only-be-called triumphant "Shack!" when he sees the explosion hit home. I'd be happy, too. But that way he calls self-defence is unmistakeable. When the AWACS chimes in with words of caution ("need details on SAFIRE"), he quite clearly CUTS THE GUY OFF in mid-sentence, with his "Okay! I've got some men on the road, etc..." speech... it's the voice you only hear when someone is had a rough day at work and is sick and tired of being second-guessed by little people. It's the intonation you can only use yourself if you've got utter contempt for the pencil-necked geek on the other end of the customer complaints line. Everyone knows the tone of voice I'm talking about, I'm sure. If there had been any doubt in my mind, that would have torn it. Maj. Harry Schmidt didn't feel any direct threat... he just vehemently disagreed that the "weapons-tight" rules of engagement they were operating under applied to him, at that particular place and time. I can't imagine a military jury seeing the tape as I saw it and not convicting. But we'll see.

UPDATE: Silliman pointed out one thing I hadn't noted before: Schmidt does not, until the last second before starting his bomb run, ever say to the AWACS controller that he's taking fire from the ground. All he does is say he has a "tally in the vicinity" that he'd like to attack. It's only when his request to attack the target is stalled does he say it's firing at the planes... by which point, looking through the FLIR, he could see quite clearly that it was not... at least, not anymore.

Posted by BruceR at 09:06 PM