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Another ‘Collateral Murder’ Incident Highlighted in the WikiLeaks Cables

(photo: Screen shot from the “Collateral Murder” video released by WikiLeaks)

Iraq war veteran Ethan McCord, who appears in the “Collateral Murder” video leaked and publicized by WikiLeaks in April 2010, has said the atrocity seen in the video is “one incident of many.” Similar abuses like that happen in Iraq on an almost daily basis. That reality is made clear in communications logs to the US Mission in Geneva, Switzerland, which were released by WikiLeaks last week.

The communication logs show the admirable but futile efforts of UN Special Rapporteurs to gain answers and information on horrific incidents of torture and possible war crimes or crimes against humanity. The incidents Special Rapporteurs are seeking information about are not necessarily unknown, but what makes them significant is how the US has done little if not nothing to address and investigate the killings of journalists in the Iraq War.

One communication log highlights an incident directly comparable to the “Collateral Murder” incident, which shows a 2007 Apache helicopter attack that killed Reuters journalist, Namir Noor-Eldeen, and his driver, Saeed Chmagh. This incident involves soundman Waleed Khaled and cameramen Haider Khadem. Both were working for Reuters.

As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Ambeyi Ligabo, and the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, communicate to the US Mission, two Iraqi policemen in the Hay-al-Adil district of West Baghdad had been reported dead. The two were sent to go cover the scene. When they arrived, a US military sniper opened fire, fatally hitting Khaled once in the head and four times in the chest. Khadem was slightly wounded in the attack. US forces arrested and detained Khadem for three days claiming his story that a US sniper on a roof by a shopping center killed Khaled had “inconsistencies” that warranted “further questioning.”

In the communications, the Special Rapporteurs emphasize the fact that the Human Rights Commission calls on states to investigate and bring those responsible for violence against journalists to justice. They note it is especially crucial in armed conflict because “respect for the right to freedom of opinion and expression” should be protected.

The Special Rapporteurs also remind the US that “Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provide that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his or her life.” “Arbitrarily” means any manner that is “disproportionate to the requirements of law enforcement in the circumstances of the case.” The Special Rapporteurs call for an investigation to determine if “lethal force” had been proportionate to the requirements of law.

They professionally ask the US Mission if penal, disciplinary or administrative sanctions have been imposed in connection with the killing of Khaled. They respectfully ask what rules of engagement or policies are in place to protect the right to life and physical integrity, as well as the right to freedom of expression and information, of journalists covering terrorist attacks in Iraq. And, in good faith, the Special Rapporteurs ask if the victim or family of the victim have been provided compensation for the attacks.

The answer to the Special Rapporteurs, it seems, is an unequivocal no, no and no. The US military typically does not provide compensation, it does not train soldiers to be “inconvenienced” and make certain they aren’t firing on journalists, it does not penalize or discipline soldiers who do what they are trained to do in war, which is kill people, and they most certainly do not want to see any US members of the military become a victim of accountability or justice. That is why the Pentagon’s answer to condemnation for the killings of Reuters journalists after the “Collateral Murder” video release was to suggest journalists should wear special vests indicating they are journalists. (It’s also why some would dare to suggest dead journalists are to blame for carrying camera equipment that looked like weapons, ignoring the reality that US soldiers in helicopters are fully capable of distinguishing cameras from weapons.)

The case of Khadem is just one incident. In addition to Chmagh, Eldeen and Khadem, three Reuters journalists were killed by US troops between April 2003 and November 1, 2004. Those journalists include: Tara Protsyuk (April 8, 2003), Mazen Dana (August 17, 2003) and Dhia Najim (November 1, 2004).

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) noted in its report on Khadem’s death fifty-three journalists had been killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. Twelve of those deaths were the result of US forces. Additionally, twenty-one media workers had been killed; two of those were by US forces. CPJ concluded, “Several of these deaths suggest indifference on the part of US forces to the presence of civilians, including members of the press.”

The release of the “Collateral Murder” video in April 2010 led CPJ to urge Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to launch a full investigation into the deaths of Iraq journalists. The group called on the Defense Department to conduct a “timely, thorough and transparent investigation” into each of the deaths. It was a renewed call, as CPJ had urged President-elect Barack Obama to order investigations into the killings in January 2009.

The group mentioned in their call for Pentagon investigations, “Since May 15, 2003, CPJ has submitted six Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests” to the Pentagon and also US Central Command. “Three of those seven FOIA requests remain unaddressed to date.”

Reuters journalists have been one of the most targeted news agencies. According to the Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Reuters’ Global Managing Editor wrote to Senator John W. Warner, then-Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in September 2005. Schlesinger noted US Army investigations had all found the soldiers’ actions were “appropriate” or “justified.” The “secret military investigations,” he contended, “fostered a climate of impunity and blocked any change in the rules of engagement.” He also concluded, “By limiting the ability of the media to fully and independently cover the events in Iraq, the US forces are unduly preventing citizens from receiving information.”

In November of last year, RSF reported four journalists had been killed in Iraq since the US made a “withdrawal announcement.” News anchor Mazen Mardan Al-Barghdadi, an eighteen year-old male who worked for the satellite TV station Al-Mousiliya, was “gunned down outside his home by men claiming to be military intelligence officers.” RSF noted if this case went unpunished it would be “like 99 percent of the 230 murders of journalists that have taken place since the US-led invasion” began.

US diplomats have helped US soldiers escape justice. A series of cables that have received attention in the media show how the US pressured Spain to not prosecute and find three US servicemen that killed Spanish television cameraman, Jose Couso, on April 8, 2003, guilty. A US tank shelled the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, an authorized hotel for journalists and fatally wounded Couso. The cables show diplomats told Spanish prosecutors the US military would take action if the journalists were accused of killing Couso. They show the Spanish government worked to assist the US to ensure the best possible outcome and put US-Spain relations before justice.

Imagine if any country tried to do this in the US. They would be accused of espionage or undermining America. Ambassadors who engaged in this conduct would be expelled and never allowed to return.

An Al Jazeera cameraman and subject of the superb documentary Control Room, Tarek Ayyoub, also died in the Palestine Hotel attack. Ayyoub’s death prompted Ibrahim Hilal of Al Jazeera to comment that Al-Jazeera had got the message; “Americans want war done without any witnesses.”

That is certainly the message the US sends when it does everything it possibly can to violate a country’s sovereignty and interfere in the country’s judicial process as judges seek to hold US soldiers accountable for a crime against one of their citizens. It’s certainly the message US sends when it cannot be bothered to conduct thorough and transparent investigations into the killings. And, it’s certainly the message that is sent when the US continues to excuse murder by claiming killings of journalists in war are justified under “rules of engagement.”

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."