The WikiLeaks Report, Civilian Deaths, and 'Indiscriminate' Attacks


WikiLeaks is out today with footage showing a U.S. helicopter attack in Baghdad in 2007 that killed 12 people, including two Reuters staffers, and injured two children. The video, shown above, is graphic and incriminating; U.S. forces can be heard joking and laughing while mowing down men dressed in plain clothing, after seemingly confusing the journalists' cameras for weapons. They later fire upon a van that has come to pick up the wounded.

The report is notable for two reasons. First, it demonstrates WikiLeaks' expanding ambitions. As Wired's Danger Room points out, the domain is usually limited to agnostic muckraking; it leaves it to reporters and readers to figure out what to make of the leaked documents. Here, it's followed up beyond simply posting the video with a full report on its implications, called Collateral Murder.

The second matter is more contentious, since it calls to question the legitimacy of that expanded effort. Mediaite takes issuewith WikiLeaks' portrayal of the killings as "indiscriminate," rather than a horrible, tragic mistake.

While in some respects, WikiLeaks should be lauded for getting information out, the way that this is presented goes beyond responsible. "Indiscriminate" implies hit-or-miss or thoughtless. But this video clearly demonstrates that not to be the case. The military personnel recorded on the tape audibly mistook the camera for an RPG, a weapon that can, and has, taken down Apache Helicopters. While this is a horribly sad and terrible instance of the horrors of war, the military personnel were clearly fearing for their own lives. Not to diminish the tragedy, but to present it as indiscriminate reveals a larger agenda that belittles everyone involved.

Sure enough, WikiLeaks' presentation of the material is heavy-handed at times (to set the tone, it starts off with a George Orwell quote). But is it actually wrong to call the killings indiscriminate? At this point, that's still a good question. Mediaite rightly points out that there is clearly some sort of military protocol that's being followed, what with the shooter identifying weapons and asking for permission to fire. That could make this incident quite different from the other civilian-death cover-up recently uncovered in Afghanistan, in which U.S. forces initially blamed the deaths of five civilians on honor killings. But Mediaite doesn't address whether that protocol was followed correctly, or whether the protocol itself adheres to the letter of the law. For that, WikiLeaks' expanded reporting may have some answers; it's also published the military's classified Rules of Engagement for 2006, 2007, and 2008, covering the before, during, and after periods around the killings. More than an emotional reaction to the callousness seen in the video—which is unquestionably jarring—an in-depth reading of the laws should reveal how much of an impact the WikiLeaks report will (or should) have. Watch this space.

The WikiLeaks Report, Civilian Deaths, and 'Indiscriminate' Attacks | U.S.