WASHINGTON — A soldier convicted two years ago of one of the worst American atrocities of the war in Afghanistan had exhibited warning signs of unwarranted violent behavior, but none that indicated he was capable of slaughtering 16 Afghan civilians, including seven children, and burning some of their bodies, according to a military investigation report released Tuesday.
The report also concluded that while behavior standards inside former Staff Sgt. Robert Bales' unit were sometimes violated, this "command climate" problem did not contribute to his crime.
When he was sentenced to life in prison in August 2013, Bales offered no explanation for sneaking off post to undertake the killing mission, but he apologized on the witness stand and described the slaughter as an "act of cowardice, behind a mask of fear, bulls--- and bravado."
Prosecutors argued that Bales' own "stomach-churning" words demonstrated that he knew exactly what he was doing.
"My count is 20," Bales told another soldier when he returned to the base. Bales shot 22 people in all, killing 16.
At his sentencing, he said: "I'm truly, truly sorry to those people whose families got taken away. I can't comprehend their loss. I think about it every time I look at my kids."
The investigation report released by U.S. Central Command included no significant new evidence of the crime, nor did the 569 pages of witness testimony and other documentation shed new light on what caused Bales to act.
The report asserted that some military witnesses interviewed by investigators were "less than forthcoming" about inappropriate conduct at the outpost where Bales was assigned when he went on his rampage March 11, 2011. Some witnesses "hedged" on questions that might reveal misconduct by themselves or their colleagues, the report said.
Discipline at the outpost, known as Camp Belambay, was ragged. The report found that while soldiers there were technically competent, "standards of conduct and discipline were low." It said some non-commissioned officers used alcohol and steroids in violation of military rules and tolerated the use of intolerant comments about Afghans.
Central Command had previously refused to release the report, denying Freedom of Information Act requests from news organizations including the News Tribune newspaper of Tacoma, Washington. Central Command said it reconsidered its position after the Army indicated that it did not object to the report's release.
Bales, a native of Ohio who grew up in suburban Cincinnati, was the senior non-commissioned officer in a conventional infantry unit attached to a special operations unit in Kandahar province.
The investigation, conducted in a four-week period starting shortly after the killings, was separate from a criminal probe that led to Bales' prosecution. For that reason, Bales was not interviewed, nor were several other key witnesses who were off limits because they were suspects in the criminal probe.
The key conclusion was that while Bales was known to have assaulted an Afghan truck driver a month prior to the killings, used steroids and alcohol in violation of military prohibitions, and was described by one fellow soldier as an "angry drunk," the problem behavior did "not rise to the level of warnings" that he would commit a large-scale atrocity.
On the other hand, the report said soldiers higher in Bales' chain of command should have been aware of earlier incidents, including Bales' reported remark to fellow soldiers to "shoot through" an Afghan soldier because "he is not a person" and his reported statement that he was not a racist "unless you count Afghanis or Iraqis." The report said some of this behavior "revealed evidence of potential warnings and indicators of future violent behavior."
Bales, who lived in Lake Tapps, Washington, before going to Afghanistan, was under personal, financial and professional stress at the time. He had stopped paying the mortgage on one of his houses, was concerned about his wife's spending and hadn't received a promotion he wanted.