U.S. Won't Review Inquiry Into 2007 Baghdad Video

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The U.S. military has decided not to review or reinvestigate a 2007 American helicopter attack on a group of suspected insurgents in Baghdad. The attack killed 12, including two Reuters employees. U.S. Central Command says there were already two Army investigations back in 2007 that exonerated the helicopter crews. The investigation found that some of the men were carrying weapons. But NPR has learned that there was debate within the military about a specific part of the attack — the targeting of a van that came to the aid of the wounded. Michele Norris talks to NPR's Tom Bowman, who has the details.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The U.S. military has decided not to reopen an inquiry into a 2007 Army helicopter attack on a group of suspected insurgents in Baghdad. That attack killed a dozen men, including two Reuters news journalists.

There's been new interest in the episode this week, after a watchdog group released a classified video taken by one of the helicopters involved in the attack. The video has raised questions about whether the Americans violated rules of engagement.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins me now to sort through some of these questions. And, Tom, why did the U.S. military decide not to reopen this case?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, Michele, officials say there already were two Army investigations back in 2007. They exonerated the helicopter crews who were supporting ground troops that day.

Now, the helicopter crews saw men, some of them carrying weapons, and decided they were a threat to nearby troops in this Baghdad neighborhood. Now, unfortunately, this all started when one of men crouched and pointed what the helicopter crews thought was a weapon toward the American troops.

It turns out it wasn't a weapon, but a camera with a long lens. Still, this was considered what they call hostile threat and apparently allowed them to open fire.

NORRIS: So you're talking about a hostile threat. It sounds like they thought that there was a legitimate threat, and that some of the men were carrying weapons. Weapons were later found at the scene, however, so what are the questions surrounding that?

BOWMAN: Well, the basic question is about when it's legitimate to fire on people suspected to be the enemy, or a threat. Now, what governs the troops are what's called the rules of engagement. Those change over time, those rules, depending on the circumstances. They're also closely held, for obvious reasons.

But we have a hint about the rules enforced that day because of what one of the helicopter's crewmembers said after the first volley of gunfire from the helicopter and one of the men is down on the ground, crawling.

Let's listen.

Unidentified Man #1: Come on, buddy. (unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #2: All you got to do is pick up a weapon.

BOWMAN: Now, the key here is when he said pick up a weapon. That suggests that if the person was not armed, he could not be targeted. And that's important to understanding what's becoming the most controversial part of video, which happens just a bit later.

NORRIS: Now, you're talking about this portion of the video where the van comes in to pick up that wounded man. And I guess the question surrounding that would be: Is the helicopter permitted to shoot at people who are actually coming in to apparently help the wounded?

BOWMAN: That's right. That's a key point. Helicopter crew say they were picking up wounded and weapons. Some said it in sworn statements later to Army investigators. One crewmember said it on tape. This is happening as the van is driving up. Let's listen to that.

Unidentified Man #3: Now, Bushmaster, we have a van that's approaching. It's picking up the bodies.

Unidentified Man #4: Where's that van at?

Unidentified Man #3: Right down there by the bodies.

Unidentified Man #4: Okay, yeah.

Unidentified Man #3: Bushmaster, Crazy Horse, we have individuals going to the scene. Looks like possibly picking up bodies and weapons.

BOWMAN: Now, the problem is that was not the case. On the video, you cannot see any weapons. Yet they were given permission to open fire.

Unidentified Man #5: Request permission to engage.

Unidentified Man #6: Bushmaster Seven, roger. This is Bushmaster Seven. Roger, engage.

Unidentified Man #5: One-eight, engage. Clear.

Unidentified Man #1: Come on.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #5: Clear.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

NORRIS: And I guess what we're hearing there, Tom, is the volley that's actually directed at that van.

BOWMAN: That's right. And the men driving the van were killed. And inside the van, soldiers later found two small children who were seriously wounded. But no weapons were reported inside the van, according to the Army investigations.

So the key questions is this: Was that van considered a threat? Now, I'm told there was a debate within the military on this very point, that shooting at a van only picking up wounded would be a violation of the rules of engagement.

Now, others said that since they were helping the insurgents, they were fair game. Still, the Geneva Conventions, which govern how soldiers and innocents are treated on the battlefield, says that persons taking no active part in hostilities should be treated humanely. But on even that point, it's subject to interpretation.

NORRIS: Tom, thank you very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Michele.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

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