The U.S. military is taking a fresh look at an incident in Baghdad nearly three years ago in which two journalists were killed during an attack on suspected militants. Questions have been raised about the killings after an independent group released a video of the incident.
A military officer familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the command that supervises U.S. military activity in Iraq is looking into the incident to determine whether the troops followed the Rules of Engagement in force at the time. The officer said there is "some disagreement" about the question at U.S. Central Command, which is headquartered in Florida.
But the officer stressed that the questions about the incident have not resulted in the opening of a formal investigation. Rather, the officer says, the command is seeking information so military lawyers and commanders can decide whether a new investigation is warranted. The troops were cleared of any wrongdoing by an investigation immediately after the incident in July of 2007.
Central Command says it does not have the original video, but acknowledges the one released Monday by a group called WikiLeaks appears to be authentic. WikiLeaks specializes in publishing material online that governments want to keep secret. It says the video is evidence of what it calls "collateral murder."
First voice on video: "Have five to six individuals with AK-47s. Request permission to engage."
Second voice on video: "Roger that, we have no personnel east of our position, so you are free to engage, over."
The grainy, black-and-white video, shot from one of the helicopters, appears to show that one man has a camera and that some of the others have weapons, which WikiLeaks acknowledges . The men appear to be walking casually, and the video indicates they are near an area where U.S. troops had been fighting insurgents. The aircraft circles around to get a better angle and then the troops onboard open fire.
"Light them all up. Come on, fire. [sound of gunfire] Keep shooting. [sound of gunfire] Keep shooting. [sound of gunfire]"
The military says most of the men were insurgents, but acknowledges two of them were Iraqis on assignment for the Reuters news agency. One was photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and the other was his assistant, Saeed Chmagh. The military also acknowledges that two children were injured in the incident.
On Wednesday, Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman had this to say about the incident and the video:
"They've said very clearly that they have no reason to believe that the video isn't real," said Bryan Whitman. "The video is not here in the Pentagon. Nobody has been viewing any video to go over it frame-by-frame or anything like that."
Central Command says officials are trying to figure out where the original video is archived so they can compare it to the version released by WikiLeaks.
U.S. troops are always authorized to fire in self-defense, but military officials say troops in a war zone are usually also authorized to fire on armed suspected hostiles, even if those individuals do not fire first. Specific Rules of Engagement are kept secret, but WikiLeaks published what it says were the rules in effect for U.S. forces in Iraq at that time. The document says troops are allowed to fire on people who demonstrate "hostile intent," but also requires "positive identification" and steps to protect civilians.
At least one expert believes those rules were violated that day in Baghdad. John Prados directs the National Security Archive's Iraq Documentation Project at the George Washington University.
"It's evident in the helicopter pictures that there was a camera," said John Prados. "None of the people on the ground shot at the helicopter or reacted in any kind of an aggressive fashion. And people were killed."
Central Command is now trying to determine whether it needs to do a new investigation of whether the troops violated the rules.
John Prados, whose organization keeps an archive of government documents that are made public, says a group like WikiLeaks, which focuses on material governments do not want to release, have an important role.
"I think WikiLeaks fills a gap that exists in the information world, in the information environment," he said. "In a situation in which governments are not responsive to citizens or governments are reluctant to take action in embarrassing and/or potentially illegal situations, criminal even, something like WikiLeaks can play a constructive role."
WikiLeaks and Reuters requested the video from the military, but it was not provided. A Pentagon spokesman could not say whether the video was withheld because it is officially classified as secret, or whether officials simply had not been able to find it. WikiLeaks does not say who gives it material, but says this video came from a military source.