A guide to watching WikiLeaks' video of shooting in Iraq

Newly released clip shows what looks like unjustified killing by U.S. forces -- but things aren't so simple

Published April 5, 2010 11:01PM (EDT)

Still image from U.S. military video, released by Wikileaks.
Still image from U.S. military video, released by Wikileaks.

The Web site WikiLeaks on Monday released what it says is gun-camera video from an American helicopter that shot and killed two Reuters journalists -- photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and driver Saeed Chmagh, 40 -- along with about a dozen Iraqis in 2007. It's difficult to watch, and easy to come away feeling angry. The following is Salon's guide for things to keep in mind when viewing the footage.

The video comes with several caveats. First, the warning soldiers always give about viewing things like this: Videos simply don't capture the complexity, pressures and confusion of modern warfare, they say. Things may look one way, now, on video, but in the heat of battle, it's likely that they seemed a lot different to those involved.

Second, the video may not show Americans doing anything wrong -- or at least not illegal under the Law of Armed Conflict. 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.

The video clearly shows that the pilots believed they were looking at the armed enemy, perhaps wrongly identifying the photojournalists as carrying AK-47 assault rifles, even RPGs.

"That's a weapon," one voice on the video says. "Yeah," another confirms.

Is this reasonable? "The problem is that everyone in Iraq can have an AK-47," Solis explained, adding, of the Americans in the footage, "They clearly wanted to see a weapon [before firing]."

Another troubling sequence in the video occurs when a van pulls up to the scene and begins to evacuate the wounded. The Americans fire on it also, killing several more people and wounding two children who don't seem to be visible before those shots are fired.

You can fire on the enemy if he is picking up the wounded or the dead. Is it OK to assume that an unmarked van pulling up and picking up wounded is the enemy?

"If you are willing to associate that vehicle with the guys you already fired on, then you can fire on that vehicle," Solis said.

Solis expressed considerable doubt, however, about the reasonableness of believing individuals in the street with what might be weapons and an unmarked vehicle picking up the wounded to be the enemy.

"It is hard to give you a yes or no answer," he admitted.

WikiLeaks says it got the video from military whistle-blowers. Reuters editors were reportedly allowed to view footage of the event in July 2007, but have been unable to obtain it since then through the Freedom of Information Act. It is unclear if the video released Monday is the same one that was shown to Reuters.

US-Forces Iraq has put out a statement on the video, which says, "We are aware that several media outlets are airing footage depicting gunfire from a U.S. helicopter and claiming that this footage was recorded during an incident in 2007 in which two Reuters reporters were killed. At this time, we are working to verify the source of the video, its veracity, and when or where it was recorded. The incident presumably associated with this video was investigated in 2007, and the releasable portions of that investigation are available [here]."

However, a military spokesman, speaking on background, told Salon, "We have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the video."

By Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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Afghanistan War Logs Iraq Iraq War Middle East War Room Wikileaks