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Report: Marine's killer may have been using drugs

Report: Marine's killer may have been using drugs

December 31st, 2010 by RICK CALLAHAN, Associated Press in News

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - An Afghan security contractor convicted in a U.S. Marine's fatal shooting was a frequent drug user who may have smoked opium or hashish hours before the killing in one of Afghanistan's top opium-producing regions, a U.S. military investigation suggests.

The report obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act request hints that drug use was rampant among the private security guards spotted by Lance Cpl. Joshua Birchfield's unit about an hour before he was shot in Afghanistan's Farah Province on Feb. 19.

The U.S. Marine Corps previously concluded Birchfield died in the line of duty when he was shot by a local contractor as a group of Marines was on foot patrol. The U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which investigates noncombat deaths of Navy personnel, looked into whether a crime was committed and who committed it.

The agency's report states that an Afghan court convicted Birchfield's assailant in July and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. The report says the person, whose name is redacted, was working security for a construction company in Afghanistan's Farah Province when he opened fire upon spotting a group of men with guns who turned out to be Marines.

Birchfield, a 24-year-old from Westville, Ind., was struck once in the head and died before a medical helicopter arrived. The report calls Birchfield a victim of negligent homicide and in a statement to the AP, the NCIS says his death was "senseless and tragic." The report does not say what exactly the assailant was convicted of.

Although the report indicates drug use may have been a factor, saliva and hair samples taken from the man weren't tested for drugs. The NCIS told AP that Afghan prosecutors decided those tests weren't needed because the man confessed to Birchfield's killing. A suspected bag of opium found at the encampment where the assailant and other security contractors were keeping watch also was never tested, the agency said.

"Ultimately, the nature of the substance seized was not relevant to the conviction obtained in the homicide case," the NCIS said.

Birchfield's mother, Shelley Hacker, said she and other relatives received the 220-page report in early December but did not plan to read the entire document until early January because the contents will be upsetting. Hacker said the family has been dissatisfied with previous answers from the U.S. military about her son's killing.

"There has not been a real answer from any of the investigations. It's all been different and to me it just looks like they're trying to cover stuff up," she said. "We're just not happy with it."

According to the report, Birchfield and nine other members of his squad had hunkered down just before daybreak in a dry, waist-deep riverbed near a roadway. The Marines spotted an encampment about 340 yards away that Afghan men employed by a local construction company use to keep watch for enemy insurgents who sometimes place bombs on the road.

Some of the seven contractors were singing and dancing around fires outside the encampment's three mud huts as Birchfield's killer stood watch on a roof, the report states. The man opened fire about an hour later, shortly after sunrise, when he was apparently startled by the sight of the armed Americans, the report says.

The man at one point told investigators the shooting was "a big mistake" because the men he saw never pointed a rifle at him, the report says. But he later claimed he thought he was shooting at ducks, not armed men.

One of the contractors told investigators the assailant was a frequent drug user who may have smoked hashish or opium in the hours before the shooting, the report says. Also, a day into their detainment, some of the seven Afghan men began suffering body aches that a Marine quoted in the report deemed to be signs of opium withdrawal.

One member of Birchfield's squad told the NCIS that the contractors had a history of shooting at Marines patrolling the area. Another said those same men often used drugs.

"Pretty much everyone knows the security contractors routinely use drugs and work their posts while high on drugs," he wrote in his statement.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution think tank, said many Afghans use opium or hashish as an escape from the nation's grinding poverty. Felbab-Brown also said the nation's police agencies have a weak screening process for men seeking to become police officers and that men applying for security contract jobs face even less scrutiny.

"The only screening is, 'Can you use an AK-47?' And 'How fast can you shoot somebody?' There's no criminal check, no addiction check," Felbab-Brown said.