It's always dangerous weighing in with only partial facts, but I think I've got the critical issue defined with regard to Haditha. While there's a factual dispute as to what occurred on November 19, it appears un-controverted that it wasn't reported accurately on November 20. The account didn't match the events.
Was the cover-up consciousness of guilt or reality? I'll explain.
First some perspective, gleaned from my cobbling together of what's been published in the coverage by Time Magazine, the LA Times, NY Times and other investigatory outlets.
On the morning of November 19th, four humvees belonging to what's known as the Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, were on a routine patrol in a residential section one of the most dangerous spots on earth. Haditha, an insurgent haven in the Sunni dominated Anbar province, had just three months prior been the site of an ambush that killed six Marines. A video of the remains of one of those dead servicemen was released and was used as a rallying cry by American enemies. Two days after that ambush, 14 more Marines were killed when a roadside bomb destroyed their armored vehicle. No doubt those two incidents and the twenty resulting deaths were on the minds of the Marines who patrolled November 19th.
That morning, the humvees carrying members of Kilo Company spied a white taxi approaching from an opposite end of a street. The taxi carried five men. The Marines motioned for the taxi to stop. When it halted near the first humvee, an IED (located near the 4th humvee) exploded and killed its driver, a 20-year-old Marine from El Paso, Texas. The Marines maintain they took small arms fire immediately thereafter. The locals dispute that. The Marines ordered the men in the taxi to get out of their vehicle and lie on the ground; instead the passengers ran and were shot by the Marines. Members of Kilo Company then moved through four homes along nearby streets, presumably looking for insurgents, and killed 19 men, women and children. Again, the Marines say they took small-arms fire. Only one of the 19 victims was found with a weapon.
One day later came the first official report from the military, and it said that "a U.S. Marine and 15 Iraqi civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb" and that "immediately following the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small arms fire". That encapsulation is apparently bogus. The IED that killed the Marine did not kill the civilians. The question is, why was this explanation offered? I can think of two reasons.
The first is obvious: because the Marines knowingly did something wrong which they wanted to hide. Normally, in a domestic criminal context for example, a cover-up is evidence of a consciousness of guilt. That could certainly be the case here. Perhaps the Marines lied about what occurred so as to cover-up their deliberate killing of innocents.
My instinct is to be skeptical of that view. U.S. Marines shooting a 4-year-old boy in the chest, or a 77-year-old man in a wheelchair? I don't want to believe that. I have too much respect for humankind. Yes, American humankind in particular. And I am skeptical for the same reason that I have always doubted the allegations of rape at Duke. If you tell me that among 46 lacrosse players there is one bad seed who raped a woman, I could believe it. But if you tell me that among 46, three committed rape and many more did nothing about it, it doesn't pass the smell test. My head and my heart tell me the same thing here. One bad Marine in Kilo Company who couldn't rein it in on a battlefield after seeing a colleague murdered in a location where three months prior twenty other brothers died? Ok. But several Marines executing innocent civilians, then protected by several colleagues? It doesn't pass the smell test.
There is an alternative explanation.
Perhaps the involved Marines lied about what occurred not because of a consciousness of guilt, but rather, because of a consciousness of reality. The reality of which I speak is the unpopular nature of this war at home, the resulting diminished standing by the President who took the country to war, and the recognition by the soldiers that they would not be given the benefit of the doubt by the domestic media who would report on that which occurred.
In this scenario, the men of Kilo Company respond to the death of a colleague by killing the taxi passengers out of a belief that the passengers had detonated the IED, or because they thought the passengers acted as spotters for whoever did. Then, under attack, or believing they were under attack, they barnstormed four local homes and shot the occupants before recognizing that they were women and children. Then, realizing how the events would be portrayed in a televised war, they made a decision - a bad decision - to take their chances with a version that says that 15 civilians died from the same IED that killed their colleague.
Isn't it conceivable that the Marines, under attack or believing they were under attack, shot up the area with their automatic weapons, mistakenly killing innocent civilians in the process? Then, fully understanding that the media would vilify them for their mistake, they compounded their error and lied, saying that the IED that killed their comrades, also killed the civilians. If so, I think the lie was a mistake, but an entirely understandable one.