Tuesday, April 06, 2010

"Collateral Murder": why Wikileaks sucks

(This post updated here for the cablegate leak)

In theory, Wikileaks is exactly the sort of organization I'd like to support. What makes modern civilization work is that government is transparent and accountable to the people, and a site posting leaks will make government even more accountable.

That video is exactly the sort of thing I'd like to see leaked. It showed two things. The first was an embarrassment to the military. The second was proof that they improperly denied a FOIA request – there was no “national security” grounds for denying access to that video, which we can all plainly see.

Despite this, I won't be donating money to Wikileaks. The reason is that they have no integrity, no honor.

The ideal “leaks” site would be one that doesn't take a sides. A good example of this is similarly named Wikipedia: their rules forbid taking sides, and when bias creeps in, they point it out. A lot of articles have a warning above them declaring "The neutrality of this article is disputed".

Neutrality is important because there are always two sides to an argument. No matter how evil or corrupt, the other side has their point of view. Hitler had a point view. Stalin had a point of view. Saddam Hussien had a point of view. When I was a kid, I read "To Kill a Mockingbird", whose theme was the importance of understanding another person's point of view, to "walk a mile in their shoes". This important concept applies not only to the downtrodden in life, but to everyone, including soldiers and CEOs.


The Army investigated this incident, and has produced a report (“6--2nd Brigade Combat Team 15-6 Investigation.pdf")

These helicopters were not joy riding looking for people to kill. Instead, they were part of a battle that had already been going on for 4 hours (by the time this video was taken). All non-combatants had either fled the area or hid in their basements – anybody walking around in the area was likely a combatant.

Except for the two reporters, these were insurgents. They were carrying machine guns and RPGs. You can see this in the Wikileaks video. Near the start of the video is the shot where the camera zooms in on the reporters, believing their camera bags were actually weapons slung over their shoulders:

A few seconds later, however, the camera moves up a bit showing the guys following the cameramen. Those guys are clearly holding weapons in their hands, one holding a short weapon that looks like a machine gun, and another holding what looks like an RPG. You can't really see it in the still picture I show below, but when you watch the video, it's obvious that gun-shaped objects are swinging from their right hands (download the video from Wikileaks and see for yourself!).

According to the Army investigation, when foot soldiers arrived at the scene, they indeed found RPGs and machine guns on the dead insurgents (and cameras on the dead cameramen).

Reuters tells cameramen that they should wear something identifying them as press. These cameramen didn't follow that recommendation. If they had, there is a good chance that the pilots a hundred yards away would've realized that they had cameras, and it was cameras slung over their shoulders, and not weapons.

When our soldiers decided to fire, it was because those guys with the RPGs walked behind a building out of sight, then somebody appears to be furtively aiming something around a corner. Most people agree that this was a cameraman with a huge telescopic lens, but even know that, it still looks to me more like somebody aiming an RPG at the helicopter.

Why were the children injured? Nobody is necessarily to blame, but it as much the consequence of their parents decision to drive into a combat zone as it is the soldier's decision to prevent a suspected insurgent from escaping.

I don't like the occupation of Iraq, and I'm not standing up for the soldiers. Their joy in killing is hard to stomach. However, I have watched the video multiple times. Our soldiers neither targeted the journalists or the children. Instead, they fired upon a group insurgents clearly carrying weapons during a larger battle. The journalists died, and the children got injured, because they were mixed up with insurgents.

Whether firing on the van helping (what is believed to be) an insurgent escape is still a salient question here.


Our Army was clearly wrong in withholding this video. It's exactly the sort of thing that should be revealed by FOIA requests. Reuters rightly tried to make the Army accountable for the killing of it's journalists. There is a clear question about whether firing on the van was justified. It's certainly embarrassing, but that's exactly the point of transparency. I'm glad that a “leaks” site exists to reveal such things.

But this post isn't about the incident, but about Wikileaks.Wikileaks is partisan, with no integrity. In their edited video, they highlight the cameramen, but they don't similarly highlight the guys carrying RPGs/machine-guns. They describe this as “indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people” in an Iraqi suburb, when I can see clearly that they were firing on insurgents holding weapons during a 4 hour battle. In a Twitter post, they describe the Army investigation report as “bunk”, when it clearly is a good description of what went on. This partisan approach to “leaks” is not the sort of thing I want to see.

It's not simply partisan, but greedy. Their front page also encourages donations. The more they can distort the contents of leaks like this, the more money they stand to make.

UPDATE: I've just started reading "mainstream" media coverage of this video. Apparently, others have the same sort of criticisms that I have. For example, in this NYTimes article are the following bits:

The site is not shy about its intent to shape media coverage, and Mr. Assange said he considered himself both a journalist and an advocate; should he be forced to choose one, he would choose advocate. WikiLeaks did not merely post the 38-minute video, it used the label “Collateral Murder” and said it depicted “indiscriminate” and “unprovoked” killing. (The Pentagon defended the killings and said no disciplinary action was taken at the time of the incident.)
Critics contend that the shorter video was misleading because it did not make clear that the attacks took place amid clashes in the neighborhood and that one of the men was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade.

Mr. Assange has to choose between "journalism" (which I would eagerly donate money to) and "activism" (a poison people like me would never support).

UPDATE: Wikipedia now has a page dedicated to the July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrike. Whereas Wikileaks uses the word "murder", Wikepdia uses only the word "kill". Wikipedia describes the situation without passion or prejudice.


productspace said...

I disagree largely with your opinion of events, but let's put that aside for a moment.

The only reason this video came to light was because of wikileaks. The incident (warcrime or unfortunate colateral damage) is debatable. The coverup isn't.

There is much value in the debate that is ongoing - about the incident, about the coverup, about the passive and patriotic denialism of mass media, about the SOP in Iraq, about the cost of waging war.

We wouldn't have that debate if the well-funded American Media that are happy to uncritically quote "senior government officials" were the only ones doing the reporting.

This is why I would strongly encourage supporting wikileaks financially - they are a counterbalance, and a badly needed one; never mind their bias. I can make up my own mind.

Robert Graham said...

The incident is debatable. The coverup isn't.

Well, even the "coverup" is debatable. Were there any rules broken here? I'm not sure, I don't have the information.

However, I do have an opinion that if it turns out no rules were broken, then the rules should change, as this is exactly the sort of thing that needs to be made public in order to hold the military accountable.

We wouldn't have that debate if the well-funded American Media that are happy to uncritically quote "senior government officials" were the only ones doing the reporting.

The media has integrity; they believe there are two sides to an argument. Just because they don't uncritically take your word for something doesn't mean they are wrong.

The flaw in the media isn't due to some "well funded" conspiracy, the flaw is that in the past, the media was our gatekeepers. There was no internet that gave us the video ourselves -- instead there were only newspapers that had to report on what a video like this would contain.

The media is dead. There is little need for somebody to report about what's in the video if people can just watch it for themselves on the Internet. We don't need the intermediaries anymore. I only wish that sites like Wikileaks has the same neutral ethics.

they are a counterbalance, and a badly needed one

An unethical counterbalance is not needed.

Unknown said...

If american army engages wars and kills children and innocent people, then something must be wrong. they have no rules: how can you put down an entire building in a city without knowing what and who is inside??? how can you shoot on 2 unarmed men trying to carry away a dying one?
This is a massacre

Daniel said...

1. that is a RPG that guy is leaning on next to the guy with the striped shirt.

2. he walks out of sight.

3. he does NOT reapear at the house corner, that is another guy (the fotographer) with an actual camera.

look closly at 4:12, you can see its a long round object attached to a square object, just like a tele lens attached to a slr body.

At what war is it acceptable to shoot unarmed people trying to rescoue another anarmed, disabled person? And if a city is a war zone, where to you leave your children?

Techblog said...

They we're shooting people that tried to help the injured. There's NO justification for the behaviour of those apache pilots.
It's worse than animals.

Starting a headline with:
Why Wikileaks sucks:
Now that's objective journalism!!!

When Wikileaks brings truth to the world.
CNN is busy with Tiger Woods.
They deserve financial support.

'An unethical counterbalance is not needed.'
Now that's funny.
Those actions of the pilots were ethical?

productspace said...


Well, this incident occured in 2007. The media reported verbatim the pentagons official line. Reuters tried to investigate - and was denied FOIA requests for the video repeatedly because publishing it would reveal "state secrets".

Because of wikileaks, we can now watch this video with our own eyes and make up our own minds and have a discussion.

That pretty clearly demonstrates the need for a counterbalance, doesn't it?

For a similar case, Greenwalt does a good job contrasting US reporting with, well, real journalism in his article about the hushed up murders in Afghanistan: here.

The thing here is that some media (in this case, the Afghan press) have integrity, believe there are two sides to each argument, find arguments from both sides and report them. Some of them even spend money to go after proof and facts! CNN, NYT, etc. pp. tend to believe that there is the press statement from the Pentagon, it's the truth and publish that. Precisely the thing I am ranting against.

And, yes, the video and the investigation report make it bloody obvious that the rules of engagement weren't broken. This is par for the course - if you see people with potential weapons walking in a residential neighborhood, you gun all of them down, including pedestrians simply walking in the way and demolish buildings in said residential neighborhood with missiles, no matter who is in them or if there are other, nearby houses. If some children get wasted in the process, well, it's the fault of the parents for being in a place that is being shot at from armored gunships miles away. I don't know about you, but I am very troubled by the ethics of such SOPs.

Watch the long version of the video (here) - you can see the clotheslines that indicate that this is a family neighborhood and a woman with child trying to get away from the carnage. This is what we've been doing to this country for the last 7 years *as a matter of course and SOP*? For what possible gain?

One exercise that some people have trouble with - imagine the same tactics applied in reverse, maybe to the war on drugs: There's a dealer on a schoolyard and it looks like he might have a sidearm? Boom, waste the kids, parents and teachers. That might cause some resentment, mightn't it? How happy would you be about those helicopters making your country "safer"?

Robert Graham said...

My point isn't about the incident, but about Wikileaks.

Saying that people were "killed" is a statement of fact. Saying that they were "murdered" is a judgment.

For some people, their beliefs are so strong, they can't tell the difference. But there is a difference -- and that difference is the basis of honesty, integrity, honor, and ethics. Wikileaks appears to have none.

Unknown said...

Not a chance Graham.
Murder is murder any way you try to dilute it and the attack on those men trying to help that wounded person is murder to any reasonable person in spite of how you personally choose to spin it.
This old Nam vet can tell you this stuff happened but often because of guys being all the time scared s***less and firing at anything that moved.
No video game playing attitudes then like these new troops who appear totally detached from reality.
Wikileaks deserves high praise (and my donation), for cutting through DOD censoring and as productspace noted, I can make up my own mind. Your conclusion is yours alone. I do NOT share it.

Julian Pietersma said...

If the person peering around the corner is trying to fire on the Apache, why when the apache swings around are they all standing in a group?

If they were trying to shoot down the helicopter, wouldn't then, I don't know, HIDE, or RUN?

Jacinto Borges said...

Thanks for you perspective.

I didn't know it had occured during a battle.
The media coverage I saw in my country was even worse, they didn't even mentioned that were people armed.

I think they made a mistake, and they have being doing some, sometime now. But in a world were most information is so manipulated, at least Wikileaks gives the original documents and data for checking, that no other media does.

Khakjaan Wessington said...

Explosive Monochrome [News Poem, April 8, 2010]
“We had a guy shooting... and now he's behind the building.”
“Uh, negative, he was, uh, right in front of the brad. Uh, 'bout there... one o'clock. Haven't seen anything since then.”
“Just fuck it. Once you get on 'em just open 'em up.”

With monochrome eyeballs the whirlybird watches
And likewise we're fixed on the ignorant target;
And both of us think of the black and white movies—
Those cellulose nitrates, those obsolete pictures
Of characters featuring colorless faces,
Of subjects long dead and the lingering stigma
Of monochrome colors in digitized footage:
The murder it plays out like X-Box Three Sixty.

AmPowerBlog said...

"There is a clear question about whether firing on the van was justified."

No sir, not all at. ROE were followed, and ground forces had been in hot engagements all morning. The Reuters journos did not display press credentials, and chose to embed with insurgents. One RPG could take down an Apache, and the captain still asked for permission before taking out the hostile elements. You might need to revisit this. WikiLeaks has been badly discredited, and the media as well. There was no coverup, since there was nothing to cover up.

Lots of reporting on this at my blog ...

Anonymous said...

I think you meant "without" instead of "with" in your last line about wikipedia.

somon said...

It is not the inital engagement that is the problem. I don;t really accept as true the post hoc claims that some of the people filmed were armed, but the cameras were easily mistaken for weapons and that mistake is not a crime, it is just a tragic mistake.

The problem is the engagement of the wounded when they were being helped by clearly unarmed civilians and the recklessness displayed in ascertaining whether they were armed or civilians. This occurs after the section of video you analyse here.