Wikileaks Releases Disturbing Details From Iraq
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
News of the war in Iraq has slipped from front pages lately, but it's back this morning. WikiLeaks released nearly 400,000 classified U.S. military documents from Iraq, gathered in the six-year period from 2004 to 2009. Now, these are intelligence reports based on what U.S. troops heard or observed while conducting daily operations in Iraq. There are a number of disturbing stories of what happened during the some of the darkest days of the war there. NPRs Tom Gjelten has been looking at this report.
Tom, thanks very much for being with us.
TOM GJELTEN: Hi, Scott.
SIMON: Four hundred thousand documents - how do you possibly get a handle on this?
GJELTEN: Well, you don't, Scott. And what you have to do in this case is take someone else's word for what's notable. Now, these documents were distributed to five news organization a couple of months ago, so they've had time to go through them. And the important thing, the interesting thing is that these five news organizations range from al-Jazeera to the New York Times and Der Spiegel, so they have different viewpoints of what is important. They, you know, different things catch their attention. So between the reporting of all these news organizations you do have kind of a panoramic view of this material.
SIMON: And what have you been able to notice so far?
GJELTEN: Well, there's nothing really shocking or new here. But what these reports provide is the raw details of what actually happened in Iraq on a day-to-day basis, and so in essence they sort of flush things out in a way. Take civilian deaths, for example. We know a lot of civilians died in Iraq, but what these reports provide are the details on a day-to-day basis of how civilians died, and it's unsettling.
I mean we know that civilians were killed at checkpoints. Now we have detailed stories of Iraqi women who did not understand they were being told to stop and then got shot and killed. There's also a disturbing account of Iraqis who were killed from an American helicopter. There's some Iraqi men who were in a truck, apparently had been shooting at the helicopter but then they stopped, they got out, they waived their hands as if they wanted to surrender. The helicopter pilot then radios back to his legal adviser who says what should I do. The legal adviser says they can't surrender. They are still a military target. At that point the men get back in their truck and leave. The helicopter pursues them and kills them.
SIMON: Did that - can we tell - did that legal adviser give them correct advice?
GJELTEN: It's unclear. Now, the Hague Conventions, which constitute rule of law, say that someone who is trying to surrender, who has laid down his arms cannot be killed. The fact that they got back in the truck and left sort of raised the question of whether they really were trying to surrender. But I think it is fair to say theres a certain amount of trigger-happiness evident in these reports.
SIMON: Also unsettling reports among these documents highlighting abuse of Iraqi detainees.
GJELTEN: Right, Scott. Al-Jazeera and the Guardian in particular highlighted those incidents. What we're talking about here is abuse of Iraqi detainees by Iraqi forces. Now, the question here is what should have been the attitude of U.S. forces when they witnessed this. And, in fact, I remember when this issue came up at a Pentagon briefing back in November 2005. We've actually dug up the tape on it. This was a briefing with Marine Corps General Peter Pace, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. And a reporter asked General Pace what U.S. troops were supposed to do if they witnessed Iraqi soldiers abusing their detainees. He speaks here and then Secretary Rumsfeld steps in with his own opinion.
General PETER PACE (Former Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): It is absolutely the responsibility of every U.S. service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene, to stop it.
Mr. DONALD RUMSFELD (Former U.S. Defense Secretary): I don't think you mean they have an obligation physically stop it. It's to report it.
Gen. PACE: If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it.
GJELTEN: So that was General Paces point of view, that they do have an obligation to try and stop it. What these documents suggest is that in some cases they did try and stop it and in other cases they did, as Secretary Rumsfeld suggested, they just reported it.
SIMON: Is there any way of gathering from these documents how widespread detainee abuse or civilian deaths were?
GJELTEN: It's hard. Because these are detailed raw reports, we don't know how representative they are, we don't know - these were just leaked documents. We don't know what percentage of all the intelligence reports are represented here, so we really don't know.
SIMON: And is there the same concern with the leak of this document, security concerns about people who've been allies in the field, as there were about the Afghanistan documents?
GJELTEN: There are, Scott. Although there have been multiple layers of redaction. WikiLeaks themselves took out some names. The news organizations who reviewed these documents also took out names.
SIMON: NPR's Tom Gjelten, thanks so much.
GJELTEN: You bet, Scott.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.