WikiLeaks Provides Its Worth as a Backstop

Just before his body disappears into a fusillade of armor-piercing rounds, fired from the 30mm cannon of the Apache helicopter circling overhead, Namir Noor-Eldeen, a 22-year old Reuters photojournalist, peers around the corner of a building, setting up a shot. From his right arm dangles something cylindrical--a camera with telephoto lens, maybe. Or an RPG.

The pilot of the U.S. Army helicopter is sure it's a weapon. Permission to engage comes over the radio. As the gunship's sweeping arc brings a group of a dozen Iraqi men back into view, transmissions cut through the static: "Just fuckin', once you get on 'em just open 'em up." And then, "Light 'em all up." The pilot obliges, the cannon chatters, and half-second later, the scene explodes in a cloud of dust and smoke.

A painful new portrait of war emerged yesterday, with WikiLeaks' release of still-classified, military video footage showing the death of two Reuters journalists and at least nine other Iraqis, most of them apparently innocent civillians.

The Iceland-based organization, known for obtaining and disseminating classified, or sensitive--and potentially damning--corporate and state documents, announced in late February, via Twitter, that it had "[f]inally cracked the encryption to US military video in which journalists, among others, are shot," generating considerable speculation over what the tape would it show.

The seventeen-minute film, pared down from thirty-eight minutes of raw footage, seems to speak for itself; yet even with subtitles transcribing the radio transmissions, the occasional identification tag, and introductory slides, the reality of the situation is hardly lucid.

The shooting took place on July 12, 2007, in Little Baghdad, a suburb of the capital. Noor-Eldeen and his Reuters colleague Saeed Chmagh, 40, and a father of four, had been covering a nearby U.S. military operation. As they crossed an open square, a pair of Apache helicopters providing close ground support to the operation reported seeing "five to six individuals with AK47s" and opted to engage the group.

Rules of engagement aside, the radio banter between pilots is excruciating to listen to. "Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards," says one, after the initial volley of cannon fire, followed by a series of complements for a "good shoot."

As one wounded man attempts to crawl away, identified by WikiLeaks in the video as Chmagh, a pilot taunts him, daring him to give the Apaches justification to engage again. "Come on, buddy. All you gotta do it pick up a weapon."

A van pulls up, and as the wounded man is loaded inside the Apaches open fire again. When U.S. soldiers on the ground arrive on the scene--apparently driving a Bradley over a body in the process, eliciting a laugh from the pilots--and pull from the front seat not insurgents but two badly wounded children, over the radio is heard, "Well it's their fault for bringing their kids into a battle."

When, immediately following the shooting, it emerged that two reporters had been killed, a defense official stated, "There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force."

Reuters requested the footage, via FOIA, as part of their own investigation into the men's violent deaths. And while the Department of Defense screened it for top editors in a 2007 off-the-record meeting, they declined to release it publicly. (WikiLeaks refused to comment on how they obtained an encrypted copy, which the Pentagon acknowledged Monday was authentic.)

The Monday morning press conference, held at the National Press Club in Washington, was a notable departure for WikiLeaks. Since its inception three years ago, the donor-funded site has typically offered little editorial comment on the material it releases; it's been more of a clearinghouse than soapbox.

To unveil the film, however, Julian Assange, the website's editor, flew in from Reykjavik and provided sober commentary throughout.

Ten months after the incident, he said by way of introduction, the Pentagon issued a statement to Reuters saying the killings were lawful under the rules of engagement. "I believe that if those killings were lawful under the rules of engagement," he continued, "then the rules of engagement are wrong. Deeply wrong."

While taking questions, Assange equivocated in labeling the Pentagon's actions a "cover-up." But he highlighted incongruities between their investigation of the incident--which exonerated the pilots, and which Centcom defended in a statement late Monday--and the cavalier attitudes of those firing the cannons.

"The behavior of the pilots is like they're playing a video game," said Assange. "Their desire is to get high-scores in their computer game."

For Assange, and many others, the tape would be easier to watch -- to make sense of -- were it evidence of a systematic cover-up. More troubling than the idea that it shows war gone wrong, perhaps, is the idea that it shows war gone right.

And yet, perhaps the most telling aspect of the release is that, in the absence of budgets and bureaus for American newspapers, investigative journalism in Iraq has fallen to someone like Assange, an Australian national at the head of an Icelandic non-profit founded by Chinese dissidents.

WikiLeaks' role in the fourth estate should be that of a backstop, yet it's forced to play catcher--a position it can't fill. One is left to wonder how many similar stories might come out of Iraq and Afghanistan, but for lack of accompanying reporter casualties will go uninvestigated and untold.

There is a kind of exquisite pain reserved for watching narratives whose endings you already know.  In the film, bodies go flying as the first volley of shells hits the Iraqi men. And here is Namir Noor-Eldeen, no older than an American university student, running for his life. Doubled over, he manages a dozen steps toward a garbage heap at the center of the square, while the gunsight on the screen trails him. He falls, and the second and third bursts don't get him, but the fourth one does.

-- Kevin Charles Redmon is an intern at The Atlantic