The true fiasco exposed by Wikileaks

You are probably already familiar with the Wikileaks-edited video released April 5 of the 2007 airstrike in which a number of people were killed, including armed and unarmed men as well as two employees of the news agency Reuters. As of this writing, the initial instance of the edited version of the video titled "Collateral Murder" on YouTube is over 5 million views, not including reposts of the video by others using different YouTube accounts, and, according to The New York Times, "hundreds of times in television news reports." An unedited and not subtitled version upload by Wikileaks to YouTube, in contrast, has less 630,000, reflecting the lack of promotion of this version.

This video represents the advantages and disadvantages of social media in that highly influential content is easily propagated for global consumption. The persistency provided by the Internet means it will always be available and easily repurposed. Further, this situation highlights the ability to suppress unwanted information, both by the propagandist (omission of information) and by the supporter (removing an adversarial perspective). Lastly, the official response to this video shows the Defense Department still has a long way to go in understanding and operating in this new global information environment.

This video is, on its face and in depth, inflammatory and goes well beyond investigative journalism and creating transparency. It has launched debates about the legality of the attacks and questions of whether war crimes were committed. The video, as edited, titled, and subtitled is disturbing. It will continue to get substantial use in debates over Iraq, the US military, and US foreign policy in general.

Russia Today, the English language Russian government news agency, interviewed Julian Assange, Wikileaks editor and co-founder, on April 6, the day after the release. In a segment titled "Caught on Tape", the interviewer starts by describing the video as "gruesome, to say the least." Assange portrays Wikileaks as a Fourth Estate and says the military was "scared of the information coming out," which Reuters had been requesting through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for over two years, "for fear of the reform effect." Originally broadcast, the RT interview is also on YouTube has, as of this writing, with nearly 40,000 views. In the first day of release it had over 10k views and was on YouTube’s front page.

One of the few, if perhaps the only, serious attempt to respond to "Collateral Murder" is another YouTube video titled "Wiki Deception: Iraq ‘Collateral Murder’ Rebuttal":

This video, shown above, adds scenes left out of Collateral Murder but in the longer, and less promoted and thus less viewed, complete video. This "rebuttal" annotates and highlights pertinent details left out of or ignored in Collateral Murder that could have been done April 5 (or even before).

image UPDATE: The "rebuttal" video was removed from YouTube for "violation of the YouTube Community Guidelines." The cause of action: "graphic or gratuitous violence is not allowed in YouTube videos." The "rejection notice" at right was sent by someone close to the "rebuttal". Neither Collateral Murder nor the unedited video have been removed from YouTube. It appears the "rebuttal" video is a clear victim of manipulation by supporters of Collateral Murder or its cause. The method was social media’s "democratic" ability to suppress or silence opposing viewpoints by flagging content as inappropriate, a feature in YouTube that is often used by insurgent and terrorist propagandists. Conversely, content can be promoted and rise to the top of search results with a "thumbs up." Jillian York has documented the same silencing technique on Facebook.

UPDATE 2 (10 APR 10): The “rebuttal” video is now available at LiveLeak and again at YouTube. As of 11 April 2010, the LiveLeak video has nearly 8000 views and the YouTube video has under 600. At YouTube, the first in the suggested list of similar videos is this news report from Russia Today titled “With No Accountability for Atrocities Iraqi Civilians Killed With Joy As If In A Video Game” from April 6.

image The Wikileaks release apparently caught the Defense Department flatfooted. Even today, three days after its release, there is largely silence from DOD, save a brief public comment and a link to documents and photos at www.Centcom.mil (hidden in plain sight through the link labeled "Link to FOIA documents on July 2007 New Baghdad Combat Action"). Don’t bother going to www.Defense.mil as that site, and hence the Pentagon, has nothing readily available either. The April 6 briefing pack did not include the explanatory imagery and there is no news release explanation the Department’s position. It’s as if nothing happened. When asked about the situation, senior official at DOD pointed me to the "great piece" in The New York Times explaining how trained soldiers view and operate in these events differently than civilians. This, however, misses the point.

Despite the vigorous discussion online and over the air whether there was a violation of the laws of war, the old belief that if you ignore a problem it will go away continues to dominate.

This explanatory “rebuttal” video is superior to the still from the video available from the Centcom link above in PDF format. These stills are, remarkably, less understandable than the video as while they include text comments they fail to guide the untrained eye to the evidence described. Further demonstrating the failure to communicate on this issue, it apparently did not occur to Centcom to rotate the images in the PDF to make them easier to view, so, for your convenience, I have modified the PDF with annotated stills here so you do not have to tilt your head to read the titles.

A blogger at Blackfive.net is one of the very few who gets to the real issue Collateral Murder exposes:

It looks to me like it started when you didn’t respond to what looks like a reasonable use of the FOIA by Reuters.  The result of this is that you let your enemy get inside your OODA loop.  You could have taken the FOIA request and complied with it on your terms to control the narrative.  Perhaps you could have leaked the video out first to a few trusty bloggers who would have seen it for what it was: An ugly, sad, but common story.

The blogger also cites a blogger at Firedoglake, who wrote:

I want to first start by saying that Wikileaks has really misled the public on the details of this video. They made it sound like it was an unprovoked massacre of unarmed civilians, and so it angers me when I wasted my time watching this video to see nothing like that.

I would then like to plead that you not respond or argue with me unless you have watched every second of the 39 minute video. In any engagement, be it in Iraq, or a DUI arrest in Los Angelas, a complete understanding of the event is essential.

It is remarkable that in the current information environment, after so many debates and discussions over the importance of information and perceptions, that the Defense Department could have failed so miserably to anticipate and respond to what was clearly going to be damning propaganda. Perhaps it went under the radar because, and I say this with my tongue only somewhat in my cheek, this information was not based in "Islamic extremism" as we are so wrapped around that axle. This sentiment was echoed in the comments at Small Wars Journal:

Sadly, it looks like the DoD, or the government on whole, has completely dropped the ball on this and is unlikely to address the issue at all. This should really be a measure of the effectiveness of our strategic communications gurus to seize this opportunity to show what the real video showed in context (where were the US troops that were being overwatched, what was the state of violence at this point, how many helicopters had been engaged/shot down in this part of Baghdad at this point.) As has been shown time and again (think Rodney King) video of an event is not the whole story, context is critical. But days have passed now and it doesn’t look like anyone but a few on-line posters is making any effort to put events into context.

With the volume, velocity, and shallowness of today’s global information environment of “formal” and “informal” news, the first and increasingly only draft of history is written by the first out of the gate. In the case of the rebuttal video, it will have have little to no impact on the discussion now. Late to the party in the first place, the “rebuttal” video’s opponents – producers and/or supporters of Collateral Murder – blocked any chance it had in participating in and influencing the conversation when they knocked it offline. Windows of opportunities open and close quickly giving power to the phrase “speed kills.”

We live in a global and dynamic information environment. It is not sufficient to assume someone else will tell your story. Remaining silent or providing low fidelity information to refute or rebut misinformation and disinformation being propagated against you surrenders the debate to others to own and set the terms of the discussion.

While the video’s release may not have been avoided – and indeed should not have been avoided – the perceptions it generated or supported, the distractions it caused, and the attention it garnered could have been. Added to the list of recent failures in the oversight of information activities, the Defense Department still has a long way to go get its house in order.

A roundup of reactions on military blogs can be found at At War blog of The New York Times. Spencer Ackerman highlighted a few paragraphs of CENTCOM’s official 2007 investigation.

According to a source, the Reuters bureau chief was briefed on this incident in the summer of 2007, including the video in its entirety. Gawker has a story about an article held up at Reuters because of the editor in chief, David Schlesinger. 

18 Replies to “The true fiasco exposed by Wikileaks”

  1. An urgent request: One of our failings is that there weren’t enough knowledgeable people documenting this on Wikipedia.This is important. Wikipedia is sometimes the first place that people go for this information, particularly as time goes by and it it is no longer news. Lazy journalists will also go there for their first takes.
    Please note that it requires references. That’s hard to do when Wikileaks’s comments are reported in the press, which makes them valid for Wikipedia, while most bloggers’ comments aren’t considered valid references.

  2. Well-said, Matt.I agree with much of your observations.
    FWIW saying I found the commentary to have an anti-establishment, in-your-face tone that detracted from the potential social value of the video in contributing to uncomfortable, if not useful and legitimate discussions about the conflict, ROE, and so forth.
    If they released the video with just a brief description of the events shown, that would have served their purposes better in “getting the word out” about this incident. (Which I think isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but leave it to the viewer to draw their own conclusions….but the way it was released – including the ‘collateralmurder’ domain name – and the 5+ minutes of commentary sure reeked of antiwar propaganda.)

  3. Matt’s correct; the DoD dropped the ball by ignoring Reuters’ very legitimate FOIA request. It’s unfortunate they still are playing dumb; yesterday they announced they ‘can’t find’ their copy of the video.Seems DoD only likes social media when it fits their purpose; once again (Jessica Lynch, Abu Gharab, Wanat, FOB Keating) hiding one’s head in the sand proves VERY counterproductive

  4. Matt, I think you nail this down nicely. All of this could have been avoided long ago and handled better now. This also gets at the hodge podge nature of the communications architecture in place surrounding Iraq and Afghanistan that CENTCOM is wrestling with. This was a combat action for MND-Baghdad under then MNF-Iraq. The unit that was in charge at that time has rotated home and the current MND in that sector probably has no idea or records of this incident. In theory it’s MNF-I’s to handle but they are kind of a subordinate of CENTCOM but don’t necessarily report up to them and also probably have no real records of this situation based on rotations and having moved to a new headquarters themselves. MNF-I doesn’t necessarily “work” for the DoD or Joint Staff either so when something like this happens there is going to be a few days of the old Wizard of Oz scarecrow routine of finger pointing figuring out who should even respond and where the information even resides to answer. In that light the statement that CENTCOM can’t find their copy of the tape makes more sense. Regardless a factual step-by-step response is desperately needed because this story has the legs to keep going and not responding is not the solution.

  5. Good insight. I do think this is one instance where there isn’t much DoD could or should do to mitigate the videos effect. If this video was from 2005 when Iraq was in the midst of a nasty civil war and our troops were under constant attack it would be different. There are some images and videos that speak for themselves and this video is one of those. I agree that DoD could have “gotten ahead” of the problem when the original FOIA request was filed. But at this point any effort they make to “spin” the problem would undoubtedly make it worse. At some point the military needs to incorporate strategic thinking into their enlisted and officer boot camp courses. There’s a common idea in the military that you leave “strategy” (and the fire or don’t fire decision) to Colonels and Generals. This video raises some larger questions about our nations military and the culture of “action” it clings to. Soldiers and Marines are too eager to “get some” (kill people) and when we have people like General Mattis (USMC) telling Marines its “fun to kill people,” we shouldn’t be surprised when troops listen the 4 star Generals above them – often to our nations detriment.

  6. I find it ironic that DoD pointed you to the NYTimes piece in defense of its inaction, while the piece itself quotes the “Open Letter to CENTCOM PAO” I wrote, and which is deeply critical of of same.– Uber Pig

  7. I saw the “20 second” version on the news earlier this week, but it’s moved past the news media’s radar scope…too old. There’s an important principle of Information Warfare here…the window for making an impact is extremely narrow, and we missed it. The other side got its shot in first, and now it’s over and the effect is done. If you’ll note, our discussion is among a small set of professional experts; the vast viewing audiences–yes, I mean the plural, because the audiences are global–have been successfully influenced by someone with an agenda opposed to ours and now have moved on. Whatever the truth of this incident–and I don’t pretend to know that truth, whether we actually struck a bunch of insurgents or whether we messed up–the perception has been made and we have lost our opportunity to have an impact. The very first Principle of Information Warfare is “speed”…they get it and we don’t.

  8. Dan,You’re absolutely right: the moment has passed. Speed does kill. With the volume, velocity, and shallowness of reporting, the first and often only draft of history is written by the first out of the gate. In the case of the rebuttal video, it’s presence matters little now.

  9. Carson,I disagree there was nothing that could be done. There is significant context provided in plain understandable language and not milspeak that was and continues to be unknown. As with any struggle for perceptions, there will be those who you can’t influence while there are others you can. The middle ground, and even supporters, have been surrendered in this case.
    By the way, the post is updated with links to the “rebuttal” video:

    The day after it was uploaded, it has less than 300 views on YouTube and over 300 on LiveLeak.

  10. The rebuttal video is quite misleading as well. It identifies a black van, but fails to mention that unlike the one later in the video that one doesn’t have white paint on the roof. Its bearing on the latter course of events is exactly none, but the identification in the video suggests otherwise. I’m not surprised that was cut.

  11. Carson: Your observation regarding strategic thinking is a good one, and you should take heart in the fact that there are efforts underway to reform various aspects of military education for just those purposes. Teaching strategic thought down to the lowest level, however, will remain secondary to the skillful application of violence. That is the true, if all too unfortunate, nature of war.I do, however, find your assertion that “Soldiers and Marines are too eager to… kill people” to be patently ignorant, and it undermines what could have been an otherwise interesting point on the military mindset and a bias toward kinetic action.
    Furthermore, your quote of Gen Mattis was taken out of context and used in a way as to be misleading. You claim that troops follow him to our nation’s detriment, yet he is one of the most vocal leaders on the subject of strategic thinking among our officers (http://www.cnas.org/node/4129) – Which I believe supports your original point better than your irrelevant attack on our Soldiers and Marines.
    The next time you’re quoting Mattis relative to this issue, you may consider that this is the same man who charged his Marines to “Engage your brain before you engage your weapon,” and to treat all those who do not resist “with decency, demonstrating chivalry and soldierly compassion…”

  12. eb2x7fRemembering that much fighting was going on in the immediate area that threatened those in the air and closeby colleagues on the ground, it is easy to see how the tension of the moment caused them to get what theywere seeing wrong. In the calm of one’s home computer it is easy to tell from the postures and body language of all the men on the street that they were not on any mission. The journalists were probably asking them where the action was. Only someone in such a tense and frightening situation could have believed what he himself was saying about an adult willingly taking children into the war zone.One of the outcomes of this tragic incident, like so many others, was that relatives of the men killed may have joined the insurgency bent on revenge. Like the ongoing incidents of collateral damage in Afghanistan, this incident raises the question of just why we think we should be in the middle of someone else’s civil war.

  13. We cannot discuss the incident out of context. This fiasco has much deeper roots: First, the lack of credibility by much of the public and press of what the USG says about anything with regard to Iraq. We were lied into war and the reasons we remained there kept changing. For several years we refused to deal with the issue of Iraqi casualties, even civilians, saying something callous about not keeping the numbers.Refusal to respond positively to a FOIA request naturally led to suspicions of a coverup. Second, until just recently, our forces saw the issue of collateral damage as one of “getting the facts right” rather than one of empathy with those who lost family members. This led to denial of targetting of people who turned out to be innocent even when others provided exhaustive evidence that an error had occured. Gen McCrystal understands this and has changed to nature of our response dramatically. Sadly, the real question is whether it is too late to regain any of our lost credibility.
    The discussion of this particular video leak and its possible impact ignores the fact that image and credibility are built up over time and, with regard to the foreign population, are based on the impact of our actions on their interests and well-being as THEY define them, not us. This tape is a blip on the screen compared to the humiliations the Iraqis and Afghans believe they have suffered at our hands. Only a change in our behavior will change their negative view of us.

  14. I was wondering about the van too. But then after reading the investigation, the van is more important than I initially thought; Matt links to it in his blog post. Look under “Sworn Statements”. One of the Apache pilots states multiple times that he had been given reports that a black 4-door sedan or van had been driving in and out of the area dropping off insurgents all morning long. I find it revealing that Reuters asked repeatedly for the report, but when the military releases them they ignore what was in it, same goes for wikileaks.

  15. I totally disagree anonymous. If anybody lacks credibility in regards to Iraq and Afghanistan it IS the press, as they are rarely held to account for their mistakes and misinformation. Granted, the military does a horrible PR job, but they don’t have the option of printing something on page one, being disproved, and then writing a mea culpa on page 16 like the press does. Your view of the conflict seems to reflect only what the press tells you; it displays all the ugly warts but doesn’t cover the schools and hospitals being built, the lives saved, the casualties suffered by US troops due to the caution they must take to avoid civilian casualties.And the so-called humiliation suffered by our hands you mentioned. With all due respect, this is absurd when compared to the humiliation they suffered and suffer at the hands of Saddam Hussein, The Taliban, AQ, and roving gangs of thugs. I suggest pointing ones moral compass away from those who are trying to kill you.

  16. I totally disagree anonymous. If anybody lacks credibility in regards to Iraq and Afghanistan it IS the press, as they are rarely held to account for their mistakes and misinformation. Granted, the military does a horrible PR job, but they don’t have the option of printing something on page one, being disproved, and then writing a mea culpa on page 16 like the press does. Your view of the conflict seems to reflect only what the press tells you; it displays all the ugly warts but doesn’t cover the schools and hospitals being built, the lives saved, the casualties suffered by US troops due to the caution they must take to avoid civilian casualties.And the so-called humiliation suffered by our hands you mentioned. With all due respect, this is absurd when compared to the humiliation they suffered and suffer at the hands of Saddam Hussein, The Taliban, AQ, and roving gangs of thugs. I suggest pointing ones moral compass away from those who are trying to kill you.

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