New CN Series: The Revelations of WikiLeaks: No. 1—The Video that Put Assange in US Crosshairs

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Collateral Murder” created a media sensation in 2010 and led to Chelsea Manning’s imprisonment and to a DOJ investigation of Julian Assange, reports Elizabeth Vos. But the war crimes the video exposed got no one else in trouble.

Consortium News today begins a series of articles, “The Revelations of WikiLeaks,” that will look back on the major works of the publication that have altered the world since its founding in 2006. This series is an effort to counter mainstream media coverage, which is ignoring WikiLeaks’ work, and instead is focusing on Julian Assange’s personality. It is the uncovering by WikiLeaks of governments’ crimes and corruption that set the U.S. after Assange and which ultimately led to his arrest on April 11. The “Collateral Murder” video was just the first of many major WikiLeaks revelations that made the journalist one of the world’s most wanted men, simply for the act of publishing.  

By Elizabeth Vos
Special to Consortium News

WikiLeaks was founded in 2006, but it was the April 5, 2010, publication of “Collateral Murder” that made the whistleblower-publisher a world-wide phenomenon, attracting admirers and enemies.

WikiLeaks wrote of the film: “The video, shot from an Apache helicopter gun-sight, clearly shows the unprovoked slaying of a wounded Reuters employee and his rescuers. Two young children involved in the rescue were also seriously wounded.”

WikiLeaks noted that Reuters had unsuccessfully attempted to gain access to the video through the Freedom of Information Act in the years after the strike.

The day after the release of the footage, The New York Times described WikiLeaks as a once-fringe website that had moved into the big time. “The site has become a thorn in the side of authorities in the United States and abroad,” it said. “With the Iraq attack video, the clearinghouse for sensitive documents is edging closer toward a form of investigative journalism and to advocacy.”

Before 2010 WikiLeaks received a few high-profile journalism awards. But in the years since the publication of the video, it has received a slew of honors, including The Sam Adams Award for Integrity.

On April 16, WikiLeaks announced a fresh award for its founder, Julian Assange, even as he remains isolated in a London prison.

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Chelsea Manning

“Collateral Murder” was one of the most prominent releases sourced from then-Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who served seven years in a military prison as a result.

Manning, who had access to the video, having a Top Secret clearance, first offered the video to The New York Times and The Washington Post, which both turned her down. Manning then turned to WikiLeaks.

Manning described the events that led up to her decision to submit the footage to the press in leaked audio of her testimony during her 2013 court-martial.

She said Reuters’ inability to get the footage via a freedom-of-information request contributed to her decision to leak it. “The most alarming aspect of the video for me, was the seemingly delight of bloodlust they [the pilots] appeared to have. They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging with, and seemed to not value human life in referring to them as ‘dead bastards,’ and congratulating each other on the ability to kill in large numbers.”

Marjorie Cohn, a legal analyst, is one of those who has described the contents of the footage as evidence of U.S. war crimes. As such she argues that Manning was legally obligated to expose such information. In a 2013 column for Truthout, she cites the Geneva Conventions, the Army Field Manual and the Uniform Code of Military Justice as all setting forth the duty of a service member to disobey unlawful orders.

None of the pilots, military officials nor policy-makers have ever been charged or otherwise held responsible for the events shown in the video.

U.S. Army 2007 Apache Helicopter Attack

The film depicts the July 12, 2007, shooting of over a dozen Iraqis by U.S. Army Apache helicopters armed with 30mm cannons in the Al-Amin al-Thaniyah neighborhood of New Baghdad, a district of Iraq’s capital city. The dead included Reuters’ photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and his assistant, Saeed Chmagh. WikiLeaks has said as many as 25 people were killed as a result of the incident.

 

After the initial attack, the helicopters fired on and killed people who stopped to try to rescue the wounded. A U.S. tank reportedly drove over a body, cutting it in half. Assange identified the individual run over by the tank as Namir Noor-Eldeen in an interview with Al Jazeera days after the publication of “Collateral Murder.”

After receiving the encrypted footage, Assange and his associates spent a week working non-stop in Reykjavik, Iceland, to break the U.S. military’s encryption of the video.

Kristinn Hrafnsson, who now serves as editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, went to Iraq as an investigative journalist to locate victims’ families and confirm details of the event prior to the film’s publication. The New Yorker reported:

“He [Hrafnsson] claims to have found the owner of the building, an old man named Jabbar Abid Rady, born in 1941, a retired English teacher. Abid Rady told Hrafnsson that his wife and daughter had died in the attack. He said that five other people who had been living in the building died, too. Buildings under construction often serve as housing in war-ravaged places; people live in the lower floors, which are often built first and are inhabitable before construction ends. Abid Rady told Hrafnsson that three families had been living in this particular structure.”

Assange noted how the moving images had stirred public attention far more than any printed matter. “It’s very easy for people to see what’s going on,” he is quoted as saying in the April 2010 video interview with Al Jazeera. “It’s not too complex, there’s no language barriers with visual material. We released the policies behind this material as far back as 2007, classified US military policies.”

At one point in the video, American personnel can be heard laughing, saying: “The tank just drove over a body.” Assange commented on that, saying, “That was Namir’s body.”

Military’s Response

Shortly after the 2007 killings — and three years before the video was released — the U.S. military was quoted as underreporting the death toll and context of the incident.

Assange argued that the military’s reports of a “firefight” preceding the events shown on tape had been misrepresented in order to justify the killings.

After WikiLeaks’ release of “Collateral Murder,” the Pentagon acknowledged the authenticity of the video but said it did not contradict the official finding that the helicopters’ crew acted within the rules of engagement,” The Daily Telegraph reported.

The U.S. military rejected calls to discipline the crew for the deaths of the Reuters journalists because it said the men could not be distinguished from suspected insurgents. “The RPG in the video is real,” The Telegraph quoted a Pentagon spokesman as saying. “We had insurgents and reporters in an area where U.S. forces were about to be ambushed. At the time we weren’t able to discern whether (Reuters employees) were carrying cameras or weapons.”

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Chris Walach, commander of the Apache helicopter pilots, in 2013, spoke with Democracy Now about the footage. “In Iraq, you can’t put pink gloves on Apache helicopter pilots and send them into the Ultimate Fighting ring and ask them to take a knee,” he said. “These are attack pilots wearing gloves of steel, and they go into the ring throwing powerful punches of explosive steel. They are there to win, and they will win.”

Shortly after “Collateral Murder’s” publication, Assange appeared on the “Colbert Report.” At one point, host Stephen Colbert joked that Assange is “a dead man.” Colbert asked Assange about allegations of a firefight preceding the events shown on the tape. “That’s a lie,” Assange responded. [05.20/11:39] He said that 28 minutes earlier there had been a report of small arms fire and that the Apache helicopters circling New Baghdad “came across these men and killed them.”

The Politicians React

On April 11, 2019, the day Assange was arrested, Reuters’ reporter Alistair Smout wrote in hindsight: “WikiLeaks incensed Washington by publishing hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables, and in 2010 a classified U.S. military video showing a helicopter attack in Baghdad in 2007 that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.”

Within days of the publication of “Collateral Murder,” Obama Whitehouse Press Secretary Robert Gibbs answered questions from reporters on the contents of the video. When asked whether the actions of the U.S. personnel were “appropriate,” Gibbs said that he was not sure whether then-President Barack Obama had seen the video, adding:

“Many of you all have traveled with the President – this President or other Presidents in war zones. Many of you know colleagues that have reported from exceedingly dangerous places in the world. Our military will take every precaution necessary to ensure the safety and security of civilians, and particularly those that report in those dangerous places on behalf of news organizations. I honestly do not know enough about what was done previous, which is why I’d point you to the Department of Defense.”

Then U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates blasted WikiLeaks for not providing context for the video. “These people can put out anything they want, and they’re never held accountable for it. There’s no before and there’s no after,” Gates said, likening the video as seeing warfare “through a soda straw.”

Gates said: “They’re in a combat situation. The video doesn’t show the broader picture of the firing that was going on at American troops. It’s obviously a hard thing to see. It’s painful to see, especially when you learn after the fact what was going on. But you—you talked about the fog of war. These people were operating in split second situations.”

The strongest response to the video came in the form of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation of Assange, by at most six months after “Collateral Murder,” and subsequent releases of the Afghan and Iraq War Logs, the next subject of CN’s series, that ultimately culminated in his arrest on April 11, 2019.

“The investigation has been quietly gathering material since at least October 2010, six months after the arrest of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the army enlistee who is accused of providing the bulk of the leaks,” The New York Times reported in June 2013.

The FBI had begun investigating Assange and WikiLeaks as early as 2009, according to an affidavit given by Assange in September 2013.

While the Obama DOJ stopped short of crossing a red line to criminalize journalism, the Trump DOJ has stomped over it using the same evidenceabandoned by the previous administration.

Media Response

“Collateral Murder” was unveiled at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington on April 5, 2010. The New York Times reported:

“’There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,” Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a spokesman for the multinational forces in Baghdad, said then.

But the video does not show hostile action. Instead, it begins with a group of people milling around on a street, among them, according to WikiLeaks, Mr. Noor-Eldeen and Mr. Chmagh. The pilots believe them to be insurgents, and mistake Mr. Noor-Eldeen’s camera for a weapon. They aim and fire at the group, then revel in their kills.”

The media’s reaction to the video’s release was mixed. The day after it was published, the Times ran a report, titled: “Iraq Video Brings Notice to a Web Site.”  It described criticism WikiLeaks received for publishing an edited version of the footage:

“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.”

Within months of the video’s release, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation  noted the sentiments of journalist David Finkel of The Washington Post: “They [WikiLeaks] provided artificial agenda driven context. There was an operation underway in reaction to an ongoing war. Not that apache helicopters were circling looking for a bunch of guys to just shoot up and kill.”  Finkel was stationed in Iraq in 2007 when the incident occured and included the event in his book, “The Good Soldiers.

In response to such criticism, Assange told Al Jazeera that the decision to give the film its title hinged on the moment where the Apache helicopter pilots shot at the van and individuals who had stopped to aid the wounded. He said:

“This is why we called it ‘Collateral Murder.’ In the first example, maybe it’s a collateral exaggeration or incompetence, when they strafe this initial gathering. This was recklessness bordering on murder, but we couldn’t say for sure that was murder. But this particular event, this is clearly murder.”

Media that have since turned on Assange, at the time praised him and WikiLeaks.

On the day the video was released, The Guardian, which has lately been on an anti-Assange campaign, was quick to write an article that referred to the problems the video posed for military authorities: “The release of the video from Baghdad also comes shortly after the US military admitted that its special forces attempted to cover up the killings of three Afghan women in a raid in February by digging the bullets out of their bodies.”

Two days after “Collateral Murder’s” publication, The Guardian, then under editor Alan Rusbridger, published an opinion piece saying the footage was “heralded by some as the most important revelation since Abu Ghraib, and challenges not only the effectiveness of the US military’s rules of engagement policy, but also the integrity of the mainstream media’s coverage of similar incidents.”

James Fallows of The Atlantic  called “Collateral Murder” the “most damaging documentation of abuse since the Abu Ghraib prison-torture photos” 12 hours after the video’s release.

“The Collateral Murder video is one of the best known and most widely recognized results of the ongoing WikiLeaks project,” Christian Christensen, a University of Stockholm journalism professor wrote in 2014. “These particular images were, in many ways, the crystallization of the horrors of war.”

Within days of the video’s publication, Haifa Zangana, a novelist and former prisoner of Saddam Hussein’s regime, wrote an op-ed for The Guardian, saying her family lived in the area where the events took place, which she described as having previously been “safe for children to play outdoors.”

Zangana continued:

“Witnesses to the slaughter reported the harrowing details in 2007, but they had to wait for a western whistleblower to hand over a video before anyone listened. Watching the video, my first impression was, I have no impression. But the total numbness gradually grows into a now familiar anger. I listen to the excited voices of death coming from the sky, enjoying the chase and killing. I whisper: do they think they are God?”

Consortium News

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