Lies, damned lies and US military cover-ups
Alexander Cockburn on two ‘utterly damning’ examples of trigger-happy American troops in action
The Pentagon is reeling after two lethal episodes uncovered by diligent journalism show trigger-happy US Army helicopter pilots and US Special Forces slaughtering civilians, then seeking to cover up their crimes.
The worldwide web was transfixed this week when Wikileaks posted a 38-minute video, along with a 17-minute edited version (above), taken from a US Army Apache helicopter, one of two firing on a group of Iraqis at a Baghdad street corner in July 2007. Twelve civilians died, including a Reuters photographer, Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and a Reuters driver, Saeed Chmagh, 40.
At a press conference in Washington DC, Wikileaks said it had got the footage from whistle-blowers in the military and had been able to break the encryption code. The Pentagon has confirmed the video is genuine.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the US military has finally admitted that Special Forces troops killed two pregnant Afghan women and a girl in a February raid in which two Afghan government officials also died. Brilliant reporting by Jerome Starkey of the Times has blown apart the US military's cover-up story that the women were killed by knife wounds administered several hours before the raid.
It now appears that the knife wounds may have been inflicted by the Special Forces troops retrieving their bullets from the dead or dying women's bodies. Starkey reported that Afghan investigators had determined that American forces not only killed the women but had also "dug bullets out of their victims' bodies in the bloody aftermath" and then “"washed the wounds with alcohol before lying to their superiors about what happened".
The 17-minute video recording the US military's massacre from the air in Baghdad is utterly damning. The visual and audio record reveal the two Apache helicopter pilots and the US Army intelligence personnel monitoring the real-time footage falling over themselves to make the snap judgment that the civilians roughly 1,000ft below are armed insurgents and that one of them, peeking round a corner, was carrying an RPG, that is, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
The dialogue is particularly chilling, revealing gleeful pilots gloating over the effect of their initial machine-gun salvoes. "Look at those dead bastards," one pilot says. "Nice," answers the other. Then, as a wounded man painfully writhes towards the kerb, the pilots eagerly wait for an excuse to finish him off. "All you gotta do is pick up a weapon," one pilot says.
Then a civilian van, seeing the carnage, pulls up. A man jumps out and starts dragging the wounded man towards the van. The pilots implore the intelligence monitors to give them the go-ahead to strafe the van, about which they have made the instant, fatally erroneous judgment that this is an insurgent rescue squad. A few moments later, the intelligence monitors, with zero visual evidence underpinning their judgment, give the go-ahead.
Another salvo finishes off the wounded man and his would-be rescuer, kills other civilians in the van and wounds two children in the front seat. US ground troops arrive on the scene and report the presence of wounded children. "Well, it's their fault for bringing their kids into a battle," one pilot tells the other. There are further sniggers as a US armoured vehicle rolls up. "I think they just drove over a body," one of the pilots cackles.
In the wake of the lethal onslaught in 2007, the US military denied that any error had taken place, its version of events faithfully cited by the New York Times under the headline: '2 Iraqi Journalists Killed as US Forces Clash With Militias'. The NYT reported: "According to the [US military's] statement, American troops were conducting a raid when they were hit by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The American troops called in reinforcements and attack helicopters. In the ensuing fight, the statement said, the two Reuters employees and nine insurgents were killed."
The footage made public by Wikileaks makes it clear this was fiction from start to finish.
Defence analyst Pierre Sprey, who led the design teams for the F-16 and A-10 and who spent many years in the Pentagon, stresses two particularly damning features of the footage. The first is the claim that the Reuters photographer’s telephoto lens could be mistaken for an RPG. "A big telephoto is under a foot and half at most. An RPG, unloaded, is 3ft long and loaded, 4ft long. These guys were breathing hard to kill someone."
Sprey's second point is that an Apache helicopter makes a very loud 'Whomp, whomp' noise. "Twelve guys are unconcerned, with loud helicopters right overhead. Imagine if they were planning an assault on American troops. They’d be skulking along walls, spread out. They would not be walking down the street, totally ignoring the helicopters."
A retired US Marine was even blunter in an email exchange: “Not a good show at all. The group on the ground were brandishing nothing that ‘looked’ or appeared as weapons especially the voiced 'RPG' which is so obvious when loaded. And then again - they were told in advance by intelligence (I am sure by the tone in the flight) that these people were bad guys. The Apache crews were just stupid and the intelligence clowns pointing them and egging them on are guilty of murder – 'you are clear to engage'. GMAFB. [Give me a fucking break.]"
In the aftermath, the US military claimed that machine guns and grenades had been found at the scene. Sprey comments that by then the cover-up was probably already underway and the weapons and grenades planted. According to Reuters, their men had been working on a story about weight-lifting when they heard about a military raid in the neighborhood, and decided to drive there to check it out. Local witnesses say there was no fire fight anywhere near where they were gunned down by the Apaches.
Reuters - which by the time of the attack had already had four employees killed in Iraq by the US military (now up to eight) - demanded an investigation, which the Army says it undertook, finding no breach of its rules of engagement either by the pilots or US Army intelligence.
The reaction of David Schlesinger, Reuters' editor-in-chief, to the release of the footage by Wikileaks has been disgraceful. Schlesinger said on April 5: "The deaths of Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh three years ago were tragic and emblematic of the extreme dangers that exist in covering war zones. We continue to work for journalist safety and call on all involved parties to recognise the important work that journalists do and the extreme danger that photographers and video journalists face in particular."
This anodyne blather elicited a furious email aimed at Schlesinger, sent two days later to The Baron site "for Reuters people past and present". It came from a former Reuters editor-in- chief and general manager, Michael Reupke, who wrote: "The flabby response to the shameful murder of photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and driver Saeed Chmagh by reckless US forces is not reassuring. What of their families? Why do we leave it to others to make the running? Is this a Thomson effect? Michael Reupke (outraged and angry!)."The final sentence alludes to the 2008 takeover of Reuters by the media conglomerate Thomson.
In fact Reuters was shown the Apache video by the US military shortly after the killings, but raised no stink. Requests for public release under the Freedom of Information Act were denied. Finally whistleblowers handed the video to Wikileaks.
Leave the last word to a retired US Army man, answering the email from the retired US Marine quoted above: "The damage this incident and its video evidence will do is immense… it will irrefutably confirm for many that large chunk of anti-American propaganda which insists the American flyers are just playing computer shoot-em-up games using real flesh and blood as a proxy for the digital figures they usually slaughter only in the arcades.
"How much is simulator-training responsible for the disconnection from reality demonstrated in this incident? The crew was detached from reality… How [is] the Army… producing crews that, having the potential for such incompetence, cannot detect it among themselves? If anyone in that crew had paused and asked if the action being taken was correct, surely it would have been aborted…. The Army has to find out why." ·
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