What the WikiLeaks Video Shows

Experts unpack the footage: war crime, war tragedy, inexcusable spinning, or something in between?

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The video released by WikiLeaks showing a U.S. military attack that killed 12 people, including two Reuters employees, has sparked intense debate. It's possible to trace two broad themes in the discussion. The first concerns the nature and mission of the WikiLeaks group and traditional investigative reporting. The second centers on the question of what exactly the video shows. Upon release, the video was greeted as proof of misconduct by American soldiers. But as more and more eyes examine the footage, and military experts weigh in, the matter seems less clear: some say some of the men targeted do appear to be carrying AK-47s, and are not unarmed, as originally claimed. Others remark on the many gray areas of counterinsurgency fighting. As David Adesnik at The Moderate Voice puts it, with refreshing humility: "for non-experts (such as myself), it is hard to know exactly what is happening in the video. The rush to judgment by Wikileaks suggests that it is more interested in politics and publicity than in figuring out what actually happened."

So what did actually happen? Here are the arguments from key players in the debate and a representative sampling of opinion across the spectrum:

  • Watch When They Open Fire on the Van  WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange, appearing on Al Jazeera English, says that though the first shooting episode is troubling, things become "much more serious when one of the Reuters photographers is crawling away wounded" and the American military opens fire on both him and those attempting to help him, who arrived in a van. Assange is also confident both in the video's accuracy and that the military tried to cover up the event.

  • Doesn't Meet 'Hostile Intent' Criteria  Think Progress's Zaid Jilani articulates the reaction of much of the left-leaning media:
If the video is indeed an accurate portrayal of events, it would appear that the military's official response to the events is inaccurate and that it has not been telling the truth when it claims that the Apache attack "occurred after security forces came under fire." Additionally, it would appear that the Apache pilots in question violated the 2007 U.S. Rules of Engagement for Iraq, which permit the use of "deadly force" only against individuals who "pose a threat to Coalition Forces by committing a hostile act or demonstrating hostile intent."
  • Actually, It Looks Like It Does  "In the video, starting at the 3:50 mark," writes conservative Hot Air's Ed Morrissey, "one member of this group starts preparing what clearly looks like an RPG launcher, as well as some individuals with AK-47s ... In 2007 Baghdad, this would be a clear threat to US and Iraqi Army ground force." Nor does he agree with those criticizing the military for shooting at the van, whose occupants attempted to help the wounded: "the video clearly shows that the vehicle in question bore no markings of a rescue vehicle at all, and the men who ran out of the van to grab the wounded man wore no uniforms identifying themselves as such. Under any rules of engagement, and especially in a terrorist hot zone like Baghdad in 2007, that vehicle would properly be seen as support for the terrorists that had just been engaged and a legitimate target for US forces." His response regarding the Reuters journalists is seen elsewhere in the conservative blogosphere as well: "this shows is just how risky it is [as a journalist] to embed with terrorists."
  • These Guys Were Armed, Though  "If you watch the entire video," objects Gregg Carlstrom at The Majlis, "one or two of the men in the square certainly appear to be armed (though it's hard to tell from low-resolution gunsight video)." Gawker's John Cook agrees, as does The Weekly Standard's Bill Roggio: "There is nothing in that video that is inconsistent with the military's report. What you see is the air weapons team engaging armed men." He also notes the empty streets: "This is a very good indicator that there was a battle going on in the vicinity. Civilians smartly clear the streets during a gunfight." Both Cook and Roggio also wonder what happened before the video picks up with a U.S. officer in the middle of a sentence.
  • Former NSC Member and U.S. Lt. Col. Debate  In an interview with MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan, Brett McGurkh, who previously served on the national security council, calls the video "tragic" but says it's "we've had helicopters shot down in this part of Baghdad I can see where [the Americans] were coming from. I think it's slanderous to say [as WikiLeaks editor Assange does] that their entire mission is just to kill as many Iraqis as possible." Lt. Col Anthony Shaffer isn't so sure that lets the soldiers off the hook, though. "You've got to be very, very precise [with aerial combat]," he says, and "this is where we've got to get it right if we're going to have the population on our side." Regarding whether Rules of Engagement criteria were met, he says "based on what I've seen only ... no they were not ... minimum force is the key here." He also points out, as many do, that "speaking as an intelligence officer my intent is to capture [those that were wounded]," not fire again at them.

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  • Military Law Expert Weighs In  Salon's Mark Benjamin explains that the Americans' actions may not have been "illegal under the Law of Armed Conflict." What does that say?
The shorthand version of that law is that you can kill the enemy, period. The gray area in asymmetrical warfare, however, is determining just who the enemy is. Given those ambiguities, in a military courtroom a jury would have to determine if the shooter "honestly and reasonably" believed he was shooting the enemy, according to Gary Solis, an expert on military law at Georgetown University. "That will always be a defense," he told Salon.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.