Why, in the Internet Age, did the Pentagon try to scrub Robert Bales from the Internet in the first place?
WASHINGTON — Besides waiting nearly a week before identifying the Joint Base Lewis-McChord staff sergeant suspected of killing 16 Afghan villagers, the U.S. military scrubbed its websites of references to his combat service.
Gone were photographs of the suspect, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, and a recounting in the base newspaper of a 2007 battle in Iraq involving his unit, a report that quoted him extensively.
But they weren’t really gone.
Given the myriad ways information remains accessible on the Internet, despite the best efforts to remove it, the material about Bales was still there and available, in cached versions of Web pages. Within minutes of the Pentagon leaking his name Friday evening, news organizations and others found and published his pictures, the account of the battle — which depicts Bales and other soldiers in a glowing light — and excerpts from his wife’s blog.
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So why did the Pentagon try to scrub Bales from the Internet in the first place?
The military said its intention in removing the material wasn’t to lessen the Army’s embarrassment over the attack but to protect the privacy of Bales’ family.
“Protecting a military family has to be a priority,” said a military official, who like several interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“I think the feeding frenzy we saw after his name was released was evidence that we were right to try. … Of course the pages are cached; we know that. But we owe it to the wife and kids to do what we can.”
A second Pentagon official acknowledged that one of the reasons for the delay in releasing Bales’ name was to remove references to his Army service from the Internet. But when Army Maj. Nidal Hasan was arrested in the deadly shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, the Pentagon released his name immediately.
Several former military officers said they were perplexed that the Army would try to remove information that already had been public. One called it “unusual.”
Experts agreed the effort was futile.
“Once a site has been accessed enough times, it’s very, very difficult to remove content,” said Dan Auerbach, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports Internet access. “I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but there’s no evidence of it happening in recent times.”
Another likely concern of the military was that criminal charges against Bales are expected soon, and the case could last a long time. He’s at the Army’s maximum-security prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
“The military actually does a very good job of protecting defendants’ rights,” said Allan Millett, a military historian at the University of New Orleans and a retired colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve. “I suspect it was simply a matter of not prejudicing either public opinion or anyone who might be involved in the case. I’m sure they’re leaning over backward.”
Bales, 38, is a veteran of multiple combat tours: three to Iraq and one, his most recent, to Afghanistan. He is the father of two children: a daughter, Quincy, 5, and a son, Bobby, 3. Before his name became public, the Army moved the Bales family from its Lake Tapps home to the security of Lewis-McChord.
The massacre occurred early March 11. Bales allegedly left his base in southern Afghanistan, walked to two nearby villages and killed 16 residents, nine of them children.
He then returned to his base, the military says, where he was arrested. The military didn’t disclose his identity until five days later.
A motive for the killings isn’t known. But Bales’ history of repeated combat tours, including a diagnosis of traumatic brain injury, has become a subject of speculation.
“Why didn’t they spot this guy as a risk?” said Millett, the military historian.
Steven Aftergood, a government-transparency advocate, said secrecy was an “instinctive response” of the military and government in general, usually to try to avoid controversy or to thwart the news media.
Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, said that in the Bales case, “there are competing interests at stake. But if nothing else, the defendant deserves a fair trial.”
Parts of a blog that Karilyn Bales, the suspect’s wife, has been writing for several years also appear to have been deleted since the killings. It’s unclear how that occurred. Her blog, in which she discussed her husband’s disappointment at being passed over for a promotion, among other topics, previously was available to anyone but now is password-protected.
McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report. Material from The Associated Press is included.