I recounted how Julian Assange and his (then) merry band put together the soon-to-be infamous (and revealing) "Collateral Murder" video from Iraq, leaked by Chelsea Manning. Assange then left Iceland for D.C. and the press conference. Here's what happened next, below. For much more, see my books The Age of WikiLeaks and (with Kevin Gosztola) Truth and Consequences: Chelsea Manning.
On April 5, 2010, WikiLeaks posted on its site the Iraq video, now
titled Collateral Murder. It showed U.S. Army Apache helicopter air
strikes in an eastern district of Baghdad in July 2007, which killed two
staffers for Reuters and a dozen or more others. WikiLeaks said it had
obtained the video from unnamed "whistleblowers" in the military.
The video drew a massive worldwide audience, quickly reaching
millions. Now WikiLeaks had fully arrived -- as a concept, as an
organization, as a media fixture in America.
Mass attention, but also confusion, greeted the video's debut. The
WikiLeaks site crashed from all the interest and versions showing up on
YouTube varied in length (without explanation) and quality. Sound was an
issue, since one key aspect was the often crude or celebratory
commentary by crew members in the helicopters as they targeted, then
destroyed, some of those on the street below. "Look at those dead
bastards!" one crew member exclaimed. Some versions of the videos
helpfully included verbatim subtitles.
Quickly, a Pentagon official confirmed to Reuters that it was legit.
Reuters had been attempting since 2007, under the Freedom of Information
Act, to get a copy of the video. According to The New York Times,
"Reuters employees were allowed to view the video on an off-the-record
basis two weeks after the killings, but they were not allowed to obtain a
copy of it." Now the military revealed that it could not even find its
own copy of the video.
The shorter tape exposed the first two attacks on that fateful July
day. First, the "Crazyhorse 1/8" copter team targeted with 30 mm cannon
fire a group of about ten men walking on an urban street, suspected
insurgents, more than one possibly carrying weapons, including an AK-47.
This was when the two Reuters staffers, Namir Noor-Eldeen (who was
holding a camera with a long lens that might have been viewed by some as
an RPG launcher) and Saeed Chmagh were hit, the first killed instantly,
the other badly wounded.
The second incident involved 30 mm cannon fire aimed at an unarmed
Iraqi who had arrived in his van (with the two children in the front
seat) to rescue the wounded Chmagh, who was crawling on the pavement.
Three died in this assault, including Chmagh and the van driver, and the
two kids were severely wounded.
The full video included a third incident a little later on the same
day, showing three Hellfire missiles fired into a building by an Apache
crew (with the unfortunate code name "Bush"). Several men -- some
perhaps armed, others unarmed -- had been shown entering the building.
Some of them, and an unknown number of civilians, including women and
children, were reported to have died there.
The mainstream press covered it widely. Elisabeth Bumiller at The New
York Times noted that at the time of the 2007 incident the military had
cited "hostile" fire in the area. But now she observed flatly that "the
video does not show hostile action." Yet a military investigation after
the incident had cleared the copter crews and no disciplinary action
The audio fueled the outrage. "Just, fucking -- once you get on 'em,
just open 'em up," one crew member advised. As the wounded Reuters
staffer crawled on the sidewalk, a crew member practically begged him,
"All you gotta do is pick up a weapon," meaning that then he could be
fired on again.
When it became clear that two children were hurt,
someone commented, "Well, it's their fault for bringing their kids into a
battle." When a U.S. vehicle rolled over a dead body, one observer
seemed to chuckle.
Hours after the video appeared, the U.S. Central Command released its
report on the 2007 incident. It asserted that the soldiers of Bravo
Company 2-16 Infantry had come under small arms and RPG fire that
morning nearby, forcing the arrival of the Apaches. From there on out
the crew adhered to the rules of engagement. The report included
pictures of machine guns and grenades it claimed were found near the
bodies of those killed. The Reuters employees, it charged, "made no
effort to visibly display their status as press or media representatives
and their familiar behavior with, and close proximity to, the armed
insurgents and their furtive attempts to photograph the coalition ground
forces made them appear as hostile combatants to the Apaches that
engaged them." But how could men walking in the street a mile from the
helicopters effectively display their press credentials?
Fox News interviewed Assange, who said, "it's likely some of the
individuals seen in the video were carrying weapons." In fact, a draft
version of the video made specific reference to the AK-47s and RPGs, but
then WikiLeaks became "unsure" about it. "Based upon visual evidence I
suspect there probably were AKs and an RPG, but I'm not sure that means
anything," Assange said. "Nearly every Iraqi household has a rifle or an
AK. Those guys could have just been protecting their area."
Talking to Fox, Assange called the assault on the van the most
damning part of the video. "I'm very skeptical that was done under the
rules of engagement; and if it was legal, the rules of engagement must
be changed," he said.
Pentagon chief Robert Gates slammed WikiLeaks for releasing the video
without providing any context. It was like looking at a war "through a
soda straw... These people can put out anything they want, and they're
never held accountable for it." But Assange countered, "it's ludicrous
to allege that we have taken anything out of context in this video." He
called Gates a "liar" and asked the media to "stop spinning."
Greg Mitchell is author of more than a dozen books, including his latest on Chelsea Manning and "The Age of WikiLeaks." His new book on Iraq and the media is "So Wrong for So Long."