In a 60 Minutes II interview to air Tuesday May 1, former Sen. Bob Kerrey admits that his SEAL team unit killed civilians in a raid on a Vietnamese village in 1969.
Kerrey, who has not ruled out a run for president in 2004, received a Bronze Star for the Feb. 25, 1969, raid. The award citation says 21 Viet Cong were killed and enemy weapons were captured or destroyed.
But Kerrey now says women and children were killed in the raid when the SEAL team fired at a village after hearing enemy fire. He describes it as an "atrocity," but an unintentional one.
However, a resident of the village where the killings took place and a member of Kerrey's SEAL team told 60 Minutes II Correspondent Dan Rather that the unit rounded the civilians up and then shot them. Kerrey denies that account.
A weary and visibly strained Kerrey told an April 26 press conference in New York that "We did not go out on a mission with the intent of killing innocent people. I feel guilty because of what happened, not because eof what we intended to do."
"The citation is different than what we reported" to military superiors, he told the Omaha World-Herald in an interview published Wednesday.
Kerrey talked about the raid publicly for the first time last week in a speech to ROTC students at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va. He said he decided to give his account after hearing that another member of his squad was offering a different version.
60 Minutes II and the New York Times Magazine have been investigating Kerrey for several months.
The operation in uestion took place in the Mekong Delta, in a Communist-controlled hamlet called Thanh Phong.
In a version of the New York Times Magazine posted on the newspaper's Web site, one account has the SEAL team visiting the village two weeks before the deadly raid. Kerrey tells the magazine he doesn't recall this.
Kerrey says on the night of the operation his unit was looking for a pro-Communist political leader.
"We went in at night and we found men in a hooch (hut) and the people who were running out in front of me said 'We've got people. We've found men and we're gonna take care of them,' which I understood and I would authorize without saying so meant they were going to kill them," he said.
Kerrey tells the Times magazine he didn't order or see killings of anyone in that hut. But a member of his unit, Gerhard Klann, claims five people were killed there, including an old man, a woman and three children.
After leaving the first hut, Kerrey says, the unit opened fire after coming under enemy gunfire. Kerrey claims he did not know his victims were women and children until the shooting had stopped.
Sen. Kerrey, far left, watches a Vietnam
honor guard in 1998. (AP)SIZE>
Kerrey believes Viet Cong were likely firing upon his crew from behind the civilians, which would justify the killings from a military standpoint, but said he could not be at peace with it personally.
"To describe it as a war crime, I think, is wrong," he said. "To describe it as an atrocity, I would say, is pretty close to being right, because that's how it felt and that's why I feel guilt and shame for it."
However, Pham Tri Lanh, a woman who claims to have witnessed the raid, contradicted Kerrey's version. She says the SEAL team executed the villagers.
"It was very crowded, so it wasn't possible for them to cut everybody's throats one by one," she said. "Two women came out and kneeled down. They shot these two old women and they fell forward and they rolled over and then they ordered everybody out from the bunker and they lined them up and they shot all of them from behind."
Klann told 60 Minutes II, "We herded them together in a group We lined them up and we opened fire." When asked if they took gunfire of any kind coming into the village or anything even remotely sounding like gunfire, Klann said, "No."
He described what happened next, "We gathered everybody up, searchd the place, searched everything." And the make-up of the group was, "Probably a majority of 'em were kids. And women. And some younger women."
And then, "We killed them.... 'Cause we'd already compromised ourselves by killing the other group."
Kerrey denied that anyone was rounded or executed, and said the woman might be sympathetic to the Viet Cong. But he refused to deny Klann's version.
"I will not contradict the memory of any of the six people that were on the operation that night," he said.
As to why soldiers might have killed Viet Cong members instead of taking them prisoner, Kerrey said, "Because of where we're operating, our belief is that they could break free and we could be at risk."
"Let the other people judge whether or not what I did was militarily allowable or morally ethical or inside the rules of war. Let them figure that out. I mean, I can make a case that it was," he said. "It's still something dead that was formerly alive, something that I value, and I feel remorse for that."
Kerrey ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 and served two terms in the Senate after one term as governor. He acknowledged the possible ramifications of his revelation.
" I've got to be prepared to tolerate any consequences of this. I understand that that are all kinds of potential consequences, up to and including somebody saying, 'This is a war crime and let's investigate and charge him and put him in prison,'" he said.
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