Wikileaks is an admirable organization, and it has admirably published video of two Reuters journalists being shot to oblivion in Iraq three years ago by U.S. helicopter gunships. The video is evidence of cruelty and carelessness. But not murder.
Wikileaks, which acts as a clearinghouse for anonymously submitted information on government and corporate malfeasance, has engaged in a weeks-long public relations campaign leading up to the release of the video this morning at the National Press Club, claiming that U.S. intelligence operatives have been harassing its staff over the leak. The video, taken from the vantage point of an American Apache gunship flying over Baghdad on July 12, 2007, shows in stark black and white the killing of Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh, a Reuters photojournalist and driver. Reuters executives had previously been shown the footage in an off-the-record capacity, but the news organization sought unsuccessfully for years to obtain its own copy under the Freedom of Information Act.
So what does it show? It shows American helicopter pilots firing on and killing a group of perhaps half a dozen men on the streets of Baghdad, and then firing on a van that arrived to pick up one of the wounded men. The van, it turns out, had two children in it, both of whom were wounded. The video is chilling, not least because the pilots' radio chatter is plainly bloodthirsty—they are eager to fire, and delighted to kill. This is enough for Wikileaks to call the episode an example of "Collateral Murder."
But unless we are prepared to describe every death of a noncombatant in a war zone as a murder, then it shows something short of that. Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh were standing in a group of men. Some of them were plainly holding AK-47s. It's not discernible from the video what immediately preceded the slayings or why the gunships were called in, but according to a contemporaneous New York Times account, the military claimed that U.S. troops in the area called in air support after encountering small arms fire during a raid. The Apache pilots saw at least two men carrying weapons, and misidentified Noor-Eldeen's camera as a gun. They accurately relayed what they were seeing to commanders—a bunch of men standing around, some of whom were carrying weapons—and asked for permission to kill them. They were granted that permission.
It's horrible to watch, and the pilots' disdain for the lives they were destroying is awful. But we can't see how it constitutes murder. It's what happens when you send a bunch of young angry men with billions of dollars worth of lethal toys into a civilian city and tell them to kill the bad guys. It should certainly be watched, and we're glad Wikileaks is publishing it. But it speaks more to the inherent dangers of initiating wars, and covering them, than of the specific behavior of U.S. personnel on that particular day.