Exclusive: Reuters Chief Spikes Story on Killing of His Own Staffers In Baghdad

David Schlesinger, the editor in chief of Reuters, declined to run a story by one of his own reporters containing claims that the 2007 killings of two Reuters staffers in Baghdad by U.S. troops may have been war crimes.

Reuters staffers Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh were killed by U.S. helicopter gunships in Baghdad in 2007. Video of the attack, which shows the journalists standing next to unidentified armed men on a Baghdad street and records the destruction of a van attempting to retrieve a wounded Chmagh, was published this week by Wikileaks.

The video has launched a debate about the legality of the attack, which also wounded two children (you can read our take here). Yesterday, Reuters' deputy Brussels bureau chief Luke Baker filed a muscular story repeating allegations from several human rights and international law experts that the killings may have constituted war crimes. But Reuters chief David Schlesinger, a tipster says, spiked the story because "it needed more comment from the Pentagon and U.S. lawyers." It never ran, but you can read it in full below.

Exclusive: Reuters Chief Spikes Story on Killing of His Own Staffers In Baghdad

Reuters' response to the disclosure of the video has been relatively muted. Schlesinger issued a statement on Tuesday calling the video "disturbing" but declining to assign blame or accuse the U.S. military of improper behavior:

In this particular case, [I] want to meet with the Pentagon to press the need to learn lessons from this tragedy.

These stories are not easy for us to report or to be involved in. They test our commitment to viewing events and actions objectively.

What matters in the end is not how we as colleagues and friends feel; what matters is the wider public debate that our stories and this video provoke.

Baker's story went much farther, quoting three human rights experts describing the killings as war crimes. While portions of those quotes ended up running in a different Reuters story on the video that appeared yesterday and which Baker is credited as having contributed to, some of the more direct accusations did not. For instance, Baker quoted Clive Stafford-Smith, a human rights lawyer, saying, "I don't think there's any question that this is a violation of the Geneva Conventions." Stafford-Smith didn't appear in any of Reuters' coverage of the incident. Baker's story also paraphrased Reuters lawyer Thomas Kim saying that "further investigation may be required" into the incident—a sentiment that Schlesinger did not express in his initial statement. Kim's remark does not appear in any of Reuters' coverage of the killings. The U.S. Central Command has said it has no plans to reopen an investigation.

Our tipster is baffled by Schlesinger's apparent hesitance to take on the Pentagon over the killings: "Nothing about wanting to seek justice for the deaths of the Reuters' employees or about seeking the truth. Just a bland statement about wanting to work with the Pentagon. Whose side is this guy on? Does he have any spine?"

A Reuters spokesperson denied in absolute terms the accusation that Baker's story was spiked. "It's 100% not true that the story was spiked," she said. "Schlesinger sent it back for more reporting. But it was overtaken by events, and parts of it eventually ran in an updated story." In a later statement, the spokeswoman added that the story was held up in "an effort to incorporate a wider range of experts."

UPDATE: Reuters' spokeswoman has asked us to publish the statement that she provided to us after our phone conversation in its entirety:

It is absolutely untrue that this story was spiked. It was sent back for more reporting in an effort to incorporate a wider range of experts. The story was then overtaken by a more updated one out of Washington that incorporated reporting from the original piece.

This isn't the first time Schlesinger has been accused of killing Reuters stories for fishy reasons. In December, Talking Biz News reported that Schlesinger spiked a damaging story about hedge fund manager Steve Cohen after Cohen called to complain. He later admitted that it wasn't "a bad story" and that it "could have run."

Here's Baker's spiked story:

BRUSSELS, April 7 (Reuters) - Leaked footage of a U.S.military helicopter firing on and killing a group of people in Baghdad suggests the pilots may have acted illegally,international law and human rights experts said on Wednesday.

The black-and-white footage, released by the Web site WikiLeaks (www.wikileaks.com) on Monday, consists of 40 minutes of video from the gun-camera of a helicopter hovering over east Baghdad in 2007 as nearly a dozen men, including a Reuters photographer and his driver, gathered in the street below.

According to a transcript of the air crew's conversation that accompanies the video, the pilots think some of the men are carrying weapons and quickly discuss whether to open fire.

"That's a weapon," one voice says. "Yeah," another replies.

A U.S. military legal expert said the helicopter crew mighthave a legal defence in as much that they "honestly and reasonably" believed the men were hostile, but a British former army officer said there was "blatant" evidence of a war crime.

"Light 'em all up. Come on fire," says one of the pilots,before the helicopter gunner begins shooting, hitting and killing Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and driver Saeed Chmagh, 40, among others.

Chmagh is initially wounded and tries to crawl away. One of the pilots can be heard urging the Iraqi to reach for a weapon so that he can open fire again under the rules of engagement.

Several minutes later, a van arrives on the street and three or four unarmed men get out to help Chmagh, picking up his body.

The pilots seek permission from commanders to open fire again, relaying the information that people are arriving to"pick up bodies and weapons". The commander gives approval and the helicopter fires again, killing Chmagh and several others.

The U.S. military, which has confirmed that the footage is authentic, said on Monday it regretted the loss of life.

A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command said an investigation carried out by the military into the incident found the pilots acted accordingly and he said there was "never any attempt to cover up any aspect of this engagement".

But human rights lawyers and other experts who have viewed the footage say they have many concerns about how the pilots operated, particularly when it came to firing on the van, which was also carrying two children who were wounded in the attack.

"I don't think there's any question that this is a violation of the Geneva Conventions," said Clive Stafford-Smith, a U.S.-British human rights lawyer who runs the charity Reprieve,referring to the body of laws that governs armed conflict.

"There are two aspects to it — firstly it was clear that these people were unarmed or not fighting, and then there's the shooting of the wounded man as he was trying to crawl away and people were coming to help him," he told Reuters.

The Geneva Conventions state that protection must be given to those who "collect and care" for the wounded in a conflict"whether friend or foe", but lawyers said that principle appeared to have been abandoned in this case.

DESENSITISED KILLING

Chris Cobb-Smith, a former British army officer who has conducted investigations in war zones, said knowing exactly what rules of engagement the pilots were operating under was critical to understanding whether they had acted appropriately.

But even then, he said, the decision to fire on the van as unarmed men came to help one of the wounded appeared to be a clear breach of the laws governing military conduct in war.

"Engaging the people picking up the wounded is outrageous,"he said. "That is the element that is blatant. That is against all humanitarian law and the rules of conflict — most definitely and without a doubt," he told Reuters.

David Schlesinger, Reuters' editor-in-chief, said the video showed the "extreme dangers that exist in covering war zones"and said he would seek to meet with officials at the Pentagon to"press the need to learn lessons from this tragedy".

Asked whether the company had any intention of pursuing legal action over the deaths of Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh, Thomson Reuters' deputy legal counsel, Thomas Kim, said:

"Our priority is to engage in dialogue at a senior level with the Pentagon." He added, however, that the footage, which Thomson Reuters had repeatedly sought to have the U.S. military release, indicated further investigation may be required.

Bibi van Ginkel, an international lawyer and senior fellow at the Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations, said the video was only a fragment of evidence and more investigation was needed. But still she added:

"My first guess would be that a war crime was committed. Very simply speaking, if people are helping the wounded, they are non-combatants. If force is used against them, then that is a war crime. But will it be investigated."

While the video footage, with its gung-ho audio track —including the words "look at all those dead bastards" — is shocking, some military experts said there may be nothing wrong with the acts carried out given the combat environment.

In a military courtroom, a jury would have to decide if the gunner "honestly and reasonably" believed he was shooting the enemy, Gary Solis, a military law expert at Georgetown University, told online magazine Salon. "That will always be a defence," he said.

But whether there are grounds for legal action or not,experts said their bigger concern was about the desensitisation of war, with soldiers appearing to dehumanise the enemy and seeming not to care about killing from afar.

"It's the attitude and mindset of the computer, war-gaming generation," said Cobb-Smith. "The detachment that a serviceman can now feel when he's operating a weapons system at such a distance via a video screen. That's unnerving and worrying." (Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem)