Combat Video: The Pentagon Springs a WikiLeak

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A scene from a video released by WikiLeaks alleges to show an attack by a U.S. helicopter on unarmed people in Baghdad in 2007

The Pentagon has for years allowed the world an occasional peek through its keyhole as U.S. aircraft generated video while bombing their targets. But the military was always able to cover that keyhole when it wanted, allowing outsiders a look only when public viewing was deemed to serve the Pentagon's interests. All of that apparently changed on Monday, after at least one Pentagon insider leaked a bloody video that appeared to show the killing of two reporters by a U.S. helicopter gunship in Baghdad to WikiLeaks, an independent website.

It's hard to recall now, in our video-saturated world, the dramatic impact of that first grainy videotape of real combat operations. U.S. Army General Norman Schwarzkopf wowed the world 19 years ago during the first Gulf War, when he swapped his maps and pointer for a large video screen. "I'm now going to show you a picture of the luckiest man in Iraq," the general said as the screen showed the fellow crossing a bridge moments before a U.S. bomb obliterated it. The effect was instantaneous, putting anyone with a TV inside the cockpit to witness death and destruction up close.

But the tables were turned on Monday, when WikiLeaks posted a video that showed the U.S. military in a less favorable light. WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange said his organization got the videotape of "the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people" and verified its authenticity from "a number of military whistle-blowers"; the videotape was ultimately confirmed as genuine by U.S. military officials. There was as much irritation inside the Pentagon at whoever leaked the videotape as there was for WikiLeaks' posting of it.

The video showed U.S. firepower on brutal display, this time from the gunsight of an AH-64 Apache helicopter, as the crew converses casually about those they are about to kill. It appears to show the pilots mistakenly identifying a man carrying a camera — 22-year-old Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, along with his driver, Saeed Chmagh, 40 — as armed insurgents, and then blowing them and 10 others to smithereens in July 2007.

The crews of the two Apaches can be heard speaking about a handful of men, saying some are armed with AK-47s and one with a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher, although it's not clear from the video as released that such weapons are being carried. For alleged insurgents carrying weapons while a U.S. attack helicopter circles overhead, the men seem remarkably nonchalant, strolling unhurriedly along a Baghdad street. After getting command approval to attack the armed group, an initial volley from an Apache's 30mm cannon blows some of them apart. An Apache crewman says, "Ha, ha, ha — I hit 'em." Another comment: "Look at those dead bastards." When a wounded man is seen crawling for cover, an Apache crew member hopes he reaches for a gun to justify shooting him again. "All you got to do is pick up a weapon," he says.

Suddenly a van appears and Iraqis hop out to help the man. The helicopter crew seeks and receives permission to fire on the vehicle. In the ensuing barrage, two children inside the vehicle are apparently wounded, and their father, a Good Samaritan who had stopped to take the wounded man to the hospital, is allegedly killed. When U.S. ground troops arrive later, they discover the youngsters. "Well, it's their fault," a member of the Apache crew says, "for bringing kids into a battle." Initially, the U.S. said the dead were all insurgents and had been killed in battle, but the video as released seems to offer no evidence of hostile intent by those on the ground.

While it may be true that a camera never lies, it certainly can be misleading. The video is harrowing, and a viewer armed with nothing more than 20/20 hindsight can feel the knot in his stomach tighten as death draws near on Baghdad's outskirts. But viewed in isolation, lacking any insight into what else was going on in that neighborhood on that particular day, what may have seemed at the time to be a justified military action looks wanton and possibly against the rules of war.

Several hours after WikiLeaks posted the video, the Pentagon fired back with large pieces of its own 2007 investigations into the attack. It concluded that the Reuters employees had joined up with several armed insurgents on a day that had been filled with attacks on U.S. troops in the vicinity. One knelt to take a photograph, without wearing any vest or other apparel indicating he was a reporter. From the Apache, the camera was mistaken for an RPG launcher. The Apache crews had "neither reason nor probability to assume that neutral media personnel were embedded with enemy forces," a probe concluded.

Reuters, in a statement, didn't criticize the Pentagon, instead saying that its employees' deaths "were tragic and emblematic of the extreme dangers that exist in covering war zones." But Assange said the attack was unjustified. "If those killings were lawful under the rules of engagement," he told reporters at the National Press Club in Washington, "then the rules of engagement are wrong."

WikiLeaks is a nonprofit organization that went online in 2006. Since then, it has irritated governments and companies around the world by posting information on its website; a 2008 U.S. Army report warned that it could pose a threat to national security. WikiLeaks has no official headquarters and has had its information posted on a Swedish server that practices so-called bulletproof hosting to protect its sources. It generates the bulk of its $600,000 annual budget from contributions by individuals, human-rights groups, assorted other nongovernmental watchdogs and press organizations.

After decrypting the Apache video, WikiLeaks posted it on Collateral Murder, a site whose name indicates its assessment of the attack. U.S. military personnel, speaking privately, have a different view. "Sounds like propaganda to me," a Central Command official said. Unfortunately, propaganda can also turn out to be true.