Leaked U.S. Video Shows Deaths In Baghdad

A 2007 classified U.S. military video showing a U.S. Army helicopter crew shooting into a Baghdad street has been released. Twelve people were killed in that attack, including two Reuters journalists. The video was made public on WikiLeaks.org.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

A classified military video has gone public. It is combat footage from a U.S. Army helicopter gunship. It was taken in Baghdad in 2007, and it shows American forces opening fire on, and killing people, along a Baghdad street. Among them, two journalists from the Reuters news agency. The military investigated the incident after it happened, but the video raises questions about how U.S. forces conducted themselves, and whether the Americans knew, or should have known, that they were shooting at civilians, not insurgents.

Joining us now is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with the basics. There's a video. It's out there. People can see it. But you've looked at it. What exactly does it show?

BOWMAN: Well, it shows a group of people walking down the street - military age men, as they would say in the military. And it's in the new Baghdad section of the city. And it's just south of Sadr City, which was a notorious hotbed for the insurgency. And one is holding something. Maybe a couple are holding things.

And then the helicopter crew mistakenly believes that the cameraman is holding an RPG, or rocket-propelled grenade. That came out later in the investigation by the Army. And you hear the crew talking about the insurgents. And at one point, one member of the crew says, light them up - meaning to shoot at them.

And here's a clip from the video posted on YouTube.

Unidentified Man #1: Yep, he's got a weapon, too.

Unidentified Man #2: (Beep) one, two, six. Crazy horse one eight, have five to six individuals with AK-47s. Request permission to engage.

Unidentified Man #3: Roger that. We have no personnel east of our position. So, you are free to engage. Over.

BOWMAN: Free to engage, which essentially means start opening fire.

MONTAGNE: Although I've looked at this video, they're talking about five to six individuals with weapons. You only see a couple of guys with something over their shoulder.

BOWMAN: Right. The investigation later did find that a couple of guys did have weapons. One had an assault rifle. One had an RPG. And they found RPG rounds at the scene.

MONTAGNE: So what happened next?

BOWMAN: Well, then the shooting starts from the helicopter, and it's horrific. And people are scattered all over the place, and there are a number of bodies on the ground. And the Apache's equipped with a 30-millimeter chain gun - a very, very deadly weapon, very accurate weapon. It's basically a heavy machine gun. But again, you look at the video, there's no evidence these people were threatening the helicopters at all. But on the other hand, again, they did find RPGs on some of these folks and assault weapons at the time.

And the other thing is, in the video you see a van pull up to start to collect the wounded, and the helicopter starts shooting at the van as well. And the men carrying the victims into the van scatter. And apparently, two children were injured inside the van. When the whole thing ended, 12 people were dead.

MONTAGNE: Remind us of the context, which might be important here to understand this video - that anyone can see on YouTube at this point in time. What was going on in Iraq in 2007?

BOWMAN: Well, I was there shortly before this happened and shortly after. It was a very, very dangerous time in Iraq and in Baghdad, in particular. A lot of explosions, car bombs, small-arms fire. This was the peak of what was known as the surge, of course, when a lot more U.S. soldiers were sent to Iraq to try to clean things up. But still, it was very, very dangerous at this time, particularly in this area.

MONTAGNE: So now, how did this video become public?

BOWMAN: Well, it was released by a group called Wikileak. And it's an organization whose mission is to publish government, corporate documents, religious documents, secret documents, if you will. And they work through whistleblowers many times. And that's apparently what happened in this case. They got it from a whistleblower. And also, interestingly, it was an encrypted video. So somehow, they had to decrypt it before it was released.

MONTAGNE: What, Tom, has been the reaction from American officials? Is there going to be a new investigation?

BOWMAN: Well, the reaction has been, listen, we're sorry that these Reuters employees died. But we believed, you know, they were going to shoot at the helicopters. Whether there's a new investigation, we just don't know yet. There's been nothing from Congress or anyone in the Obama administration, basically saying let's relook into this.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

And you can watch the videotape of U.S. helicopters firing on people in a Baghdad street at npr.org.

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