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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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July 31st, 2013
11:00 AM ET

On 2001 Massacre of Taliban POWs, White House says case closed, no U.S. involvement

By CNN Chief Washington Correspondent Jake Tapper

The White House says the administration has completed an investigation into the 2001 massacre of hundreds of Taliban prisoners by a CIA- and U.S. Special Forces-backed Afghan warlord and his fighters - and concluded that no U.S. personnel were involved.

“At the president’s direction, the U.S. government has looked into the facts of the 2001 Dasht-e-Leili massacre and we have concluded that no American troops were involved in this incident,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told CNN Tuesday.

When it was pointed out that her statement left an opening for the involvement of other Americans, such as CIA officers, Hayden got back to CNN Wednesday with a more expansive statement, asserting that "No U.S. personnel were involved in this incident.”

She told CNN that “the investigation was led by the U.S. intelligence community,” but wouldn’t provide any further details on the process itself.

Physicians for Human Rights criticized the White House statement, with Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy and partnerships and senior adviser for the group, telling CNN that “the White House’s brief response answers virtually none of the questions posed by human rights organizations, the United Nations and the media about the mass grave at Dasht-e-Leili. The administration’s dismissive summary of its findings falls short of President Obama’s promise to thoroughly investigate this horrific incident, which reportedly claimed as many as 2,000 lives.”

The Dasht-e-Leili massacre was horrific. Hundreds if not thousands of Taliban prisoners were, while being transferred from Konduz to Sheberghan prison by Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum and his men, slaughtered and then buried in the desert at Dasht-e-Leili. At the time, Dostum and his men were allied with the United States.

Physicians for Human Rights discovered the mass graves in 2002. That year, Newsweek reported on a “confidential U.N. memorandum, parts of which were made available” to the magazine, claiming that “the findings of investigations into the Dasht-e Leili graves ‘are sufficient to justify a fully-fledged criminal investigation.’ It says that based on ‘information collected,’ the site ‘contains bodies of Taliban POW's who died of suffocation during transfer from Konduz to Sheberghan.’”

The New York Times reported in 2009 that “Bush administration officials repeatedly discouraged efforts to investigate the episode, according to government officials and human rights organizations.” The Obama White House did not comment on that part of the story.

In July 2009, President Obama told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he had instructed national security officials into the incident. "The indications that this had not been properly investigated just recently was brought to my attention," the president said. "So what I've asked my national security team to do is to collect the facts for me that are known, and we'll probably make a decision in terms of how to approach it once we have all of the facts gathered up.”

The president said that “there are responsibilities that all nations have, even in war. And if it appears that our conduct in some way supported violations of laws of war, then I think that, you know, we have to know about that."

Physicians for Human Rights’ Sirkin said her group “is still waiting to learn what happened, what the U.S. forces and officials knew, when they knew it, and what they did or didn’t do to prevent or respond. This includes everything from the U.S. role and responsibility at the time of the surrender and transport of the combatants, to the eventual dumping of their bodies. The administration has yet to reveal what happened to the reported shutting down of three federal investigations into the massacre, and whether there was a separate CIA investigation. We are also still waiting to learn what the U.S. government did before, during and after the apparent destruction of the grave site in 2006, and what it did all along to protect the site.”

Hayden told CNN, “For questions about the role of any Afghan citizens, we’d refer you to the government of Afghanistan. As we have in other cases, including those documented in our annual human rights reports, we urge Afghanistan to work through its legal frameworks and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission to uphold human rights principles. In addition, we have long said that the future of Afghanistan is up to Afghans, and we support an Afghan-led process of peace and reconciliation to help end decades of war.”

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