The story on the front page of USA Today in 2007 made a sensational claim: Military leaders in wartime had failed to provide troops in Iraq being killed by roadside bombs with mine-resistant jeeps.
"Pentagon balked at pleas for safer vehicles," read the headline. The story went on to assert that the Marine Corps, in particular, was negligent for waiting 19 months before responding to an urgent request for mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs.
Democrats in the Senate pounced on the story to attack then-President George W. Bush over Iraq. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, flanked by other Democratic leaders, went before news reporters the day the story came out waving the newspaper in front of cameras as proof the president was failing to take care of American troops in a war.
Much of the information for the story came from a Marine Corps scientist, Franz Gayl, who had been put in touch with the article's authors by Erin Logan, a staff member for then-senator Joe Biden (D., Del.).
Ten years later, documents and emails obtained by a former director of operations for the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab in Quantico present a contradictory picture. The documents and emails show the Democrat-driven public accounts accusing the Marines of failing to protect their troops by delaying requests for armored vehicles between February 2005 until September 2006 were false and misleading.
The facts presented by Steve Chill, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq, reveal the Corps was already engaged in rapid development of needed armored vehicles for troops in Iraq.
But instead of buying off-the-shelf armored vehicles, the Marines instead chose an MRAP made from blast-hardened M1114 vehicles, known as up-armored Humvees.
The armored Humvee development program was already the highest priority for then-Marine Corps commandant Gen. James T. Conway, nearly a year before Gayl went public with his charges to Biden and the press.
Armored Humvee prototypes were being blown up in tests at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and the protective vehicle program was well advanced before the sensational press reports were published.
The controversy triggered a $45 billion program critics have dubbed the "MRAP boondoggle" of producing 27,000 armored vehicles. A Pentagon-based study by Chris Rohlfs and Ryan Sullivan in 2012 found that heavily armored MRAPs costing $600,000 each were "no more effective at reducing casualties than the medium armored vehicles" such as the M1114.
Many of these facts about the MRAP debate were buried under an avalanche of Democratic Party criticism orchestrated, according to the report, by Biden.
The pressure from Democrats and led by Biden, who would go on to be vice president under President Barack Obama, included bullying Corps' leaders into keeping quiet and not challenging inaccurate accounts presented by Gayl and repeated by Biden and numerous press outlets at the time.
"A falsehood was fostered by the press, politicians, and interest groups that the Marine Corps was negligent in supporting fellow Marines in Iraq with armored vehicles during Operation Iraqi Freedom," said Steve Chill, the former Warfighting Lab director who produced the 355-page study.
"My study definitively proves that the Marine Corps did not sit on MRAP requests," he said.
"This study sets the record straight and gives reassurance to Marines and the families of the dead and wounded Marines in Iraq that their Corps did not let them down," he told the Washington Free Beacon.
Smearing the Marine Corps to bring back the troops
The report, "Blowing the Whistle on a Whistleblower: The Real MRAP Story," reveals that Gayl, the civilian scientist, first disclosed an urgent MRAP request from 2005 to the blog "Danger Room" in the spring of 2007. The report inaccurately reported Marines had "dragged feet" in meeting the request.
The blog report prompted a phone call the next day to Gayl from Logan, the Biden staffer, who arranged for Gayl to provide information to a USA Today reporter.
"Senator Biden used Gayl and the press to smear the Marine Corps," the report says. "Specifically, Biden saw a misleading blog (Danger Room) then organized Gayl, Danger Room and USA Today to take the misleading blog national. While organizing the press, Biden asked the Marine Corps to respond to the original blog. The Marine Corps responses disputing the blog were correct (albeit not detailed), and ignored."
At the same time Marine headquarters was working to answer Biden's inquiries about the MRAP, Biden was working behind the scenes to discredit the Marine Corps and then extend the criticism to the Bush administration by pushing to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, the report says.
The USA Today stories on the MRAP "were used by Democratic senators as a cornerstone of their arguments to withdraw from Iraq," the report states.
The primary USA Today story came out a day before an all-night Senate session on a vote to pull all U.S. troops from Iraq. The amendment was blocked but the article was mentioned repeatedly during debate, falsely claiming neglect for Marines in Iraq.
U.S. troops were pulled out of Iraq in 2011, a move critics say paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State terror group that took over major portions of the country in 2014.
Biden during the Senate debate referenced Gayl's accusations in criticizing Bush for not supporting U.S. troops. "I have absolutely no faith, none whatsoever, in this president to voluntarily do what should be done," he said. "The only way it is going to happen is when our Republican friends stop voting with the president and start voting to end this war by supporting our troops."
Asked about the report, Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for Biden, said: "I don't have any comment for you on this."
Misinformation perpetuated by the Pentagon inspector general
Chill said internal Marine Corps emails he obtained were never disclosed to earlier investigators, including the Pentagon inspector general.
The MRAP controversy was the result of Gayl misunderstanding the complex process used to acquire equipment and respond to requests from forces in the field, Chill said.
The false MRAP claims were compounded by the fact that the Marines were fighting the insurgency in Iraq at the same time the service was working to provide them with armored vehicles.
Additionally, the roadside bomb threat increased during the same time as insurgents targeted the troops as they conducted patrols, killing hundreds and injuring several thousand.
Chill's new information sheds light on the Marine Corps' handling of the MRAP procurement issue. The documents show the Corps also mishandled media and congressional reaction to Gayl's inaccurate charges of negligence.
Gayl would emerge from the MRAP affair as a media hero and still works for the Corps after claiming legal whistleblower status in 2007.
He defended his actions surrounding the MRAP controversy and said the criticism reflects the bitterness of some Marines towards him.
"Lt. Col Chill's remarks today are very similar to those made by senior Marine leaders ten years ago when I spoke with the Congress and press," he said. "I was loathed by those USMC leaders, and remain so by many who are still active throughout DoD and government today—one in particular being the SecDef himself," he said, referring to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
"But, for all my faults, on balance I believe that I did more good than bad through my disclosures at that time, and given similar emergency circumstances and despite imperfect knowledge of all things, I would do the same today," he said. "I'm a sinner like everybody else, but I did try to do the right thing back then, however wrong I may have gotten it in some details."
The story began in February 2005 with an urgent request from a Marine commander in Iraq for armored vehicles.
Chill criticizes Gayl for misunderstanding the process for responding to the urgent request for armored vehicles made on Feb. 17, 2005 by Brig. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik, deputy commander of the I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) in Iraq. The I MEF is one of the Corps' main warfighting forces with 50,000 Marines.
That urgent request became a cause celebre for Democrats and the press in criticizing the Bush administration for its handling of the war in Iraq.
However, the request had been addressed and downgraded by the Marines in favor of using up-armored Humvee as the needed MRAP. The decision, however, appeared to have been lost on critics bent on promoting the narrative the Marines were negligent.
One example is the June 21, 2005, congressional testimony of Assistant Marine Corps Commandant Gen. William Nyland who said "we have determined that the M1114/M1116 up-armored Humvee is the best available, most survivable asset that meets our evolving vehicle underbody protection requirements."
Additionally, documents show that Marine warfighting units repeatedly stated they had no need for MRAPs between 2005 and 2006. Two Marine reports listing urgent needs from April and May 2006 stated that the 2005 MRAP urgent request was no longer in effect.
In May 2006, Marines in Iraq asked for 185 MRAPs and the vehicles were sent, followed two months later by another request for 1,000 MRAPs.
"In September 2006 I MEF submitted the same requests, totaling 1,185 vehicles, as an [urgent universal needs statement] through the service chain. This UUNS immediately became the Marine Corps' number one priority," the report said.
The two documents from Marine Forces Pacific, parent command of I MEF, showed that the urgent request had been downgraded to a regular, two- to five-year procurement. This contradicts a Pentagon inspector general study that criticized the Marines and said there was no proof the urgent request was downgraded.
The IG "was especially at fault in that there were Marines who told them the correct resolution [of the urgent request], yet they ignored the input," the report says.
A Pentagon inspector general report from 2009 said it was not known who downgraded the urgent MRAP request, adding that "many Marines lost their lives unnecessarily as a result of mismanagement" by the Quantico-based Combat Development Command.
The Chill report also discloses numerous flaws contained in a report on MRAPs done by Gayl in January 2008 that was the basis for the flawed inspector general report. The Gayl report said combat developers failed to fulfill the I MEF urgent request for MRAPs because Marines "perceived the MRAP as a threat" to funding for competing combat vehicle programs.
MRAP controversy follows officials to the White House
Key Marine Corps leaders who were involved in the MRAP controversy have moved on to positions in the Trump administration and the military.
Mattis was commanding general of the Combat Development Command during the period of the debate over MRAP and the report says he was unfairly criticized.
"Gen. Mattis has been repeatedly and unjustly smeared," the report says, noting the fate of the MRAP request was not within his authority to decide.
USA Today followed up its MRAP story last November prior to Mattis' Senate nomination hearing again criticizing him for overseeing the command that the newspaper said had failed "to field urgently needed combat vehicles to Iraq to protect Marines from roadside bombs."
The report was written by reporter Tom Vanden Brook, one of several reporters who wrote the original 2007 USA Today article. Asked about Chill's study, Vanden Brook said his stories and the inspector general report "speak for themselves on this topic."
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, also a retired Marine general, also was involved as the key congressional liaison for the service.
Kelly recommended countering both hostile Democrats and the media in a bid to put the controversy to rest.
"Media, and in my lane more importantly the Senate, has a sense we are either lying, incompetent, or both," Kelly wrote in a May 24, 2007, email.
"I've insulated the boss from most of this, but if we can't turn the corner on the Hill (particularly in Sen. Biden's office) we will have to plead the 6th (stupidity) and beg forgiveness."
Kelly said he told the Marine Corps commandant at the time, Conway, the Corps needs to make responses that resonate with the media and Capitol Hill, not to the Marine Corps itself.
"An explanation that convinces us, might not make sense to the Hill who wants to believe, and certainly make no sense at all to the media that seemingly works hard to never believe," he said.
Kelly noted that an AP reporter who was briefed on the issue "went right to Mr. Biden's office and countered our explanation and characterized it as BS."
In May 2007, current Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller was one of three generals in the plans, policies, and operations office, known as PP&O, charged with overseeing responses to urgent field requests.
Gayl worked in the office and falsely claimed the Corps had failed to understand the need for MRAPs.
"Gayl’s activities continued to contribute nothing internal to the Marine Corps," the report says.
"Industry continued to produce and test MRAP prototypes. The [commandant of the Marine Corps] and service secretary as well as DOD leadership supported the larger Marine MRAP buy. Congress had been briefed for the better part of a year. MRAP had been the Marine Corps top procurement priority for almost a year by the time Gayl started to blow his whistle. Gayl’s MRAP whistleblowing was irrelevant to the Marine Corps internal efforts to get MRAP."
Chill said he did not coordinate his report with the Marines and that his findings and conclusions are his own. "The Marine Corps screws up, people screw up, but this was not one of those times," he said.