On a scorching July morning in 2007, American troops, supported by Apache attack helicopters, investigated a report of shots fired in the mostly Shiite suburb of New Baghdad.
Not far away, Namir Noor-Eldeen, a 22-year-old Reuters photographer, and Saeed Chmagh, a 40-year-old father of four who was a Reuters driver and staff assistant, heard that there was an American military raid in progress and set off to check it out. U.S. troop strength in Iraq had recently reached its high point of 150,000 under the surge ordered by President George W. Bush. The top priority for those troops was to bring order to the chaotic and deadly streets of the capital. The success, or lack thereof, of the surge was important news.
Both Reuters employees were dead before the morning ended. They were among about a dozen Iraqi men who were strafed by 30-millimeter cannons aboard the helicopters. Chmagh was only wounded in the initial assault, but he was killed a few minutes later when the aircraft opened fire again after a Kia minivan stopped to retrieve the injured. Two children who were inside the minivan were hurt in the second burst of fire.
Now we can see it all happen pretty much the way the helicopter pilots saw it. Classified military video taken from the Apaches’ gun sights was posted on the Internet this week by WikiLeaks, which says it received the video and supporting documents from “a number of military whistleblowers.” Reuters had sought for several years to obtain the video under the Freedom of Information Act, without success.
The news agency did not buy the military’s assertion shortly after the attack that “there is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,” as spokesman Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl put it. Where were the journalists’ cameras? Where were the video and audio recordings from the military units involved? Where were the weapons the American soldiers would have retrieved from the bodies of the dead men if they actually were a “hostile force” engaged in “combat operations” against the allied troops?
WikiLeaks, which published an expanded set of materials on a separate Web site, collateralmurder.com, says the video depicts “the indiscriminate slaying” of the Iraqi men, and describes the assault on the Kia minivan as “unprovoked.”
I watched the video this week (and I encourage you to watch it, though it is graphic and upsetting), and I do not agree that the killings were indiscriminate or unprovoked. I think the term “collateral murder” and some of the accompanying commentary is unduly emotional.
The American pilots spot about a dozen men in the middle of the street, strolling casually. They mistake cameras carried by the two journalists for weapons — but there is no mistaking the fact that several other men in the group are really carrying rifles, which have been identified as the AK-47 favored by Iraqi insurgents, as well as the Saddam-era military and the various militias that evolved once the war began (The U.S. military does not use the Soviet-designed AK-47). One of the pilots says he has spotted one man with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. I did not see this in the video, but if there was an RPG, it may have been outside the camera’s field of view.
When the Apaches open fire, the men have converged in a tight group on a street corner, with little to distinguish the Reuters employees from their companions and nothing to identify any of them as journalists.
If I could ask those two newsmen, one of whom was barely older than my own journalist daughter, a single question, it would be: What were you thinking? You were standing with a group of armed men in the middle of a Baghdad street, in broad daylight, in an area where you believed the U.S. military was looking for insurgents, with helicopters buzzing overhead that clearly were not giving traffic reports on the radio. What did you think was going to happen next?
When the minivan arrives on the scene, the men who emerge to collect the dead and wounded are presumed by the pilots to be additional insurgents. The pilots seek and receive authorization to fire on the rescuers. The van does not bear Red Crescent markings or other indications that it is a medical vehicle.
Even now, little seems to be known about the men who were with Chmagh and Noor-Eldeen or about those who tried to help them. We do not know whether they were insurgents or, as I suspect, local militia, most likely Shiite, given the neighborhood. The line between the two has often been blurry in any case. There is no sign that the pilots knew that children were present until long after the shooting stopped.
I don’t know why the U.S. military did not release the video footage earlier. The Associated Press reported this week that the Pentagon says it cannot find its copy of the video, though military sources believe the version on WikiLeaks.org is authentic.
WikiLeaks is a loose consortium of journalists, human rights activists and other advocates that uses servers based in Sweden and elsewhere to evade government efforts around the world to suppress information. Though it has struggled for money — it even shut down briefly early this year — it has scored a number of noteworthy disclosures, ranging from emails hacked from British climate scientists and Sarah Palin’s personal account, to accounts of corruption involving the family of the late Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, to the operating procedures at the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Last month, WikiLeaks revealed documents from 2008 indicating that the Pentagon under President Bush studied ways to try to marginalize and discredit WikiLeaks itself.
Though I am not persuaded by WikiLeaks’ interpretation of the Baghdad video, and I find it disturbing that American military personnel may have been the source of the leak, WikiLeaks is doing important work that needs to be done. It may not always be great journalism, but it is dedicated to journalism’s greatest principle, which is that we are all better off when the truth is revealed.
This week, WikiLeaks gave us a look at a long, bloody and controversial war — a view that the people who direct that war in our name did not choose to let us see. It is hard to watch, but we needed to see it.