NY Times Plays Up John Murtha's Anti-War Turn in Obit, Omits Smear of Marines as Killers

February 9th, 2010 1:46 PM

John Murtha, who represented the 12th district of Pennsylvania for 35 years, died Monday. David Stout's obituary in Tuesday's edition of the New York Times, "Representative John P. Murtha Dies at 77; Ex-Marine Was Iraq War Critic," focused on Murtha's influential anti-war turn and "history of hawkishness," but omitted Murtha's smear of the military -- his preemptory claim that Marines in the town of Haditha, Iraq had killed women and children ''in cold blood'' in a November 2005 incident. Of the eight Marines accused, only one still faces possible charges -- the rest were either acquitted or had the charges dropped.

Stout hit the sordid highlights of Murtha's legislative career, including the Abscam scandal, which he survived by the skin of his teeth, turning down money from an undercover FBI agent posing as a sheikh but said would be willing to talk about it later. Stout called it an "awkward moment." But Stout made Murtha's anti-Iraq war position a running theme of the obituary, while not once bringing up Murtha's smear of the Marines at Haditha.

Representative John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, a gruff ex-Marine who used his immense power in military spending to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to his hard-luck district and who became an outspoken critic of the Iraq war, died on Monday. He was 77.

He died at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, where he was being treated for complications of gallbladder surgery, his office said. Mr. Murtha's death came two days after he became the longest-serving congressman in Pennsylvania history, his office said, surpassing the record of Joseph M. McDade, a Scranton Republican who served from 1963 to 1999.

Elected in 1974 and the first Vietnam combat veteran to serve in Congress, Mr. Murtha voted in 2002 to authorize use of military force in Iraq. But he evolved into a leading foe of the war as it was conducted under the administration of President George W. Bush.

"The war in Iraq is not going as advertised," Mr. Murtha said in November 2005 as he demanded an immediate withdrawal of American troops. He called the Iraq campaign "a flawed policy wrapped in illusion."

Mr. Murtha's long involvement in Pentagon issues and his history of hawkishness made the criticism all the more influential.

The Times, along with the rest of the media, made an enormous deal out of Murtha's alleged "turnabout" on Iraq, a story that led the November 18, 2005 Times.

Problem was, it was old news: Murtha had been criticizing the war long before November 2005, as captured by the Times itself in the September 17, 2003 edition, which quoted Murtha calling for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. Reporter David Firestone summarized: "Representative John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, a decorated Vietnam veteran, said that he had been misled into voting for the war by incorrect information from top administration officials and that the president had also been misled."

Stout implicitly chided Murtha for funneling federal money into his district through earmarks before returning to Murtha's war criticism, insisting the congressman was patriotic but leaving off a vital incident in which Murtha in May 2006 accused a group of Marines had murdered Iraqi civilians "in cold blood" in the town of Haditha: "Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood."

When he drew fire from the political right for his shift on Iraq, Mr. Murtha said his criticism of the war in no way lessened his support for the Americans fighting in it.

"I don't take a back seat to anybody for my service to my country," Mr. Murtha said in a recent, profanity-spiced interview with his local newspaper, The Tribune-Democrat. But he said the killing of Iraqi civilians, even if accidental, and the abuse of Iraqi prisoners had undermined American efforts.

The Washington Post updated their own Murtha obituary when my MRC colleague Ken Shepherd called them out on the omission. Here's the Post's addition:

In 2006, he accused Marines of murdering Iraqi civilians "in cold blood" at Haditha, after one Marine died and two were wounded by a roadside bomb. Critics said he unfairly held the Marines responsible before an investigation was finished. Eight Marines were originally charged with murder or failing to properly report or investigate the killings. Charges against six were dropped, and one was acquitted. A court martial for sole remaining defendant has not yet scheduled.