How an award-winning investigative reporter tracked killings in Iraq

Investigative Reporters and Editors’ list of 2012 award winners, released Wednesday, honors journalists who exposed shoddy care for the elderly and mentally ill, spotlighted inept and corrupt government officials, discovered a broken school truancy system, found Americans in prison for charges that are not even crimes and caught high schools violating eligibility rules for athletes. The list is a celebration of tireless and often courageous journalism.

The judges specifically mentioned one winner that they called “a stunning example of good, old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting.”

Carl Prine

That award went to Carl Prine at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review for his project “Rules of Engagement” – an honor that caught the reporter by surprise. Prine said he hadn’t known the work had been entered in a contest, and his goal was never to win an award. In a phone interview, Prine told me his goal was to hold somebody accountable for what happened in a remote Iraqi village on March 6, 2007. That was the day U.S. soldiers shot three unarmed deaf Iraqi boys.

Prine’s search to find out what happened in a cattle field in northern Iraq would lead him on a two-year search. He conducted interviews in five states and eventually made an illegal journey into Iraq. (See one of those interviews here.)

The story begins

Prine, a former Marine and Army National Guardsman who’d served in Iraq, said he was interviewing a former soldier for another story when the man confided that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome caused by an incident he’d witnessed three years earlier near the village of As Sadah.

The soldier was a member of Charlie Troop, 5th Squadron of the 73rd Cavalry Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment out of Fort Bragg, N.C. — a unit honored and respected for its heroic service in Iraq. Prine said he listened to the traumatized soldier’s story of how, in the spring of 2007, the troops were spying on a suspected safe house used by Sunni Arab insurgents who were planting roadside bombs in the vicinity.

Prine said the solider told him that Staff Sergeant Michael Barbera “shot two unarmed children — a 14- and 15-year-old — as the boys were tending to their cattle.” The soldier said Barbera then ordered the Army team to shoot a third teen as he walked along a nearby path. The third teen turned out to be the other two boys’ cousin.

“None of the teens were armed, none of them threatened anybody,” Prine said, noting that the boys were deaf and unable to speak. (See an animated reconstruction of the assault by the Tribune-Review.)

By the time official reports were filed with the Army, the victims were described as “insurgents.” The soldiers Prine spoke with told him they believed the shootings prompted two suicide bombings that killed 10 American soldiers, although no connection was ever proven (and villagers said they doubted one existed). Still, the thought that they might be linked haunted the squad members.

An illegal trip

After traveling to Washington State, Texas, Massachusetts and North Carolina to interview other witnesses to the shooting, Prine realized he would have to make one more trip: He would have to travel to Iraq to talk with the boys’ parents and tribal leaders.

“By December 2011, the Americans were gone from Iraq,” Prine said. “I could not embed with anyone, and I could not get a visa to get in the country legally. But it turns out when you get to Kurdistan, they stamp an Iraq visa on your passport, but you are not supposed to actually use it.”

On Dec. 4, 2011, Prine flew to Erbil, Kurdistan, to make the 450-mile round trip to As Sadah, Iraq. Prine told me that “I found an old translator — who, by the way, was wanted by Al Qaeda for helping the Americans — [and] we rented a car and sneaked in.” The duo had a three-hour drive ahead of them and needed to be out of the country by sundown.

The Tribune-Review reported that its editors back home monitored their reporter’s progress via the GPS locator on his international phone. Prine recorded his interviews with tribal elders and the dead boys’ parents. (See the video interviews here beginning at 4:17.) One mother said she was so distraught she wanted to kill herself but could not get out of bed for five months. Both reporter and translator said they believed they were being shadowed. By midnight they were back in Kurdistan.

An Army report that Prine said was leaked to him “concluded that Barbera should have been prosecuted for ‘offenses of murder’ and for falsely reporting that his team encountered insurgents, not unarmed children.” Prine added that “the military’s criminal justice system is unique in that senior commanding officers control all proceedings involving allegations of battlefield misconduct. Commanders of the 82nd Airborne never put Barbera on trial; they refused to convene a pretrial hearing to air the investigators’ conclusions, or to review the testimony of Barbera’s fellow soldiers.”

The Army “gave Barbera a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand on Sept. 16, 2010, for breaking the squadron’s rules of engagement,” Prine reported — that’s the Army’s “second mildest sanction” and does not include jail, fines or loss of rank. Prine noted that sanction “often is used to chastise an otherwise excellent soldier for poor judgment that leads to a mishap, not to murder.” In fact, the military awarded Barbera the Army Commendation Medal citation for his service.

The paper said it never heard from Barbera despite repeated attempts to sit down with him.

Follow the story

When I asked Prine why the Tribune-Review would be so interested in the story of a shooting that happened in Iraq and had no connection with Pittsburgh or Pennsylvania, Prine explained that Pittsburgh “has the second-highest per-capita population of veterans in the country.” And he said his newsroom is dedicated to following any story that is interesting enough and important enough.

“My audience is savvy about military issues,” he said, adding that “I thought I would get hate mail for this story” — but instead, he said, readers saw his reporting as exposing a wrong that needed to be addressed.

Prine came to his job the same way he came to this story: determination. Fresh out of the Marines, he wanted to be a journalist but couldn’t get hired because he had no clips to show. So he entered law school. In 1997, still wanting to be a journalist, he said he decided to go to Sierra Leone as a freelancer.

“I went where nobody else was covering the war and knew that somebody would take my copy, no matter how bad it was,” he said. “The Christian Science Monitor bought my work and that is how I built my clips. When college students ask me how to become a journalist, I tell them, ‘Don’t do what I did.’ ”

Prine may not be an example of how to land a job, but he is an example of how to land an IRE award-winning story.

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