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April 22, 2005
Notes from the Pentagon

Pantano's accuser
We have obtained a sworn statement from a Marine corporal who cast doubt on the truthfulness of 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano's chief accuser. As we have reported, the Marine Corps charged Lt. Pantano with two counts of premeditated murder for shooting two unarmed Iraqi insurgents who moved toward him despite his order, in Arabic, to stop.

The Marine who complained about the shooting is Sgt. Daniel L. Coburn, whom Lt. Pantano had fired days before the April 15, 2004, incident for what the officer deemed incompetence.

Statements from Lt. Pantano, Sgt. Coburn and other Marines at the scene agree on basic facts: that Lt. Pantano had the two Iraqis search their car, which the Marines had stopped outside a house that served as a bomb-making factory. He shot the two on that spot.

But according to Lance Cpl. Jason Gillian, Sgt. Coburn told him a different story that same day back at base camp.

"Best I recall, Sgt. Coburn told me that they came under attack while assisting another platoon," Cpl. Gillian told the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. "I think he said they were taking sniper fire from a house or a building. Sgt. Coburn said Lt. Pantano and one of the corpsman assaulted the house where the sniper fire was coming from. I think Sgt. Coburn told me he saw Lt. Pantano kick the door in and shoot two insurgents. Sgt. Coburn said the insurgents' weapons were away from them. Sgt. Coburn then told me he ... hated Lt. Pantano and said he did not think the lieutenant should be here anymore."

But in a sworn statement June 10 to the NCIS, Sgt. Coburn gave a different account that placed the shooting at the car, not in the house, which witnesses have said Lt. Pantano never entered.

Cpl. Gillian said, "Lt. Pantano brought his Marines close to him. I did not hang out with him on a social basis, but he cared for each and every one of his boys."

According to Charles Gittins, Lt. Pantano's civilian defense counsel, the Marine Corps has refused to fly Cpl. Gillian from California to Camp Lejeune to testify on the officer's behalf. A Marine Corps spokesman declined to comment on Cpl. Gillian's statement.

Pantano's court date
A pretrial evidentiary hearing for 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano opens Tuesday at Camp Lejeune, N.C. We've talked to a former platoon member who plans to testify in support of the officer.

Lt. Pantano, the Marine charged with murder for killing two Iraqi insurgents, has said that his main accuser, a fellow Marine, had an ax to grind.

Lt. Pantano said he fired Sgt. Daniel L. Coburn as a squad leader for incompetence and demoted him to radio man days before the April 2004 shooting of two Iraqi insurgents in the notorious Triangle of Death south of Baghdad.

Sgt. Coburn is under orders not to talk to the press. But he has given several interviews in which he denied he held a grudge against his one-time platoon leader.

We talked to former Sgt. Judd Word, another squad leader in Lt. Pantano's platoon, which fought in al Anbar province in the violent spring of 2004.

"There were several incidents that led to his firing," said Mr. Word, now back home in Tennessee. "He didn't know how to read a map, which is kind of important over there. ... He did not have accountability for three of his guys in his squad. Three of his guys went unaccounted for for some time. Lt. Pantano had no choice but to fire him because he couldn't trust him anymore."

A spokesman at Camp Lejeune, where Lt. Pantano is stationed, declined to comment on Lt. Pantano's accuser or submit questions to Sgt. Coburn. Defense attorneys have been trying, with no luck so far, to get the Marines to hand over the poor fitness reports Lt. Pantano wrote on Sgt. Coburn. Poor fitness reports could cause the Marines to prevent the 10-year enlisted man from re-enlisting.

Lt. Pantano said he killed the two Iraqis as they moved toward him after he shouted in Arabic to stop. The Corps says he executed them as a way of sending a message to the enemy. If convicted at court-martial, Lt. Pantano, 33, the married father of two, would face the death penalty.

At Tuesday's hearing, prosecutors expect to call 10 or more witnesses, including Sgt. Coburn. Sgt. Coburn has been seen this week entering the courtroom as prosecutors prepare him for an expected grilling from Lt. Pantano's defense counsel. The lieutenant's division commander on Monday denied a defense request to waive the pretrial, or Article 32, hearing, and go straight to a court-martial.

Once the hearing concludes, the presiding investigating officer will recommend the next step, which ranges from dismissing the charges to convening a court-martial on murder charges.

Bolton and intercepts
Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are questioning the propriety of John Bolton, the nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, asking for the identities of Americans who are mentioned in electronic intercepts gathered overseas by the National Security Agency.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, said during a recent hearing that Mr. Bolton on 10 occasions asked for the name of an American mentioned in an electronic intercept and suggested it was unusual.

A senior U.S. official tells us the requests are unusual but that Mr. Bolton has asked for identifications only 10 times in four years, after reading perhaps thousands of reports based on intercepts.

"During the same period 406 identity requests were made by the State Department," the official said. "The allegation that there is something sinister in Mr. Bolton making these requests is absurd because he had no way of knowing who the unnamed American entities in the NSA reports would turn out to be." Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Matthew Reynolds told the Senate that all of Mr. Bolton's requests "were made and granted in accordance with established State Department procedures."

Mr. Bolton told the committee that the requests were made to better understand the intercepted conversations.

Finished NSA intelligence reports substitute the word "U.S. Person" when names of Americans are mentioned in electronic intercepts. The deletion of American names in intercepts is a practice left over from the anti-intelligence period of the 1970s, when Congress placed restrictions on U.S. intelligence operations.

Chilling promise
A detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is vowing to kill his American guards. This excerpt from a new Pentagon report:

"A detainee, who fought as a Taliban soldier at Konduz, stated to the MPs that all Americans should die because these are the rules of Allah. The detainee also told the MPs that he would come to their homes and cut their throats like sheep. The detainee went on to say that upon his release from GTMO, he would use the Internet to search for the names and faces of MPs so that he could kill them."

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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