Investigating the WikiLeaks video

I think it’s only right that all of us hold off before offering any judgments on the astonishing video published by WikiLeaks yesterday showing a U.S. Apache helicopter killing 12 Iraqis, including a Reuters photographer and his driver. The U.S. military has confirmed the 2007 video’s authenticity, according to the New York Times.

I watched the entire 17-minute-plus video last night (there is also an unedited, 38-minute version), and my main reaction — other than horror — was one of cognitive dissonance. The audio made it clear that the American crew believed the people on the ground were armed combatants. The video told an entirely different story: men walking around, seemingly not up to much of anything in particular.

And no, I’m not offended by the American crew members’ bantering. If they had good reason to believe they were shooting at a legitimate target, so what? The real question is why they held that belief.

Anyway, I don’t want to get ahead of the story. What this calls for is further investigation.

The BBC has some background on WikiLeaks, which is hosted mainly in Sweden.

41 thoughts on “Investigating the WikiLeaks video

  1. Steve Stein

    Do you know if the unedited version has time BEFORE the beginning of the short version?

    The edited version seems to pick up after the air strike has been called in, and we have no idea what transpired beforehand. We have no overview of what the larger fight context was, or where it was taking place.

    Without knowing any of that, how can we judge the video?

  2. Christian Avard

    I can see holding judgement on this and I’d like to see that 38-minute version. But for me, I can’t hold judgement on the military murdering a Reuters photographer. There’s no excuse for gunning down a journalist. They are supposed to be protected.

    As for the banter, that’s the part I don’t like about the military. I’ve heard too many stories (from journalists and former soldiers alike) about the military beating recruits down and rebuilding them back up as killing machines that dehumanize the enemy and their culture. Whether they’re legitimate targets or not, this is something we as a society should never tolerate, especially the armed forces. But that’s just me speaking.

  3. Christian Avard

    *** I can’t hold judgement on the military murdering a Reuters photographer. There’s no excuse for gunning down a journalist. ***

    Correction, there were two people involved. A Reuters cameraman and his assistant: Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and his assistant, Saeed Chmagh, 40.

  4. Mike LaBonte

    I’ve seen a bunch of gunsight videos over the years, and wanted to make just a few observations here. The main thing that stands out about this one is how quickly the decision is made to engage. These videos are often edited because it takes a long time to get from the sighting part to the shooting part. The crews usually like to keep watching as long as no one is on to them. This helicopter is relatively close in, as indicated by how quickly it circles around the building. Often they are so far away people on the ground aren’t aware they are being watched.

    First they misidentified cameras slung from shoulder straps, not even large cameras, as weapons. But there is a point where something that looks like the end of an RPG launcher (less than a foot of it) is visible at the corner of a building as the helicopter circles around. Then the person holding that peers around the corner of the building and raises it to point at the helicopter at just the moment when sight is lost. From the audio, they were given permission to engage immediately because no ground forces were nearby. When a van stops to help a wounded man a few minutes later, that is shot up too.

    The less than 10 seconds with what appears to be an RPG was key to the decision the men were a band of militants posing a threat, in my opinion.

  5. Christian Avard

    OK, but don’t they know that cameras don’t kill people? They know cameras aren’t weapons and they’re also trained to distinguish them from surface-to-air launched missiles.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Christian: If you want to believe the crew knew that was a camera and not a weapon, be my guest.

  6. Christian Avard

    I’ll leave it here.

    Unfortunately, what happened isn’t an anomaly in Iraq (or elsewhere). As far as Iraq, the Committee to Protect Journalists writes “in all, at least 16 journalists were killed by U.S. forces’ fire in Iraq, CPJ research shows. While CPJ has not found evidence to conclude that U.S. troops targeted journalists in these cases, its research shows that most of the cases were either not fully investigated or the military failed to publicly disclose its findings.”

    In that case, thank God for Wikileaks. I think it’s a step in the right direction for good journalism (knock on wood) and accountability (knock on wood).

    Thanks for bringing this up. This is a great and engaging space for rational discussion on the topic 🙂

  7. L.K. Collins

    The prosecution of war bears little relation to the precision capabilities of a CNC cutter.

    Isn’t this really a discussion of how a journalist/photographer keeps himself from being a target?

    If the journalist/photographer presents himself in a war zone, what, if any, considerations must the combatants afford him, and how does the combatant know that he is dealing with someone of the press?

    The ideal comes afoul of the practical.

  8. Christian Avard

    L.K., whatever the journalist’s responsibility is, and they have some, it’s still not an excuse for the military to target journalists. We can’t take the military off the hook. I know Dan wrote above that “the crew clearly seems to believe that the camera is a weapon” but the key word there is “seems.” You can’t “seem” to know it’s a weapon when you’re about to open fire. You have to know, soldiers are obligated to know what their targets are under the Geneva Conventions, not guess.

    Journalists must not be deliberately targeted, detained, or otherwise mistreated any more than any other civilian. This means that journalists now have an obligation to differentiate themselves from combatants by not wearing uniforms or openly carrying firearms.

    If they “seem” to know it was a weapon is not enough evidence to go on. Reuters cameramen know better to distinguish themselves as journalists when covering in war zones. How many Reuters cameramen/reporters do we know of that openly carry weapons with them? They’re not dumb, especially when they’re putting their own lives on the line.

  9. Steve Stein

    @Christian: “You can’t “seem” to know it’s a weapon when you’re about to open fire. You have to know, soldiers are obligated to know what their targets are under the Geneva Conventions, not guess.”

    Trying to put myself in the shoes of a US soldier on the ground, this really doesn’t sound right to me.

    If my unit is taking fire from some enemy position, I’m going to try to take that position out. A generation ago, that meant calling in some aircraft to drop bombs, or directing some artillery bombardment. Nowadays, it’s helicopter gunships and drones, which can be more precise, but “perfect” is a goal, not necessarily an expectation.

    The expectation has to be that the enemy position is taken out.

    The video screens in the actual battle didn’t have the luxury of little captions and arrows identifying the journalists. Maybe someday there will be an app for that.

  10. L.K. Collins

    C.A. Your last statement directly points up the difficult question.

    There is no device, military or otherwise, that will exlude any journalist from getting mud, or shrapnel, flying about them in a messy situation. Selective force fields are still in the future.

    Remember, too, that the end of a lens tube peeking around a blind corner does not have a flashing strobe on it saying “telephoto lens”.

    Lets put it another way. Even if the journalist had an IFF responder on his lens and could be identified, what rationale should be used to excuse/exclude the journalist from being in the middle of a live-fire combat situation where he has become included, however inadvertently, in being the target?

    More to the point, what mechanism do you suggest for the targeter to use to refine their approach to EXCLUDE the the journalist who bears no identification and presents an object that could well be an RPG launcher?

    Your ideal is fine. It founders on practical implementation, as most of these “should have” discussion s do…

    If a journalist elects to be a fly that lands on the flypaper that he knows is there, doesn’t he own the responsibility for being caught in the sticky stuff, as sad as the consequences might be?

    I honor the war-theater journalist willing to take risks, but he takes them with a deliberate and conscious choice and, I would hope, with full knowledge of the potential consequences.

    From your statements, I gather, that you may not have thought through the implications of such personal involvement.

  11. Christian Avard

    FYI, Glenn Greenwald claims that WikiLeaks “released the full, 38-minute, unedited version of the incident”“right on the site they created for release of the edited video.”

    Greenwald continues:

    In fact, the first video is marked “Short version,” and the second video — posted directly under it — is marked “Full version,” and just for those who still didn’t pick up on the meaning, they explained:

    WikiLeaks has released both the original 38 minutes video and a shorter version with an initial analysis. Subtitles have been added to both versions from the radio transmissions.

    For his full blogpost click here.

    OK, I’m totally through with the subject! I just thought I’d FYI you all with the latest!

  12. “And no, I’m not offended by the American crew members’ bantering. If they had good reason to believe they were shooting at a legitimate target, so what? The real question is why they held that belief.”

    I am. I’m offended at how easily our American military members are able to see Iraqis as non-humans. Whether it’s an enemy combatant or a journalist, killing should never be a laughing matter.

    That said, what about the children in the van and the soldiers’ comments to that effect? “They shouldn’t bring their children into battle?” The Apache was flying over a Baghdad suburb. A suburb.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Jillian: I wrote that I’m not offended as long as the American crew members had good reason to believe they were firing on a legitimate target. You say you were offended, and then go on to say you’re sure they weren’t firing on a legitimate target. Do you see the problem?

  13. Steve Stein

    Thanks Christian – I’ve been reading Greenwald all day, including the skirmish w/ Oliver Willis that has developed here.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Steve: Great Oliver Willis post – thanks for linking to it. I’ve been traveling all day, and I just can’t bring myself to slog through Greenwald’s posts. But Willis has captured pretty much what I would have expected Greenwald to write.

  14. Christian Avard

    *** What rationale should be used to excuse/exclude the journalist from being in the middle of a live-fire combat situation where he has become included, however inadvertently, in being the target? ***

    Very simple. The Geneva Conventions. No matter where they are and no matter how well they are identified, journalists are off-limits.

    *** More to the point, what mechanism do you suggest for the targeter to use to refine their approach to EXCLUDE the journalist who bears no identification and presents an object that could well be an RPG launcher? ***

    Well, I would support something along the lines of what Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer said on MSNBC (I think it was this morning when he said this):

    “First rule is, you may engage persons who commit hostile acts or show hostile intent by minimum force necessary,” he said. “Minimum force is necessary. If you see eight armed men, the first thing I would think as an intelligence officer is, ‘How can we take these guys and capture them?’ We don’t want to kill people arbitrarily; we want the intel take.

    Whatever you do, there’s no excuse for the military’s rules of engagement. That is what happened.

    *** If a journalist elects to be a fly that lands on the flypaper that he knows is there, doesn’t he own the responsibility for being caught in the sticky stuff, as sad as the consequences might be? ***

    Yes that can happen, no matter how well he/she is marked and that’s a tragedy. But that still shouldn’t leave the military off the hook for not distinguishing journalists from insurgents. It’s the military’s job for teaching them to know what is and what isn’t an RPG from long distances.

    They didn’t fire on them and they didn’t confirm it was an RPG. That’s not an excuse for engagement. As Tony Shaffer said, they broke the rules. I think we know where accountability lies in this tragic incident.

  15. L.K. Collins

    C.A., you still fail to make the transition from the ideal to the practical.

    Until you do, you will not be able fully to understand the issues at hand, and you will not be able to make an informed judgment as to how conflict can complicate the choices that are be made.

    As many have said, the plan never survives the first encounter with the enemy.

    That axiom has yet to be repealed.

  16. Christian Avard

    *** Until you do, you will not be able fully to understand the issues at hand, and you will not be able to make an informed judgment as to how conflict can complicate the choices that are be made. ***

    I trust you aren’t trying to sound patronizing, so I’ll let that pass. I think I got your message. In the meantime, I’ll turn to experienced war correspondents like Chris Hedges, Robert Fisk, John Pilger, Philip Knightley, or Allan Nairn. They are journalists of high integrity and they can analyze this incident a heck of a lot better than I can. I look forward to hearing what they have to say.

    I’ll end it here.

  17. LFNeilson

    I have no military experience, but I’d be curious how the video compares with the visual as seen by the crew of the copter. I can’t imagine they’d be operating with just a grainy image like what the video presents. So much hangs on identification of the hardware carried by the Iraqis. Quick look — okay now, was that an RPG or a telephoto lens?

  18. B.A. DuBois

    Not to sound condescending or cruel… or maybe just a little… but I’m afraid I don’t take much stock in commentators with no military experience passing judgment on an event such like this…. commentators far from the front lines, able to take time to reflect, observe, and reflect again, without being responsible for other people’s lives, who wouldn’t know the difference between an AK-47 or a golf club, and whose greatest exposure to danger on a daily basis is having their lips burnt from their double-latte soy with cinnamon dusting from their local Starbuks…

  19. @Dan: I see what you’re saying, though to be fair the video had been confirmed by the military by the time I made my comment.

    That said, I think my definition of “legitimate target” probably differs from theirs. I also–strongly–believe that killing is never a laughing matter, legitimate or otherwise.

  20. L.K.Collins

    I think B.A. DuBois’ comment sums it up.

    There is also the fact that rarely–so rarely as to be deemed like unto never–have experienced combat journalists actually been forced to make the sort of decision that A.C implies they are so experienced at making.

    That argument is spurious.

    The theoretical oft times crashes hard in contact with reality.

  21. BP Myers

    B.A. DuBois says: I don’t take much stock in commentators with no military experience passing judgment on an event such like this

    Must be nice to simply disengage, to leave it all up to the judgment of other people who are killing in your name.

    Wish I could do that.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      In the United States, the military answers to civilian leadership. And we would be derelict if we deferred to the military on matters of life and death carried out in our name.

      Once we know all the relevant facts, we not only can judge, we should. In this particular case, I suspect that the facts will tend to support the military. But we should never be afraid to think for ourselves.

      The most important relevant fact remains that we should not have invaded Iraq.

  22. Eoin O'Carroll

    I think Willis’s characterization of Greenwald is deeply irresponsible. Here’s what Willis writes:

    “The second group without a clue are liberals who buy into the caricature of America’s soldiers as bloodthirsty savages who kill for the heck of it. Glenn Greenwald is in this camp. ”

    But if you follow Willis’s link, you’ll see that this is what Greenwald writes:

    “The WikiLeaks video is not an indictment of the individual soldiers involved — at least not primarily. Of course those who aren’t accustomed to such sentiments are shocked by the callous and sadistic satisfaction those soldiers seem to take in slaughtering those whom they perceive as The Enemy (even when unarmed and crawling on the ground with mortal wounds), but this is what they’re taught and trained and told to do. If you take even well-intentioned, young soldiers and stick them in the middle of a dangerous war zone for years and train them to think and act this way, this will inevitably be the result. The video is an indictment of the U.S. government and the war policies it pursues.” [emphasis added]

    Did Willis actually read Greenwald? It looks like he’s just knocking down a straw man for the sake of appearing patriotic.

  23. Christian Avard

    Dan, Jillian, and Eoin: Well said : )

    B.A. Dubois writes: *** I don’t take much stock in commentators with no military experience passing judgment on an event such like this… ****

    Actually I don’t think there’s anything wrong with turning to civilians with a knowledge of military issues for a well-informed analysis. In case we have forgotten the military is not the best source for obtaining accurate information. We would’ve never heard about Abu Ghraib or My Lai had it not been the work of Seymour Hersh. The military NEVER would’ve let that out. Let’s not forget the dubious Pentagon military analyst program when they were supposed to provide independent analysis and didn’t. The US Military also covertly paid for stories to run in Iraqi press as part of their propaganda efforts. Now we learn this morning that the Pentagon can’t find its own copy of the video that was leaked on Monday. There’s more, much more.

    Until then, I see no reason not to trust independent journalists to uncover the facts and I think they are capable of providing intelligent and accurate observations about how the military is and is not supposed to engage, no matter how much things unfold on the ground. And no matter what… the Military MUST honor the Geneva Conventions and the rules of warfare. NO excuses. If not, they must be held accountable.

  24. B.A. DuBois

    In the interest of putting a bit more light in the subject, without discussing who’s inhabiting the higher moral plain or which journalist is better than the other, or the inherent nastiness of the Pentagon, here’s a view from someone who, like, has *experience* in the issue being discussed, and which was posted on Andrew Sullivan’s website… you know… Andrew Sullivan, that knuckle-dragging conservative who wants to kill ’em all and let God sort them out?

    (Um, that was a bit of sarcasm, just to be clear….)

    Here’s the link:

    http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2010/04/the-lies-of-the-pentagon-ctd-3.html#more

    For those who want to look at this issue from another, more significant perspective, give it a read… from those who want to remain in their ivory towers and toss brickbats, well, I hear Starbucks is having a special today…

  25. Dan Storms

    It amazes me how easily people read into a situation what isn’t there. Commenters here and at Willis’s site talk as if these admittedly unidentified-as-such journalists’ walked into the middle of a fire fight and ended up dead as a consequence. No such thing happened. At no time in the video did I see or hear gunfire from these men, at no time did the Apache crew report gunfire aimed at them, at no time did anything clearly identifiable as a weapon even get pointed at the camera. You could say that there was combat in the area, but the evidence of the tape itself gives no such mitigation. What we see is troops at a distance misidentifying cameras as weapons and 8 men milling about as a gang of “insurgents” (I like to put that in quotes because, if I were an able-bodied person in a country that had been invaded, devastated physically, financially, and morally, and had seen tens of thousands of men, women, and children who were not in the least belligerant blown apart or forced to leave there homes, I might be a bit insurgent, too). Instead of trying to get better identification or actually witnessing what any reasonable person would consider hostile action or even directing ground troops to try and capture possibly intelligence-laden men, the airmen open up with armor-piercing automatic weapons, laugh about the consequences, then attack a van attempting to rescue a wounded person with no weapon or anything conceivably weapon-like at hand. And nonchalantly pass off the wounding of a child. Then our military covers up the story as it has tried to do so many times before in this useless, immoral, horrible war. Dan, I know you have some antipathy towards Greewald, but he has a much better record on the truth than the Pentagon, and his point (which Willis perversely misstates at least 3 times) that this has become SOP seems incontravertible. How many families butchered at a party, how many wedding guests slaughtered, how many Bagrams and Abu Gharaibs and Guantanamos, how much “collateral damage” that is first denied, then misstated, then grudgingly admitted as an “aberration” does it take?

  26. Steve Stein

    @Dan Storms:

    At no time in the video did I see or hear gunfire from these men, at no time did the Apache crew report gunfire aimed at them, at no time did anything clearly identifiable as a weapon even get pointed at the camera. You could say that there was combat in the area, but the evidence of the tape itself gives no such mitigation.

    This is a major drawback of this WikiLeaks report – no context. It sounds like you believe that our armed forces just flies drones around looking for groups of people and then opens fire on them for no reason.

  27. BP Myers

    @Steve said: It sounds like [Dan Storms believes] that our armed forces just flies drones around looking for groups of people and then opens fire on them for no reason.

    In (I think it was) B.A. DuBois link to Andrew Sullivan’s blog, an active-duty service member describes the rules of engagement as them needing to be “fifty-one percent” certain that those whom they are tracking are belligerents before they can open fire.

    Not a whole lot of room for error.

  28. Dan Storms

    @Steve Stein:

    In the first place, don’t put words in my mouth (which is what Oliver Willis did to Glenn Greenwald, Dan, if you’d bothered to read Glenn). What I said was that the video showed nothing particularly provocative of a bloody response, and 38 minutes is a damn long bit of context. I didn’t say there was no provocation, only none that we can see; to assume that there was some unseen “context” justifying the killing of unarmed men is as warrantless as assuming there was none, if not more so. Your conclusion as to my meaning is without support from what I actually said, and thus is fatuous. In the second place, the fact that the military tried to deny it, then lied about it, then tried to rationalize it, suggests a guilty conscience. The fact that this is routine by now (apparently unprovoked killing of nonbelligerants, followed by denial, lies, and finally grudging admission of yet another “aberration”) adds credence to this being SOP. In the third place, don’t put words in my mouth in the first place.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Dan Storms: Just made my way through Greenwald. @Steve Stein has portrayed him accurately. You have not. Here’s a choice bit:

      The WikiLeaks video is not an indictment of the individual soldiers involved – at least not primarily. Of course those who aren’t accustomed to such sentiments are shocked by the callous and sadistic satisfaction those soldiers seem to take in slaughtering those whom they perceive as The Enemy (even when unarmed and crawling on the ground with mortal wounds), but this is what they’re taught and trained and told to do. If you take even well-intentioned, young soldiers and stick them in the middle of a dangerous war zone for years and train them to think and act this way, this will inevitably be the result. The video is an indictment of the U.S. government and the war policies it pursues.

      And Oliver Willis nailed it. Although maybe Greenwald really believes he’s not condemning American soldiers by blaming the government for turning them into “callous” and “sadistic” soldiers who take “satisfaction” from “slaughtering” people.

  29. Bob Gardner

    It’s amazing how many people act like Sherlock Holmes when dealing with a murky (though admittedly tantalyzing) story from years ago, like Amy Bishop’s shooting of her brother. Then when confronted with a video of people actually getting shot, they turn into Sergeant Schultz.

  30. Dan Storms

    @Dan Kennedy

    I guess we have different standards for callous, indifferent, and sadistic. To shoot at people who are at worst offering only a potential threat (hazy identification of possible weapons, only the suggestion of being targeted, no actual fire directed at anyone); to indulge in black humor about killing people, whether justified by stress or not; to continue to fire on a wounded man as someone tries to rescue him, with no weapons visible and with no violence offered towards a gunship that has just pulverized the area; and to shrug off the wounding of a child as just desserts for bringing kids to a firefight (there was no firefight evident in the video, just the gunship firing on men who had not, in the video at least, offered any violence or resistance), qualifies in my book. Thousands of Iraqis, Afghanis, and Pakistanis killed solely for the crime of being in a country that we invaded and continue to occupy with no justification, that’s not an aberration, that’s callous indifference to the nth degree. Judged by the military’s actions (including their propensity to lie afterwards) and not their intent, I don’t see any other conclusion.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Dan Storms: Your point was that I had mischaracterized Greenwald by relying on @Steve Stein (and Oliver Willis) rather than reading what he had written myself. And you were wrong.

  31. Steve Stein

    @Dan Storms – I didn’t put words in your mouth. I expressed what I gleaned from your remarks. And once again, when you say

    to assume that there was some unseen “context” justifying the killing of unarmed men is as warrantless as assuming there was none

    I hear you saying the same thing.

    I believe our armed forces deserve the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. You obviously don’t.

  32. Neil Sagan

    For a guy who says “it’s only right that all of us hold off before offering any judgments,” you sure offer a lot of them.

  33. Steve Stein

    Here is Stephen Walt’s assessment of the video, in which he makes some valid points (“this incident wasn’t unusual”, “when we intervene in other countries, this is what we should expect”) but he doesn’t address the context – what happened before the video starts rolling, and why the gunship was called in in the first place.

    The comment thread (especially the discussion between “Mooj Killer”, “J Thomas” and “Steve C”) is particularly interesting.

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